Now demolished, the First Church of Christ Scientist was a masterclass of architectural imagination. Kate Linzey visits the site on which it once stood, to learn more.
The object is delicate and small. Small enough to sit in the palm of my hand and weighing less than 300 grams. It is a ceramic fragment, a remnant of a larger work.
The fragment is not broken like a pottery sherd from an archaeological site, but it is partial. A hardened teardrop pressed from a mould, mass-produced, one of many. This regularity is made unique by hand-incised contours that decorate the surface. The clay was fired but remained white, indicating a high porcelain content. The glaze on its front face is a semi-translucent pink, while the back is much more worker-ly. A gob of glue, deeply encrusted with building dirt, carries the rusty imprint of a bolt head, and, faintly, in yellow pencil, a construction note records where and how this fragment was located within the greater whole.
These construction notes are some of the remaining records of how these delicate petals fit together; Neville Porteous, the man who pressed, fired and glazed each one, passed away in April 2022.
Porteous made hundreds of these petals from three moulds between 1981 and 1983, following the design of Clare Athfield. My petal is of the smallest type. A second is long and split like the tongue of a snake. The third, the largest, is much rounder with three points, like a cartoon crown. Fitted together the petals become a flower. Five flowers decorate the capitals – the uppermost section of a column – of the First Church of Christ Scientist. At least they did; the church, formerly of Willis St, Wellington, was demolished in 2022 to make room for the new – though with recession imminent, the arrival date on that construction is yet undetermined. The fallen petals are now stored, wrapped in bubbled plastic, stashed in boxes, stacked in corners and under tables. They, along with a wall of tiles by Doreen Blumhardt and a stained-glass window by James Walker, are what remain of the Ian Athfield-designed church.
The commission for this church’s design had come to Athfield’s office with the most open of briefs. The new building need only replicate the functionality of the old premises on The Terrace: provide room for lectures and discussions, space for an organ, and allow, according to architect and writer David Mitchell, “questions to be asked by the very architecture of the building”. Christian Scientists reject the icons and conventions of other Christian sects, but with a name like the First Church of Christ Scientist, Athfield made the imaginative leap to King Solomon’s First Temple. The Judaic texts describing two columns topped with lily-work was the Biblical inspiration for the columns that stood outside this new first temple. Several more supported the structure inside, and most were dressed in Porteous’ petals, each deformed while still soft, to wrap the intersection of column and ceiling, kissing the surfaces gently like real vegetal life.
As in the Biblical description of the Temple of Solomon, in the south-east corner of the inner court there was a pool. Behind this pool was what should be the First Church’s most famous craft artwork: Doreen Blumhardt’s weeping wall pressed from the rocks at Ōwhiro Bay on Wellington’s south coast. A job she described as laborious and heavy, Blumhardt, assisted by Jenny Wrightson, rolled about 300 backing tiles onto which heavily embossed impressions from the rocks were mounted. Once you know what you are looking at, the rock texture returns to something familiar, but it is of course reversed – what was a crack in the surface of a rock now juts outward, and the reversal gives it the feel of an alien skin, organic rather than mineral. Set into the rock impressions are small rectangles, glistening with a gem-like green, which, along with the precision of the tiled grid, gives us a way out of the formless, chaotic texture. In one work ceramic craft becomes sculpture and then painting. Resisting close reading in all its excess, the work then reveals itself in moments of precise detail.
Human history is discovered through the recovery of ceramic remainders – the oldest have been dated to 14,000 BCE. In archaeological sites across the Middle East and Mediterranean, small sherds of pottery have been pieced together to tell us stories of ourselves. Contemporary archaeologists working in Palestine periodically uncover pottery from the era of the First Temple (800-400BCE). Some of these inscriptions reference the familiar characters of the biblical Deuteronic Histories, and I find it uncanny that historical fact could have persisted across the many cultures, languages and times that these ancient narratives have travelled. That a story about a structure built roughly 2800 years ago inspired the Athfield design of the First Church of Christ Scientist is also a little wondrous. Though it was not perhaps the original text that held interest for Athfield, but the exegetical remakings that percolate through architectural history, from the building of the Second Temple (c. 200 BCE) to Rua Kēnana’s Temple Hīona at Maungapohatu in 1908.
A quintessentially Post-Modern design, Athfield did not limit the building to a single narrative. Its signs were not so easily read. Mitchell listed the references: “Tudor church doors”, a “stainless steel and glass reinterpretation of the Colonial verandah, a lolloping, soft white roof that is domed like a head, with a stained-glass eye”, “the lectern and the seating behind it are styled a little like a FJ Holden”, and windows shuttered with “Colonial louvres”. Often that “white head” was likened to that of a whale. In the story of Jonah and the Whale, Jonah, for all his misdeeds, was saved by God but left to sit and pray in the whale’s belly for three days before being thrown up ashore. Unusually for a religious space, the First Church presented a glass wall to the busy street outside. Beneath the sculptural, whale-head roof, the space of congregation was open to interested viewers, the curious and those in need.
In contrast to Mitchell’s vintage Holden automobile, in the space of the lectern I saw a lilypond. Set at an angle to the street, above this area a beam supported an internal gutter detailed in glass, which allowed a rippling pattern of light to filter from above. Around the lectern and supporting the overhead beam, were more of those columns. As they split and wavered upward, they no longer seemed to support the roof so much as strive toward the light like the graceful stems of waterlilies, with the hall itself becoming some kind of submerged lake.
Rarely a critic to be entirely positive, Mitchell suggested that First Church was full of inconsistencies but that in these “the sublime innocence of [Athfield’s] imagination” was on display for all the challenge and delight that this would invoke. But the Church was not just the work of one man. Rather, like all building and architecture of this quality, it was a process of collective imagining. Made by Porteous to the design of Clare Athfield, the petal on my palm is a fragment of this process. With the demolition of the First Church the fragment has floated free and the collectivity of the building has been destroyed. In the past the petal might have been added to the foundations of whatever came next, becoming part of the ground upon which we build. But now, instead, the ground has been scrapped clean.