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East of England Ely Cathedral and the Stained Glass Museum


Ely Cathedral is massive and dwarfs the city. Standing beside it, it is almost too big to take in and too big to photograph easily. It is best seen from a distance when the cathedral can be seen towering above the landscape, hence its affectionate nickname “The Ship of the Fens”.



it has a long history stretching back over 1350 years. Etheldreda, daughter of the King of the East Angles established a double monastery here in the C7th. After her death she was made a saint and Ely became a major site of pilgrimage. The church was destroyed by Viking raiders in the C9th and left in ruins. A Benedictine Monastery was refounded on the site by St Dunstan and St Edelwold in 970. It became one of England’s most important and wealthiest Benedictine Abbeys.

After the Norman Conquest and the Rebellion of Hereward the Wake, William I installed Simeon, Prior of Winchester as Abbot. Although 87 years old, he began the rebuilding of the Saxon church, using limestone quarried from near Stamford. It became a cathedral in 1109.

The Norman nave and transepts survive and reflect the power of Norman conquerors as well as the wealth and prestige of the monastic community. They represent some of the best Norman architecture in the country, especially the blind arcading both on the outside and inside of the building.



With increasing numbers of pilgrims to St Etheldreda’s tomb in the C13th, the east end was rebuilt with an ambulatory to provide more space for the pilgrims. It was built in the latest Early English style with dark Purbeck marble pillars providing a contrast with the white limestone. St Elthedreda’s relics were placed in an elevated sarcophagus in the presbytery.

The Galilee porch at the front of the Cathedral also dates from the C13th. Not only was it used for liturgical processions, it also seems to have had a buttressing function for the west tower. It is described as one of the finest in England, although it does mask the splendid Norman west front.

In 1322 the massive Norman central tower collapsed. There were foundation problems in building a similar tower, so it was decided to replace it with an Octagon with a lantern top. The four original tower piers and adjoining nave, transepts and choir were removed opening up a larger area. This moved the weight of the new tower further out so increasing stability. The roof and lantern were supported by a complex timber structure rather than stone also reducing the weight. The lantern roof is wood. The Octagon gives Ely Cathedral a distinctive appearance making it different from other English Cathedrals.

The west tower was also extended with an octagon top with four smaller corner towers.


The Lady Chapel was added the the north of the church at the same time as the Octagon and completed 1349. It is the largest in any British cathedral and one of the most elaborate to be built at that time.

At some point in the C15th, the north west transept collapsed and was not rebuilt, giving a very asymmetrical appearance.


The monastery was dissolved in 1539 when the royal commissioners took possession of the monastery and all its contents. The treasures were confiscated, the statues and stained glass smashed and St Eledreda’s shrine destroyed. The Church however survived as a cathedral and Henry VIII established a choir school here.

It suffered further damage during the Commonwealth when the Chapter House and cloisters were destroyed. No services were held and it ceased to function as a cathedral. After the Restoration of the Monarchy, money was raised to repair the church.

There was further work in the C18th when the Octagon was repaired and remodelled by removing the flying buttresses. The choir and presbytery roofs were replaced and a new organ screen built across western end of choir.

By the C19th, the building was in very poor condition again and there was a major restoration undertaken by Sir George Gilbert Scott. The south west transept was restored and became the baptistry with a new font. St Catherine’s Chapel was rebuilt. The C18th organ screen was removed and the organ relocated to the north choir, with a carved organ case decorated with carved angels. A new choir screen was built so those seated in nave could see and hear the service. Gilbert Scott added sub stalls in front of the choir stalls and a series of beautifully carved panels in the canopies above. He designed a beautiful new reredos for behind the altar. Roofs, including the Octagon, were repaired and repainted, heating installed and the floor partially repaved. Stained glass was replaced using the most significant glass painters of the period.

There was another ‘Great Restoration’ at the end of the C20th to repair the roof and stonework. The Octagon windows were repaired and strengthened. The nave ceiling cleaned. A Processional Way was constructed, so restoring the route used by Medieval pilgrims between St Etheldreda’s tomb and the Lady Chapel.

