Bishop Edward King Chapel
by Niall McLaughlin Architects


This elliptical chapel near Oxford by London studio Niall McLaughlin Architects contains a group of arching timber columns behind its textured stone facade (+ slideshow).

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects

The Bishop Edward King Chapel replaces another smaller chapel at the Ripon Theological College campus and accommodates both students of the college and the local nuns of a small religious order.

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects

Niall McLaughlin Architects was asked to create a building that respects the historic architecture of the campus, which includes a nineteenth century college building and vicarage, and also fits comfortably amongst a grove of mature trees.

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects

For the exterior, the architects sourced a sandy-coloured stone, similar to the limestone walls of the existing college, and used small blocks to create a zigzagging texture around the outside of the ellipse. A wooden roof crowns the structure and integrates a row of clerestory windows that bring light across the ceiling.

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects

Inside, the tree-like timber columns form a second layer behind the walls, enclosing the nave of the chapel and creating an ambulatory around the perimeter. Each column comprises at least three branches, which form a latticed canopy overhead.

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects

Niall McLaughlin told Dezeen: "If you get up very early, at sunrise, the horizontal sun casts a maze of moving shadows of branches, leaves, window mullions and structure onto the ceiling. It is like looking up into trees in a wood."

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects

A projecting window offers a small seating area on one side of the chapel, where McLaughlin says you can "watch the sunlit fields on the other side of the valley".

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects
Photograph by Denis Gilbert

A small rectilinear block accompanies the structure and houses the entrance lobby, a sacristy, storage areas and toilets.

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects
Photograph by Denis Gilbert

The Bishop Edward King Chapel was one of 52 projects to recently win an RIBA Award.

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects
Photograph by Denis Gilbert

Other projects by Niall McLaughlin Architects include four mono-pitched extensions to a rural cottage in Ireland.

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects

Photography is by the architects, apart from where otherwise stated.

Here's a detailed project description from Niall McLaughlin Architects:

Bishop Edward King Chapel

The client brief sought a new chapel for Ripon Theological College, to serve the two interconnected groups resident on the campus in Oxfordshire, the college community and the nuns of a small religious order, the Sisters of Begbroke. The chapel replaces the existing one, designed by George Edmund Street in the late nineteenth century, which had since proved to be too small for the current needs of the college.

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects

The brief asked for a chapel that would accommodate the range of worshipping needs of the two communities in a collegiate seating arrangement, and would be suitable for both communal gatherings and personal prayer. In addition the brief envisioned a separate space for the Sisters to recite their offices, a spacious sacristy, and the necessary ancillary accommodation. Over and above these outline requirements, the brief set out the clients' aspirations for the chapel, foremost as 'a place of personal encounter with the numinous' that would enable the occupants to think creatively about the relationship between space and liturgy. The client summarised their aspirations for the project with Philip Larkin's words from his poem Church Going, 'A serious house on serious earth it is... which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in...'.

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects

On the site is an enormous beech tree on the brow of the hill. Facing away from the beech and the college buildings behind, there is ring of mature trees on high ground overlooking the valley that stretches away towards Garsington. This clearing has its own particular character, full of wind and light and the rustling of leaves.

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects

These strengths of the site also presented significant planning constraints. The college's existing buildings are of considerable historical importance. G.E. Street was a prominent architect of the Victorian Age and both the main college building and vicarage to its south are Grade II* listed.

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects

The site is designated within the Green Belt in the South Oxfordshire Local Plan and is also visible from a considerable distance across the valley to the west. The immediate vicinity of the site is populated with mature trees and has a Tree Preservation Order applied to a group at the eastern boundary. The design needed to integrate with the character of the panorama and preserve the setting of the college campus and the surrounding trees.

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects

The mediation of these interlocked planning sensitivities required extensive consultation with South Oxfordshire District Council, English Heritage and local residents.

