A Floating Church in East London Prepares to Set Sail

Designed by Denizen Works, Genesis is intended to connect to a new generation of Londoners.
Floating Church Gilbert Mccarragher 018 Hires

Courtesy Gilbert McCarragher

A stroll or cycle along East London’s waterways is seldom a boring experience. Besides the hubbub of activity by the water’s edge—microbreweries and vegan cafés to name two gentrifying elements—vessels on the water itself do their best to draw attention too: narrowboats and barges in various states of ware, painted in bright (often fading) colors, sometimes offering reggae accompanied with a friendly dog to passers-by.

And now there is a new boat on the block—a floating church. Designed by London studio Denizen Works, the church is at first an unassuming addition to the Lee Navigation, not far from Stratford where the London 2012 Olympics were held. Painted in various shades of marine blue, Genesis, as it’s known, could easily be mistaken for being just another houseboat. That is of course until the bellows, operated by a hydraulic lift, rise up, like a slow-motion accordion. Still then, unless you spot Reverend Dave Pilkington poking around, you might not guess this was a religious vessel.

Floating Church Gilbert Mccarragher 024 Hires

Courtesy Gilbert McCarragher

“We wanted it to be a welcoming, flexible space with no specific iconography,” Pilkington told Metropolis. “The problem with churches at the moment is that people don’t go in,” he added. Indeed, the only hint that this is a place for worship is the crosses in the nautical lights inside.

Comprising two skins, the bellows fold in and out as the roof moves up and down as needed to when the boat must pass under the many low bridges along the UK’s canals.. Hand-sewn by a sailmaker in Roxham, Norfolk, their zigzag stitching informed motifs found elsewhere on the boat, such as tiling, paintwork, and internal window grills.

During the day, their translucent nature allows light to softly permeate into the space. It’s only a small area—this a narrowboat after all—but combined with a timber interior the vessel feels serene and spacious; apart from the gentle rocking produced by the wake of a passing boat, it’s easy to forget you’re on a canal. At night, the bellows are equally impressive, glowing like a lantern from the outside.

Pilkington is keen for Genesis to be as multipurpose as possible. The Reverend is a music lover, and a high-end sound system has been installed for planned open-mic nights. The hope is that Genesis will host toddler day groups and spiritual sessions, among other activities as well. With regards to religious activities, Pilkington even has plans for baptisms to take place in the water. “After all, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, which probably wasn’t too sanitized either,” he told the Guardian.

Floating Church Gilbert Mccarragher 004 Hires

Courtesy Gilbert McCarragher

“We’ve not tried to re-invent anything really, we’re just using very simple, basic technologies,” said Murray Kerr, co-founder of Denizen Works. “Because the technology is so simple, if anything goes wrong, it should be easy to fix.”

The firm, which won the project through a competition, is no stranger to innovative workarounds, one such example is a sauna on skates in Finland which allowed a client to breeze past a convoluted planning process. The idea for a floating church was also born out of restrictions. When planning for London 2012 began, zoning laws prohibited any religious buildings in the Queen Elizabeth Park, so the Diocese got creative, ultimately developing Genesis. Since then, the London Legacy Development Corporation, which replaced the Olympic Park Legacy Company in 2012, has been supportive of the project as well.

After mooring in East London for five years, Genesis is due to set sail and head to another destination, all part of a 25 year plan from the Diocese of London (Church of England) which see Genesis stop off at five different locations as they try to reach various new communities around the capital. The next destination isn’t set in stone but Kings Cross and Old Oak Common along are rumored to follow. Every five years, Genesis will head to Chatham, where it was assembled, for maintenance and repairs.

While yet to officially open—a date is tentatively planned for Easter, pending government guidelines—Genesis is already stirring intrigue. Passers-by are curious as to what this new expanding craft is on the water, often asking questions and peering in, and it seems Pilkington’s task of attracting a wider, not necessarily Christian audience is well underway.

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Categories: Cultural Architecture