To mark the Millennium, three new sculptures were commissioned. The Way of Life is beneath the west tower, Christ in Glory is above pulpit and the Blessed Virgin Mary in placed in the Lady Chapel.

The plan of the inside of the cathedral is taken from here.

Ely plan.jpg

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Ely Cathedral - The Galilee Chapel, West Tower and South West Transept

Entry is through the splendid Gothic GALILLEE CHAPEL built onto the west end of the Cathedral.



The arcading on the inside walls is particularly fine with the double row of offset columns.


The arches above the double doors in to the cathedral are beautifully carved and the oak door is covered with decorative scrollwork.



On the north wall of the west tower is the Millennium sculpture of The Way of Life, with the cross at the end of a winding path.


Looking up to the top of the WEST TOWER it has a beautifully painted ceiling with Christ in Majesty.


The SOUTH WEST TRANSEPT is a wonderful example of Norman architecture, with blind arcading, which was sympathetically restored by Gilbert Scott in the C19th. It is now the Baptistry with a C19th font.




Again it has a wonderful painted ceiling, best seen from the Stained Glass Museum in the south west triforioum.


Off the transept is ST CATHERINE'S CHAPEL, which is reserved for private prayer.



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Ely Cathedral - The Nave

The nave really does have the WOW factor, although all the photographs I've seen of it, don't do it justice. It is breathtaking with its Norman architecture with three rows of round arches soaring upwards and its painted ceiling. It is also very long, reflecting the power and importance of the newly arrived Normans. This must rank as one of the best cathedrals in the country.




The ceiling panels tell the story of the ancestry of Christ, beginning with Adam and Eve, continuing through Abraham, Jacob and David, to the Annunciation, Nativity, Adoration of the Magi and ending with Christ in Majesty. The detail can be seen better from the Stained Glass Museum in the south east triforium, although not all of the panels can be seen.



The side aisles have vaulted stone ceilings and blind Norman arcading along the walls.



The Prior’s Door on the south wall, with its wonderful carved tympanum on the outside wall, dates from around 1135.


Near the Prior’s door is the Saxon Ovin’s Stone, which is the base of a wayside cross from a nearby village. The Latin inscription translates as ‘Give o God to Ovin your light and rest. Amen


The South door by the south transept leads into the remains of the cloisters and has a beautifully carved outside.



Tombs along the side aisles reflect the changing styles of architecture from the early C17th tomb of dean Henry Caesar, the simple memorial to the early C18th Bishop William Fleetwoord to the Victorian Gothic style of C19th Bishop James Russell with its iron railings.






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Ely Cathedral - The Octagon

The square Norman central tower collapsed in 1322, probably due to unstable ground and insufficient foundations. Rather than replace with a similar tower, it was decided to build a wider structure which would spread the load. An octagon with a lantern top was the answer. The four original tower piers and adjoining nave, transepts and choir were removed opening up a larger area. This moved the weight of the new structure further out, so increasing stability. The roof and lantern were supported by a complex timber structure rather than stone also reducing the weight. There is a model showing the wooden framework in the north transept.


The overall effect is awe inspiring and, along with the nave, it is one of the glories of Ely cathedral.

It is built in the Early English Gothic style of architecture with pointed arches and more carving. Around the Octagon on either side of the arches of the main pillars are the only Medieval carvings in the cathedral to have survived the Reformation, possibly because they tell the story of St Etheldreda.

The Octagon forms a large open space in the heart of the cathedral, with a small altar under the centre of it. On one of the pillars is the pulpit with the Millennium carving of Christ in Glory above it.



The Octagon is surrounded by tall stone columns leading to pointed arches.




The tops of the arches support the painted wood fan vaulted ceiling leading to the lantern. Round the base of the Lantern are painted panels with images of angels. Above are Gothic stained glass windows





The painted lantern ceiling has Christ in Majesty at the centre, surrounded by seraphim, cherubs and angels. It is glorious.


