Ely Cathedral is one of the finest of all European architectural jewels. This ‘ship of the Fens’, perched in a city of just 20,000 people on an ‘island’ 85 feet above sea level – the highest point for miles around - owes part of its collective consciousness to its isolation among the treacherous marshland that existed until fen drainage began in earnest during the 17th century.
Saint Etheldreda founded both city and abbey in 673. The present construction began in the late 11th century and continued until Henry VIII’s Reformation and Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s.
The Octagon lantern tower, erected in the 1320s, is a staggering achievement, on a scale rarely found in European, let alone British, cathedrals. In the words of architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner, it is the ‘greatest individual achievement of architectural genius at Ely Cathedral’, the kind of construction under which people stand gazing heavenwards, asking ‘how on earth (or heaven) did they do that?
Octagons have numerous religious resonances, including regeneration, transition, and the relationship between earth and heaven but in Ely’s case, its distinct plan relates to the Roman Emperor Justinian’s octagonal church of San Vitale in Ravenna, from which Charlemagne appropriated much of the marble wall panels and installed them in his new cathedral at Aachen. He also took Justinian’s stone throne, with its distinctive sweeping arms, which influence Luke Hughes & Company chairs to this day – including the clergy chairs at Ely.
The huge octagonal tower, much wider than the original nave crossing which collapsed in the 1320s, leads up to timber fan vaulting that appears to support the glazed timber lantern. Actually, it is held up by a complex timber structure above the vaulting, something that could probably not be built today because of the shortage of large enough trees.
The brief & result
The brief (for which there was a design competition) was to replace the liturgical furniture; an altar and its dais, clergy seating, lecterns and prayer desks, choir stalls and choir lighting, conductor’s stand and credence table, all of which had to look permanent yet be capable of being swiftly cleared away.
The 1960’s furniture in place at the time of the competition was originally designed by George Pace but was considered to bear little relationship to the inspiring architecture of the building. Our references had, surely, to start with the Octagon itself, as well as the muscular Romanesque arches of the massive nave, one of the longest in the country. Scale and massing were deemed critical. A detailed architectural model submitted as part of our competition design submission illustrated the problem of that scale. Once appointed, a full-scale two-dimensional painted mock-up in plywood was taken to test on site, followed by a full-blown three-dimension version a few months later.
Another major design criteria were the colours of the interior, present in the polychromatic stonework, as well as the changing sun light through the stained-glass, projected on the walls. Colour was considered key to make the altar appear as a focal point. We worked closely with the artist, John Maddison, who knows the building well has written extensively about its history and who, some years earlier, painted the Passion reredos in the Bishop Alcock chapel. Another challenge was to find a way of giving the altar an ethereal presence, legible as far away as the main cathedral entrance, 12 bays down. Gold leaf seemed to be the an appropriate medium, and this was applied by Phil Surey, who gilded the abstract carved figures of writhing eels around the altar’s horizontal edges, brilliantly executed by the Armenian woodcarver, Gyorgy Mkrtchian. In pre-Reformation England, when eating meat on Fridays and holy days was forbidden, the Abbey's monopoly on the supply of eels, which (arguably) was the source of the city’s name, certainly added considerably to the abbey’s source of wealth It was the second richest in England as recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. Now, even on a dull day, when you enter the nave from the West door, the octagonal altar serves as focal point.
Another critical success factor was to be able to clear the entire altar and it's platform and make it disappear. Equally crucial was the quality of the engineering of that platform, whose 16 interlocking components and the central segment are almost 9.5m across. Each individual component is small enough to go through the gap between the columns in the north transept. The entire assembly unlocks with a flick of a catch, no tools needed. The choir stalls can be rolled away. As a result, the vergers are now equipped to move everything each day, sometimes three times a day. It enables these change-overs to be as easy as they can be.
Most of our projects revolve around understanding the architecture and how people inhabit those spaces. That is what we do.