Denomination: Church of England
Postcode: M15 5EA
Much has been written about Wilson and Womersley’s notorious Hulme Crescents (1972) and the subsequent rounds of ‘regeneration’ the neighbourhood has undergone; Birley Fields Campus for Manchester Metropolitan University being the most recent. However, very little commentary exists on the spiritual life embedded within Hulme. Visual evidence includes A Practical Faith (1980), a student documentary film which follows the work of Reverend Mike Taylor from Hulme United Reform Church – formerly Tatton Street Congregational Church (1969) and now the New Hope Fellowship Church – as he tries to engage local residents through activities such as amateur dramatics and football.
There is physical evidence, too, in the many post-war churches located in and around Hulme. These include Union Hall Evangelical Church (1968), Pilgrim Wesleyan Holiness (1968), Wesley Methodist Chapel (1968), and Emmanuel Pentecostal Church (1969). Though the redevelopment of Hulme is often criticised for being harsh and uncompromising, a consideration of these buildings – and their relation to the wider planning of Hulme – may allow for a small reassessment of this supposed post-war debacle.
The first point to make is that the 1960s redevelopment of Hulme did not entirely decimate the area. Buildings such as the Zion Congregational Chapel (1911) by Bradshaw Gass and Hope and St Wilfrid’s RC Church (1842) by A.W.N. Pugin were retained because of their amenity value; the former now put to use as an arts centre. Many older churches, however, were compulsory purchased to the benefit of the Methodists and the Church of England who were, in any instance, over supplied with buildings even before the clearances took place. Faced with the problem of existing and potential congregants being relocated to places such as the Wythenshawe Estate, new church buildings were needed which took account of the alternative housing types being erected. In this regard, Church of the Ascension (1970) is of particular note.
Designed by Robert Maguire and Keith Murray, a firm widely regarded as the key protagonists of (and form givers to) the liturgical renewal that resonated throughout the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, Church of the Ascension responded to its yet-to-be-completed high-rise neighbours with a complex roof design. It was reasoned that, for the tenants of the Crescents, the roof would be the most common view of the church and, therefore, required due architectural treatment. As Maguire observed, roof design is all too often disregarded by architects resulting in:
‘an ill-kept mix of dirty puddles and minor technological trash put there in the belief that it isn’t seen.’
It is this level of thought in the design processes of Robert Maguire & Keith Murray that has led some to refer to their architecture as ‘Human Brutalism’; neither Maguire nor Murray, it should be noted, were admirers of the Crescents, and referred to them as ‘dead worm blocks’. Yet, Church of the Ascension was also not without its critics. Its somewhat unremarkable exterior of buff blockwork and high-level glazing reputedly led those less familiar with Hulme to mistake the building for the local gym!
Nonetheless, one is rewarded amply once inside the church. Here, the asymmetric main worship space sits almost within a separate structure. Free-standing columns support a ring beam which, in turn, supports a succession of rings beams; each rotated 45 degrees to create an elaborate soffit, with the central portion glazed to form a roof light. A gallery, unique for a Maguire and Murray church, incorporates the organ loft.
Along with a church, the building complex includes a hall and a rectory, all of which can be accessed from the entrance lobby which is located centrally on plan. By the 1970s, as seen with the contemporaneous St Robert, Longsight, the inclusion of a hall was considered essential to provide much-needed recreational space. At Church of the Ascension, varied social groups such as the Mothers’ Union, Boys and Girls’ Brigades, and local tenants associations made good use of it. However, predicted attendance at Sunday worship was wildly over-estimated. Despite the provision of 300 seats, the congregation typically numbered just fifty to seventy persons.
Problems with the Hulme Crescents began to emerge in local press reports soon after occupation. According to a survey of the tenants, most would have ‘preferred to live in a house with a garden’. Whilst the suitability of the Crescents for families was certainly questionable, problems with refuse chutes and broken lifts were more a consequence of poor maintenance than design flaws; the oil-crisis of 1973 meant that the local authority was as cash-strapped as those tenants struggling to pay their exorbitant heating bills – the consequence of an experimental heating system.
Whilst the many local churches worked to alleviate some of the social problems arising from the crisis, the-then rector of Church of the Ascension observed that ‘more and more people are being housed there who are inadequate to meet the problems’. Single-parent families were often less able to pay the bills than those other families fortunate enough to have been rehoused.
After a long-period of decline and eventual abandonment, the Hulme Crescents were finally demolished in 1991. Without the context it was designed to respond to, those passing Church of Ascension today are, perhaps, even more likely to mistake it for the local gym. We would urge you to take a closer look at this architectural gem, however. Pop in, marvel at the central worship space, and listen to the splendid sounds of the Maguire-designed organ.
We would like to thank Robert Maguire, along with Reverend Canon Alma Servant and Reverend Falak Sher, for assisting us in our research. Feature image, and other exterior images, are courtesy of the Manchester Local Image Collection.
Images from our ongoing research form part of the ManModSoc exhibition, organised by the Manchester Modernist Society, and will be on display from 19th until 26th June, 2015 at: Hodder+Partners SGI Studios, 1 Kelso Place, Manchester, M15 4LE