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Ely Cathedral - The North and South Transepts

The transepts are part of the Norman cathedral, built around 1090. They have classic Norman arcading around the walls. The top windows were replaced when the C15th painted hammer beam ceilings was added. This has winged angels along the base.

North Transept

South Transept

Off the south transept is the CHAPEL OF ST DUNSTAN AND ST ETHELWOLD, who were refounded the Benedictine Monastery in Ely after Viking raids in the C9th.


The arches of the SOUTH TRANSEPT are picked out with blue paint. The painting of the Angel releasing St Peter is C16th and was the reredos before being replaced by the present Gilbert Scott one.


Below is the Tabula Eliensis, which hung in the monk’s refectory. It shows the Norman knights stationed with the monks after the defeat of Hereward the Wake. It is now very dark and difficult to make out the detail.


Below is an old strong chest.


On the wall opposite is this rather nice memorial to Richard Elliston who died from a kick of a horse.


ST EDMUND'S CHAPEL off the NORTH TRANSEPT has the remains of C14th Wall paintings, the only ones to survive in Ely. They originally showed scenes from the life of St Edmund, but only his martyrdom at the top of the north wall can be seen clearly. It shows him tied to a tree before being shot by arrows. Below, the wall is painted to imitate cloth wall hangings with stripes on the north wall and circles on the south wall.




Next to it is ST GEORGE'S CHAPEL George’s Chapel, which is the Cambridgeshire Regimental Chapel, dedicated to those who died in both world wars. Their names are written on a series of hinged oak panels.



Also in the north transept is St Etheldreda’s processional banner.



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Ely Cathedral - The Lady Chapel

This is reached either from the north transept or the recently built Processional Way from the north choir aisle, restoring the route used by Medieval pilgrims.

The Lady Chapel was built in the mid C14th and is a wonderful example of the Decorated style architecture.

The first impression on entering is the size of the chapel. It is BIG and is the largest and most elaborate of any British cathedral. There are no chairs making it feel even larger. Light streams in through the large plain glass window and I found it almost impossible to photograph. Looking at other images on the internet, I'm not the only person to have found this a problem... The Medieval stained glass was destroyed after the Dissolution of the Monastery.



Round the base of the walls is elaborately carved arcading. Statues were either removed or their heads defaced during the Reformation. The walls would originally have been brightly painted and remains of this can still be seen, especially behind the altar.



The Millennium statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary above the altar is the only splash of colour now. The altar and metal reredos were installed in 2011.


Above is a vaulted ceiling with red bosses.



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Ely Cathedral - The Choir

The Choir was rebuilt after the Octagon was constructed and is a wonderful example of Decorated architecture. It is small compared to the rest of the cathedral and the dark wood gives it an intimate almost womb like quality. In the C19th restoration, a new choir screen was built. Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott it enabled the congregation seated in the nave to see into the choir.



The choir stalls round the walls are C14th. Gilbert Scott added the sub stall in front of them and also the beautifully carved canopies above then. On the south side are scenes form the Old Testament, with scenes from the New Testament on the north side.



He was also responsible for the beautifully carved organ front standing high on the north wall and decorated with angels playing trumpets..



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Ely Cathedral - The Presbytery

The Presbytery is Early English with dark Purbeck marble pillars contrasting with the rest of the pale limestone.


This was the site of the shrine of St Etheldreda. Destroyed in the Reformation the site is marked by a slate slab in the floor.


The stone tomb canopy on the north wall is often mistakenly described as her shrine. These canopies were common common in the medieval period covering tombs of senior churchmen or members of the aristocracy. It is now thought this may have been part of Bishop Hotham’s tomb. The fragments of stone beneath it may have been part of Etheldreda’s shrine.


Sir George Gilbert Scott was responsible for the elaborate reredos behind the high altar. This took 18 years to complete and cost £4000. Its five panels show the events of Holy Week beginning with Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper in the Centre and ending with Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha.





On either side of the altar is an intricately carved panel with roses.


Even the candlesticks are good examples of Victorian Gothic work.


On either side of the presbytery are the tombs of the great and good, including Bishop Redman on the north side.