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects

The starting point for this project was the hidden word 'nave' at the centre of Seamus Heaney poem Lightenings viii. The word describes the central space of a church, but shares the same origin as 'navis', a ship, and can also mean the still centre of a turning wheel. From these words, two architectural images emerged. The first is the hollow in the ground as the meeting place of the community, the still centre. The second is the delicate ship-like timber structure that floats above in the tree canopy, the gathering place for light and sound. We enjoyed the geometry of the ellipse.

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects

To construct an ellipse the stable circle is played against the line, which is about movement back and forth. For us this reflected the idea of exchange between perfect and imperfect at the centre of Christian thought. The movement inherent in the geometry is expressed in the chapel through the perimeter ambulatory. It is possible to walk around the chapel, looking into the brighter space in the centre. The sense of looking into an illuminated clearing goes back to the earliest churches. We made a clearing to gather in the light.

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects

The chapel, seen from the outside, is a single stone enclosure. We have used Clipsham stone which is sympathetic, both in terms of texture and colouration, to the limestone of the existing college. The external walls are of insulated cavity construction, comprising of a curved reinforced blockwork internal leaf and dressed stone outer leaf.

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects

The base of the chapel and the ancillary structures are clad in ashlar stone laid in regular courses. The upper section of the main chapel is dressed in cropped walling stone, laid in a dog-tooth bond to regular courses. The chapel wall is surmounted by a halo of natural stone fins. The fins sit in front of high-performance double glazed units, mounted in concealed metal frames.

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects
Photograph by Denis Gilbert

The roof of the main chapel and the ancillary block are both of warm deck construction. The chapel roof drains to concealed rainwater pipes running through the cavity of the external wall. Where exposed at clerestory level, the rainwater pipes are clad in aluminium sleeves with a bronze anodised finish and recessed into the stone fins. The roof and the internal frame are self-supporting and act independently from the external walls.

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects
Site plan - click for larger image

A minimal junction between the roof and the walls expresses this. Externally the roof parapet steps back to diminish its presence above the clerestorey; inside the underside of the roof structure rises up to the outer walls to form the shape of a keel, expressing the floating 'navis' of Heaney's poem.

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects
Floor plan - click for larger image

The internal timber structure is constructed of prefabricated Glulam sections with steel fixings and fully concealed steel base plate connections. The Glulam sections are made up of visual grade spruce laminations treated with a two-part stain system, which gives a light white-washed finish.

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects
Long section - click for larger image

The structure of roof and columns express the geometrical construction of the ellipse itself, a ferrying between centre and edge with straight lines that reveals the two stable foci at either end, reflected in the collegiate layout below in the twin focus points of altar and lectern. As you move around the chapel there is an unfolding rhythm interplay between the thicket of columns and the simple elliptical walls beyond. The chapel can be understood as a ship in a bottle, the hidden 'nave'.

Bishop Edward King Chapel by Niall McLaughlin Architects
Cross section - click for larger image

RIBA competition won - July 2009
Planning Consent - June 2010
Construction - July 2011
Practical Completion – February 2013
Construction Cost - 2,034,000

  • urbane.abuse


  • JBO

    This is so beautiful!

  • Aliosha

    Brilliant? It’s pretty much the same concept as Zumthor’s Saint Bemedict Chapel. Happy to see that at least the external facade made from stone it’s something new!

    • JMC

      Zumthor was not the first, and Niall McLaughlin certainly won't be the last, to design an oval church. Grow up.

    • Indeed, you may have heard of Francesco Borromini for example or Gian Lorenzo Bernini, not to mention Mario Botta.

  • 0-0

    Very, very nice! Also inspired the new Apple Mac Pro.

  • student

    When did Peter Zumthor claim the copyright to all ovals or churches?

  • dj-l

    Peter Celsing’s Nacksta Church is another oval church that preceeded Zumthor. But who cares about old architecture that’s not on Dezeen?

  • Ralph-f

    It's nice to see such a thoughtful, elegant building. I'm so tired of thoughtless blob making.

