Giotto’s “Navicella” mosaic showed Christ walking on the water and St Peter leaving his boat to join him. It was destroyed during Michelangelo’s rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica but an oil copy survives.
The art and architecture of Christianity is soaked in watery imagery from Peter the fisherman via the baptismal font and holy water stoups to the understanding of the body of the church building itself as a “nave” (from “navis”, Latin for ship). It is an ark.
So to come across an echo of the elongated grey hull of Giotto’s boat on the edge of the Olympic Park in east London, on the Lee Navigation running through Hackney Wick, is perhaps not that surprising. The floating church was commissioned by the Church of England’s Diocese of London for a congregation which doesn’t quite exist, an effort to address the spiritual hole at the heart of a new neighbourhood.
The London Legacy Development Corporation, in charge of planning for the area around the Olympic Park, declined to accept new buildings devoted to a single religious faith. The Church of England reacted nimbly by commissioning a barge to float unobtrusively on the canal which, it was found, ran through all the new neighbourhoods it was trying to reach. It will float to all of them in time, establishing the presence of the church with the lightest possible touch.
Designed by architects Denizen Works, the floating church is moored discreetly between the other barges, some of which have residents on board, others boasting bars or spa experiences. The thing that distinguishes it is a remarkable roof that pivots upwards with hydraulics and bellows to resemble a camper van. It’s a smart and economical mechanism for making more space inside and creating an illuminated signpost for a new public venue. Illuminated from within, the bellows appear like a Japanese paper lantern with a warm, welcoming glow which is enigmatic, quirky and eccentric.
It is also the one touch that really distinguishes this boat, which is called Genesis, from all the others. The architects sensibly did not design the boat itself (it was commissioned from naval architect Tony Tucker and built in Turks boatyard in Chatham) but have done enough inside to make it feel a dignified, coherent and elegant space. With the accordion bellows up, there’s something serene about the room, the light reflecting off the water outside, the occasional duck floating by at waist level and a circular skylight giving a little hint of James Turrell on the canal.
Inside and out it is entirely stripped of Christian paraphernalia: no crucifix, no pictures, no bibles or hangings, but there is a small altar designed to be easily folded and stashed away. The laser-cut plywood stools are neat too, their V-shaped legs an echo of the stitching in the bellows, a detail picked up again in the delicately pierced patterns of the window shutters. The floating vicar, Rev Dave Pilkington, compares the approach to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting rather than a mass — people turning up, out of curiosity or need, talking if they want or perhaps, in that most English of ways, having a cup of tea.
Intended as much as a community space as what we understand as a church, this is, perhaps, a new kind of public building for an alienated age. More focused than the banal “multifaith space” but not didactic or grandiose, with only faint hints of ritual and iconography it’s an intriguing addition to the canon of floating architecture.
Louis Kahn designed a floating concert hall, Aldo Rossi floated a tower-like theatre into Venice (a vision that has haunted architecture ever since), Diébédo Francis Kéré created a floating school, floating swimming pools are popping up everywhere and much of IJburg is, effectively, a floating suburb of Amsterdam. With predictions of melting ice sheets and rising sea levels, this modest little barge might well be a glimpse of the future.