John Tiptoft, first Earl of Worcester with his two wives is on the south wall. He was Lord High Treasurer, Lord High Constable and Deputy Governor of Ireland under Edward IV. He was also nicknamed the ‘Butcher of England’ as he was ferocious in carrying out punishment.



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Ely Cathedral -The Choir Aisle and the Chapels

The east end of the cathedral was completely rebuilt in the C13th to accommodate increasing numbers of pilgrims to St Etheldreda’s tomb. The choir aisles acted as an ambulatory allowing better access for the pilgrims. They are Early English Gothic with ribbed vaulted ceilings. At the ends of the aisles are chapels.


The walls are lined with tombs of the great and good




On the floor are tombs of C13th Bishops.


In the north choir aisle floor is the C19th brass to the well known architect George Basevi, who was a cousin of Benjamin Disraeli.


The canopied tomb of Bishop William de Luda has been partially demolished and provides a gateway from the south choir aisle into the presbytery.


At the end of the choir aisles are chapels.

BISHOP ALCOCK'S CHAPEL at the end of the north choir aisle is reached through an elaborated carved screen and dates from the end of the C15th. It has a glorious fan vaulted ceiling, the only one in the cathedral.



This is now the Chapel to the Victims of Torture. The painted reredos behind the altar depicts Christ’s instruments of torture.



ST ETHELREDA'S CHAPEL is next to it and beneath the east window which tells the story of Christ’s birth, ministry and death



At the end of the south choir aisle and behind another carved stone screen, is BISHOP WEST'S CHAPEL.



This was the last chantry chapel to be built before the Reformation and has elaborate Decorated ceiling and carving.



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Thank you for such a detailed guide and such fine photos. There is also the Cathedral's museum of stained glass, which I hadn't expected when I visited.

Dare I piggy-back my own observations, on the town and its other points of interest (including Oliver Cromwell) - which make a good day out from London?


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Stained Glass Museum in the south east triforium, Ely Cathedral

Stained glass windows are the glory of many of our churches, flooding the building with coloured light on sunny days.


We take the stained glass for granted and it is often difficult to see and appreciate the detail and complexity of the glass. Some places like York Minster and King's College Chapel do have information about the glass, the Stained Glass Museum in Ely Cathedral is the only Museum in Britain dedicated to Stained glass and one of a few places in the world covering such a large chronological span of stained glass.

It contains over 100 panels dating from the early C13th to the mid C20th of religious and secular glass. These are displayed at eye level and carefully illuminated from behind. You can really get up close and personal with the glass.

The Museum in in the south east triforium and reached up a steep stone spiral staircase. As well as the stained glass panels, there are information boards covering the development of stained glass as well as a collection of tools and materials used in the design and manufacture of stained glass. It also has a collection of preparatory designs, cartoons and maquettes relating to C19th and C20th glass which are sometimes part of temporary displays. It also has a reference library for research workers and a very good shop.



Some of the stained glass on display is beautiful. I was perhaps a little disappointed that there was less medieval glass than C19th and C20th glass.

It is also a rare chance to visit the triforium in a cathedral. Seen from below these always look like narrow passageway. In fact they are quite wide and there is a lot of space. There are also very good views of the painted nave ceiling and the painted ceiling of the south west tower.

The museum can be visited by itself or as a joint ticket with the cathedral.



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Stained Glass Museum - An overview of stained glass

Like wall paintings, the purpose of the stained glass windows in churches and cathedrals was to tell he stories of the Bible and the life of saints to a largely illiterate congregation. Much of the stained glass was paid for by donors who hoped it would buy them a place in Heaven. The windows often contained an image of them as can be seen in this example of William and Matilda Cele from a church in Suffolk


The early stained glass known as grisaille was painted in shades of grey and one of the best examples of this can be seen in the C13th Five Sisters window in the north transept of York Minster. This is one of the largest expanses of Grisaille glass to survive in the world. Brightly coloured glass was imported from glass makers in Normandy and the Rhinelands but was very expensive



Most of the brightly coloured stained glass windows from that date are found in Europe, like this panel dated about 1210 from Soisson Cathedral in France.


