Wednesday 27 September 2017


Even from afar, one could see that it was not a sideways kirk: see - It was a transparent kirk, a little basilica, beautiful in its own, open unique way that knitted the visual mass into the landscape. It was an appropriate gesture for a Fair Isle building on a tiny rock known for its beautiful woollen crafts.

The kirk was first seen from the western road in the island loop that led directly to the southern lighthouse. Fair Isle does not have a complicated network of roads. From the distance of this track, one was immediately aware of the kirk’s special siting. The form of the church was simple, traditional - a white gabled box with tall, semi-circular windows and a bellcote facing west. One immediately thought of Matisse's chapel at Vence: - simple forms and openings flooded with light.# Here, from the distance of the main route south, the gabled box seemed to stand on a ridge, prominent in a modest manner, strictly on axis with the odds and ends of the crofting landscape paraphernalia; perhaps pure serendipity - but it was so. The situation was cinematic, able to be dramatically organized by the camera lens into a pure Hitchcock image. One had to see this place that maintained its presence and pride even through the porch window of the local store. The eye was drawn to it, as was the body, to sense its place, to see if the image held its intensity integrally in finer detail.

The next day, in the afternoon, the opportunity was taken to investigate the vision. Walking from the road junction at the school, the intersection where one had to decide to go left or right around the loop, we chose left instead of yesterday’s right, and strolled along the track beside the fire station, the local recycling centre, the hall, and the school. There were only three children in attendance, but it was a school. They were leaving; it was the end of the day.

On turning the corner, the kirk appeared in side elevation - north. We had originally viewed it on yesterday’s stroll from the west. Unlike the chapel, this kirk had a traditional basilica layout: its west front was the formal point of entry and address. Why was the chapel arranged differently? - see: The surprise was that as one moved along the road away from the school, the kirk became transparent. The tall, north and south semi-circular slots were glazed in clear glass. As one moved along, one saw directly through these windows as they came into alignment. The gleam of sun on water and its glow in the bright, clouded sky lit up the perforated form with a fresh delight, revealing more of the cinematic richness of this place, its landmark qualities. This was more than a chapel; it held a pride of place, isolated in the crofting zone: and yet it was not greatly elevated on any prominent piece of landscape.

Walking further along the road - a patchwork of bitumen repairs one-vehicle wide, with high clumps of grass, weeds and wildflowers bordering this ad hoc gloom - one saw different transparent alignments as the eye caught the diagonal encounters of adjacent slots in the building.

Eventually the rocky dirt track defined by timber fence posts and flimsy strands of wire that led to the kirk, was reached. Here the startling formality of this ordinary place was again revealed, but on a more intimate scale. The rough path formed a perspective foreground for the pair of timber porch doors framed by matching semi-circular slots on each side, with a small louvre panel over, topped by a belfry. Every kirk cliché was here in simple juxtaposition to create a formal but humble identity. The walls of the church had a rough stone-textured surface painted white. Only at the openings did the surfaces become more managed, considered and careful.

The brass knob on the pair of western entry doors was turned: depressingly, the kirk was locked. Moving around to the south, one discovered a single side door to the porch with a matching brass knob and an escutcheon plate fitted with a traditional brass key. The key was turned, the knob twisted, and the door opened: there was a sigh of relief – a partial renewal of hope in humanity. This place appeared to be more wary than the chapel. Inside, the timber linings had been decorated with a wainscoting, lime green below a rail fitted with hanging hooks, with an off-white wall above. Two keys hung on one hook. A bowl lined with a lace doily was supported on a corner bracket. It contained, not holy water, but a collection of coins. It was a donation bowl: ‘please?’ Even before entering the kirk, one was asked for a donation.