  • Charlie Bing

    Breathtaking: the interior was such a surprise, seems much larger than the outside. Will put this on my list of places to visit next time I’m over there.

  • james

    Are we looking at the winner of the Stirling prize? If this building doesn’t win it will be a tragedy!

  • Very nice re-interpretation of Gothic architecture on the interior. And the austere beauty of the exterior is refreshing.

  • Man

    Absolutely stunning. The composition of materials, beauty of structure and its spatial clarity is a joy to look at.

    PS those who made the Zumthor comparisons are terribly shortsighted.

    • David

      How? There are so many similarities, but then why would that be a problem, or anything to be ashamed of?

      Zumthor is a brilliant and thoughtful architect who’s works are moving, beautiful and welcoming, and if you think that the architects of this chapel haven’t been inspired by his works, then I wager that Foster has never heard of Buckminster Fuller.

  • mil

    We cannot deny there are many ideas of Zumthor’s Saint Benedict Chapel in this building, and not just the oval shape. Look at the windows and the bell structure. It is not bad at all, but is important to notice that architecture is more than forms and materials.

    • jay

      I forgot Zumthor invented the oval and the bell tower, silly me.

      This church goes way beyond Zumthor’s. Would love for you to expand on “more than form and materials”. This is a considered and incredibly well executed piece of architecture on every level!

    • Man

      People also tend to forget that a good piece of design sometimes is not about how “original” it is or how “no one has ever done this before” – it’s about doing the right thing, at the right place, at the right time, with the right materials and considerations etc and this project has achieved just that in my opinion.

      No one is truly original, it’s more about creating something better, doing it better.

      • janine

        Well said man.

      • Friar Do

        The definitions of “right and truly” are too contentious, too varied and too contradictory for the term to have any use in analysis or criticism.

        And despite your sweeping claim that no one is “truly” original, it isn’t “more about doing it better”. Doing it well, or as well as one can at the time is all that can be expected of any man.

        Incidentally Zumthor’s chapel isn’t an ellipse, or a teardrop, I’m not sure quite what that shape is called, but of course it shows as one of the starting points for this new work.

        Personally, I’m pleased to see some considerable respect for context as possibly the major start point. The relentless minimalism makes for a stark and distant feel, which clearly some find appealing, but the blonding of the timber has made it beige not warm. At first glance I was certainly much taken and impressed by the photographs of this buildings design and very impressed by the construction quality. But closer inspection made me wish for more, rather than the relentless less.

        If one must have comparisons then this is still better, better than almost everything else around, a very fine job indeed.

  • Simply beautiful, divine!

  • Cornelis vanSpronsen


  • jep

    The belfry’s design, the textured exterior material, the kind of structure which you can see in the interior, the top row of windows, the relationship with its surroundings (using the same material but in a different manner) and the plan’s shape.

    The authors liked Zumthors design very much and so do I. Is it a bad thing to take it as a start point? NO.

    It’s just as it is; but I still feel that they should have talked about it in the text since the influence is so great.

  • Piti

    This is spectacular. So simple and beautiful. This is an example of how using the right materials and scale can create something amazing without so much fuss!

  • gabe

    Zumthor has nothing to worry about with this design, which is nowhere close to his work except in superficialities.

  • Joa vdW

    How does this “respects the historic architecture of the campus”? Because it shares the “limestone colour” with the college buildings? The interior is impressive, and I buy the links to gothic architecture, but its façade doesn’t fit into Oxford campus at all – within the environment it looks like a sad melange of socialistic swimming hall and crematorium. Standing on its own, it certainly is an interesting building, but it ignores the clients request.

  • Ian Graham


  • august

    I would imagine the interior of the chapel to be beautiful, especially during sunrises/sunsets. I applaud the architect’s sensitive use of materials. It’s glorious.

  • Rik

    Should have been the Stirling prize winner! What happened judges?

  • Gary Walmsley

    Nice exterior — transcendent interior (and I write that as a nonbeliever).