From about 1310 yellow staining allowed white glass to be richly decorated and this became popular, especially as small roundels mounted in larger plain glass windows. There are excellent examples of these in King’s College, Cambridge. The lovely shades of yellow and brown in these roundels was achieved by staining the back of the glass with a silver compound before firing in the kiln.


From the early 1500s, coloured glass became more readily available and cheaper. Stained glass windows appeared in churches and cathedrals. Little stained glass survives as it was destroyed during the Reformation and later Commonwealth. The best places to see Medieval glass is Canterbury Cathedral, Kings College Cambridge, Great Malvern Priory. Long Melford Church Suffolk and Fairford Church Gloucestershire. Some of the colours are surprisingly vivid even today.


There was little interest in stained glass between 1600-1800 but it became increasingly in demand when the Industrial Revolution resulted in a rapid expansion of towns and cities and a demand for new churches. Roman Catholics were allowed to worship freely from 1829, boosting the demand for new churches. Many existing churches were in a poor state of repair by the C19th and needed restoring. Stained glass was used when funds allowed.

Early C19th stained glass was often thin and garish. This resulted in leading architects like Pugin to encourage experimentation in production techniques and colouring of the glass. The best C19th stained glass was now the equal of C16th stained glass. Some of the best glass came from the workshops of CE Kempe, Clayton and Bell and Burlison and Grylls.

As well as designing textiles, tiles and furniture, people like William Morris and Edward Burne Jones also produced designs for stained glass windows. The began using slab glass. This had a slightly uneven surface which gave the colour an exceptional intensity and jewel like quality. A good example is this window produced by Clayton and Bell in 1860


The end of the Second World War led to a demand for memorial windows and provided work for the great Victorian workshops into the 1950s. Stained glass continues to be as popular as ever with new designers producing modern designs.


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Stained Glass Museum - Medieval Glass from the C13th-C15th

The most colourful pieces of early medieval glass come from Europe. These two panels from Burgundy date from between 1220-50 show St Vincent being roasted on a gridiron and then being sent to prison where he was visited by angels.



In the C13th, yellow staining allowed white glass to be richly decorated and this became popular. The different shades of yellow and brown were achieved by staining the back of the glass with a silver compound before firing in the kiln. This can be seen in the roundel of the de Vere family boar, dated between 1340-60 and the peasant figure, a rare example of the medieval glass from the Lady chapel in Ely Cathedral.



This panel dating from 1310-30 comes from Wood Walton Church in Cambridgeshire and show St Catherine on the left with the wheel and sword used in her martrydom. On the right is St Lawrence holding the gridiron he was burnt on.


The window from Hadzor Church in Worcestershire is about 1340 and is a scene of the Annunciation.


Apart from the image of St Bartholomew dating from 1404-22 from the clerestory of Winchester Cathedral, most of the C15th stained glass on display is the yellow stained glass.


The early C15th Reynard the Fox and the hind come from Byfield Church in Northamptonshire.



The Labours of the months come from Matfiled House in Kent. The first panel shows the corn being harvested in September. The second shows the killing of a pig in November



These late C15th panels show the Orders of the Angels, from Ulverscroft Manor in Leicestershire. This was a a popular subject in Medieval Art. In the first panel, the three angels, ‘Heavenly Virtues’ have diadems and cloaks. They are holding books and what look to be urine flasks, indicating their powers to perform healing miracles. In the second panel are the ‘Principalities’ who were thought to look after kings, princes and bishops.



This lovely image of a bird is described as a quarry, and was set into a plain glass window.

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1000+ Posts
Stained Glass Museum - C17th and C18th Glass

There are few examples of C17th glass. This panel was painted in the Netherlands and is entitled the royal Benefactor. it was fired at a relatively low temperature resulting in many of the colours fading. It has also been repaired with mending leads.


The four painted shields of arms of the Hill family come from Denham Place Chapel in Buckingham shire and are late C17th.