Turning to enter the kirk, one was confronted with a pair of timber doors with a timber knob. In what looked like an attempt to overcome the confusion of the opening operation, a bold arrow was painted around the knob as a diagrammatic direction. On the floor below this image was another sign that politely requested folk wearing walking boots not to enter. Of course such boots were on our feet as the track to the kirk was overland, so we opened the door and tentatively leaned forward. It was a different welcome to that of the chapel, more managed; and a different interior too. There were no comic The Flock illustrations here! The pews were in the traditional layout as expected, but were clear-finished timber. Stacks of books lay around the rear of the pews. The communion table/altar stood in front of a pointed, panelled background: a ‘Gothic’ extension of the clear-finished timber dado that surrounded the seating. This form was the centerpiece of the kirk, emphasized in importance by twin, stained glass windows, one on either side. These beautiful, decorated openings revealed a fresh, Fair Isle theme that gave a local richness and depth to the otherwise conservative ‘KEEP OUT’ space.

The awkward matter of photographing an interior while leaning inside the front door!

In bold but simple contrast, the south and north windows were, like the western ones that matched, all glazed in clear glass. One thought of Wren's St. James in London. These slots flooded the bright, mainly white space with brilliant light, and opened the interior up to the hills and sky. The slots were nicely trimmed in a dark green with tiny keystone-like emphases around the semi-circular top. It was all very satisfactory and highlighted the deep green wall of the east behind the communion table.

Stepping back into the porch, feeling something like an outcast, rejected, dirty, one became aware of a square plastic bucket that contained a bundle of rope. The eye followed the rope up to a loop on a hook, and further up to a small hole in the ceiling. It was the rope to ring the bell in the bellcote. The basic system worked with the same direct simplicity as the bell rope at Corbusier’s La Tourette monastery that passed from the high bell, down a conduit in the concrete wall, into an open recess inside the chapel, without any bucket – see: Here in Fair Isle, the weather was such that the rope must become as saturated as a wick, draining water into the interior. This water was collected in the plastic container. The careful conservatism of this kirk that contrasted with the open, ‘comic’ welcome of the chapel, was obvious in this shrewd management of both water and entry: no moisture or dirty boots allowed. The chapel seemed more relaxed about these occasions; as carefree as its colours: see -

Stepping outside, and moving around to the south facade after closing and locking the door, the crude simplicity of the clear glazing became obvious. The glass was fitted with thin, horizontal metal transome divisions and was puttied into the surrounding concrete recess. It was a detail also used by le Corbusier at La Tourette. The transparency of this interior was once more revealed with the random window alignments through which one could view the local crofts, the hills, and the sky.

This little place held its power and presence in its detail. It did not disappoint. Moving around to the east end, one discovered an apse addition, that seemed to function as a room for the minister, his prep space. Protestant churches did not dillydally with display. This was practical religion that reminded one of the massing of the Norwegian church: see - Like the boats, did this simple form come from the east? This ‘apse’ had a lower, hipped roof and simple rectangular openings. It was surrounded by bits of clutter, trash that was scattered around the yard.

The northern wall matched that of the south, hence the transparency. There was none of the subtlety seen in the Irish 'Hunt' church that varied the size if the openings to match the preferred orientation - large on south, smaller on north: see - Here the building had a formal, rigid classical expression worked out to strict and unforgiving rules that accommodated function without any variation. It was almost Grecian in its rigour.

This characteristic gave the place a special presence and identity in spite of its ordinariness. It was a very magnificent piece of simple architecture, called building. Ruskin and Pevsner are both wrong in their quirky definition of architecture as something special. This kirk delights in its practical expression that reveals the character of the folk who built it - the Fair Isle local; the friendly, unpretentious, caring crofter: the lover of music - ordinary beauty. It was all here in this embodiment of light that sat high on a low hill in the tight, small community of 44 folk, defining sacred place in harmony with the drama of the sculptured landscape that forms the perimeter, the background of the southern crofting area of the island.
The context

One felt something very special here, a simple building that was woven into place, with transparency and light, holding hill and sky in its interior as they threaded the formal framework that dominated place in the landscape with a marked finesse and ordinary modesty completely lacking in any pretension. If only all architecture could delight and perform in such an innocent, naively honest manner - if only!

All above photos copyright author

Matisse Chapel, Vence