Priests say the London Design Festival’s Aura installation “enhances” the 300-year-old St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s one of the only times the Cathedral has welcomed artists in to create in the space
A minutes’ walk from Bank Tube station, twenty City workers cower from the rain. They’re standing in front of a rotating metal orb, watching it turn in circles around a piece of stone as flashes of white light pass up and down a single piece of metal connecting the orb to a domed ceiling. On the roof, a display of fluorescent lights takes the form of different shapes, like candy-coloured clouds. Inside the thick walled building it is silent and peaceful, a break from the frenetic City streets.
Here at St Stephen Walbrook Church, there is an exhibition called Halo that is free as a part of the London Design Festival, which is on now across twelve London districts. Halo will stay for three weeks longer than the festival, allowing designer Moritz Waldemeyer’s piece to disrupt the traditional church setting a little while longer. “St Stephen Walbrook was and is no stranger to radical innovation,” says the reverend Stephen Baxter, Parish Priest at the church.
“In the 1980s the church was radically and innovatively re-ordered around Henry Moore’s inspiring central altar, directly beneath Sir Christopher Wren’s great dome.” Moore’s altar, a great flowing thing, made of stone, still feels contemporary. The orb, circling upon the altar as if it is a homing signal, connects the newer parts of the church to Wren’s windowed dome, which was a radical space in the 17th century anyway, allowing in what Baxter calls “a celebration of light.”
In St Paul’s Cathedral, shards of white light burst intensely from a black metal rod connecting the top of the Dome to the bottom. Following each explosion of white light, there is a fade to black, and the gold paint on the dome roof shimmers with the movement, as if the dome itself is singing as well as the choir. It is best to experience the installation during Evensong, the daily, free-toattend service at the Cathedral. The piece is called Aura by the artist Pablo Albuena, another London Design Festival installation, which reacts to the sound from the choir and organ by projecting shards of light when there are crescendos.
In our interview, festival director Ben Evans summed up the problem with St Paul’s: “It is one of the most important buildings in the city but Londoners never go there.” When I go, the installation has attracted more than the usual amount of worshippers. There are young people, and hip design people, looking up into the domed ceiling at the installation, watching how the piece reacts and responds to the sounds of Evensong.
There are worse things to do after work than sit in a world famous landmark and enjoy breathtaking music and design. The church agrees, too. “I heard a priest describe the installation as something that could enhance the experience of the service. Okay, that’s interesting,” says Albuena. “I would like to introduce something that can open up possibilities. It’s not only playing with what is there.” Above the altar, Aura is in the piercing heart of St Paul’s. A thin black rod, it disrupts the space without feeling intrusive to the beautiful Sir Christopher Wren design. It’s amazing to watch how the intensity of light changes as the choir crescendos.
“One of the social functions of art is opening minds,” says Albuena. “It is very valuable to me that the piece is accessible to a wide range of the public. Honestly I’m still surprised at the level of acceptance that they have had.” The Italian artist says religious figureheads at St Paul’s have gotten on board with his work. “It’s trying to work organically with what is there. It’s not trying to fight or challenge things, it’s trying to open up different connections…by focusing attention on the ritual that is happening.”
The installation was also only supposed to last one week, but within days of launching, the Cathedral has announced that it will stay another month. Albuena says he’d be happy if the Cathedral kept it permanently. With his installation, Albuerto is questioning what the meaning of a temple is nowadays. Using religious buildings in new ways, encouraging more audiences into these fantastic chasms of space, can only ever provoke good conversation.
London Design Festival runs until 24 September; the light installations remain in St Stephen Walbrook and St Paul’s Cathedral for at least another month, exact dates yet to be confirmed