The portrait of George III is a copy of a painting by Joshua Reynolds and shows George in his coronation robes. It was made in 1783 for the King’s Dining Room in Windsor Castle.


The last example is completely different to the rest of the exhibits and is great fun. The first four panels were based on a series of paintings by the C17th Flemish artist David Teniers the younger who painted pictures of monkeys performing human activities. They aimed to poke fun at the activities and personalities of the time. The last two pictures depict a man drinking and smoking.



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Stained Glass Museum - C19th Stained Glass

As is perhaps understandable, the majority of the collection displayed is C19th glass. Much of it has a religious theme. This glass from Hadzor church in dating from 1866 is designed to match medieval glass surviving in the church. The two panels show the pregnant Virgin visiting her sister Elizabeth.


Shown below is a piece of early C13th from the same church.


This lovely piece of glass entitle ‘Ecce Virgo made for a church in Carlisle in 1845 also reflects Medieval designs.


The design of ‘Noli me tangere’ from Clifton Church in Oxford in 1852, could have come from an illustrated medieval manuscript. It shows the influence of the architect Pugin, who championed the Victorian Gothic revival style .


The Good Shepherd from Cotmanhay Church in Derbyshire in 1867 again follows this style.


The two Mary’s at the tomb comes from Great Brington Church in Nottinghamshire and was made in 1856.


The style was also used for Old Testament themes as seen seen in this Clayton and Bell window made around 1860 for a church in Beaminster, Dorset, showing Solomon supervising the rebuilding of the temple.


Very different is this panel of St Paul preaching at Athens which was made between 1820-30 and is copied from a full scale design known as a cartoon by Raphael.


The large Roundel of the Virgin Mary formed the centre of the rose window of the Roman Catholic Church of our Lady of the Assumption in Rhyl, Denbighshire in 1863, shows the Virgin Mary ascending into Heaven. It illustrates a movement away from the Victorian Gothic style and is a much more modern feeling design.


Not all church glass shows religious themes, like this window from Hengoed in Shropshire is entitled the Dawning of the Last day, designed by the Vicar in memory of his father.


Coats of arms were always popular as in the panel made in 1829 for Ellesmere Church, Shropshire and the larger window from Crockerton Church in Wiltshire showing the coat of arms of Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI.


There are also examples of secular glass on display. These include quarry panels of quickly produced yellow stained designed to be placed in larger plain glass windows. These made in 1850 were made by pressing soft glass into patterned moulds. This creates an indented line which is painted to reveal the design and then stained with silver, producing the yellow colour when fired.




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Stained Glass Museum - C20th Stained Glass

The Victorian Gothic style continued into the early C20th, as can be seen in these two lovely panels designed by Edward Burne Jones in 1910-2 of Angel Musicians.


The influence of the Arts and Craft Movement can also be seen in the window to commemorate Queen Victoria, made for the Roman Catholic Church in Barnstaple.


Many churches commissioned windows to commemorate soldiers who died in the First World War. This from Rockly Chapel, Marlborough shows St Michael standing above the grey battlefields.


In the 1920s, there was a gradual movement away from the Victorian Gothic style, with cleaner lines and more ‘modern’ designs as seen in this (unidentified) Nativity scene.


This panel of the Prodigal Son was produced by the C20th glass designer Moira Forsyth when she was a student and is completely different to anything else in the museum. It is made using the silver stain technique and is great fun as the figures are wearing fashions of the time.


The Ship was made in 1920 as a door panel with the ship made from heavily soldiered lead.


The panel entitled ‘Evening’ shows peasants working in the fields and is a copy of a design from a 1933 window in Hamburg.


Styles changed after the Second World War as can be seen in the free flowing lines of this expressionism design of the Virgin and Child made in 1956 for Michelham Priory in Sussex.


The replicas of the windows of Adam and Eve made for the west window of Glasgow Cathedral in 1958, look crude and stark in comparison.



The newest window of ‘The Cross’ dates from 1978 and has influences of Charles Rennie MacIntosh and precedes the minimalist architecture of the late C20th.


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