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Faced with a fall in congregation numbers, an East London Diocese took a radical change of direction by commissioning a waterbound place of worship

The Church of England had a problem. Part of its charter is to have a presence in every diocese, but in certain parts of East London it was finding it a challenge to reach potential parishioners who don’t want to walk more than two miles to find a church. The solution? Commissioning Genesis, a wide-beam narrowboat moored on the River Lee Navigation alongside Here East at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to develop better links with the community living around the canal. It serves as a space for worship and is also available for private hire and for use by local schools. 

Architects Denizen Works developed the design in close collaboration with Turks Shipyard and naval architect Tony Tucker. “It’s a modern day mission” explains Murray Kerr, founder of Denizen Works.“As a mixed-use faith and community project we feel the boat could be a first step in changing our thinking about how communities can continue to be served as they grow and move away from traditional locations and building types. Most of all, the project demonstrates what can be achieved when a brave client with an exciting brief believes in an ambitious design team.” 

The barge is designed with a bespoke and adaptable interior to accommodate a wide range of community activities and services, including parent and toddler groups, Pilates and art classes, interfaith celebrations, lunch and supper clubs, live music, employment training, support workshops and counselling. 

One of the standout architectural features is the kinetic roof, which is inspired by organ bellows. It has been crafted from concertinaed, translucent sailcloth and is lined with LED lights and powered by hydraulic rams. When fully raised Kerr says, “It’s a really welcoming space and provides a talking point for people to come aboard and have a chat.” 

The assembly space under the kinetic roof is designed to take a capacity of 40 people seated and up to 60 passengers when stationary. This project completely changes the idea of what a place of worship can and should be and the plan is for Genesis to remain where it is for three to five years before moving on to reach other communities. 

Murray Kerr founded Denizen Works in 2011 to explore projects of diverse scales and typologies. The projects the studio has worked on are across the UK and beyond and are all joined in an approach which taps into local history, landscape, microclimate and community. 

Images above (c) Gilbert McCarragher