Nestled either end of Hope Street lie two of Britain’s great places of worship. These are the (Anglican) Cathedral Church of Christ in Liverpool, and the (Catholic) Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King – two buildings as different as their names are similar. The Anglican cathedral is a monumental fortress of red sandstone, its square tower rising over 100 metres. The Catholic cathedral is a concrete, stone and aluminium space-tent. The former participates in centuries of architectural tradition, the latter is a break with tradition.
The interesting thing is that, when first planned, the Catholic cathedral was meant to be an equally immense and traditional (if not by English standards) Byzantine design. Edwin Lutyens’ plan, on which building work began in 1933, would have featured rich red brick, colourful mosaics, and the largest dome of any cathedral in the world. But financial constraints meant building work was abandoned, with only the crypt completed.
Had the Lutyens design been built in its entirety, it would have made Hope Street unquestionably home to two of the grandest churches in the world. In the summer I decided to visit them both to try to discover whether something was really lost when this plan fell through, or whether Liverpool benefitted from a (divine?) blessing in disguise.
For the Anglican Church in Liverpool, the early 20th Century was a rare chance to build a new ‘statement’ cathedral. Only a handful of Anglican cathedrals had been built in England since the Reformation, and Liverpool, arguably the country’s second city at the time, needed a grand cathedral easily visible from the docks. The Church of England hierarchy also possibly wanted a confident and prominent statement of Anglican belief in a city with a significant Catholic population.
I think this is broadly what the design of Giles Gilbert Scott, the Anglican cathedral’s youthful architect (who also designed LMH’s Deneke Building), won for them. When I visited, what struck me first was the sheer width of the Gothic arches, which for their size and solemnity might as well have been propping up Tolkien’s Mines of Moria. The cathedral’s distinctive brown stone blocks encased vast longitudinal windows, which weaved bright colours in intricate, wild, mosaic pictures. A tour guide told me that each of the stone blocks on the cathedral’s interior had no neighbour with the same dimensions. This, she said, was a celebration of God’s love for individuals.
If I had one criticism it would be that the main body of the cathedral lacked intimacy. There was not much on the human scale. But then I should probably have expected this of the longest cathedral in the world. What it lacked in cosiness it more than made up for in its scope and majesty, a valiant attempt at representing divine splendour.
I confess that splendour was not my first thought looking at the Catholic cathedral at the other end of the street. Intrigue and apprehension were more like it. I was, though, surprised by the scale of the space-tent, as it looked much larger than it does in photos – it seemed like a great, grey volcano had climbed out of the earth and nestled itself amongst houses and shops.
I began climbing the cathedral’s many, many steps. There was a feeling of ascending to the house of God, leaving worldly cares further behind with each step. The colours in the stained glass of the cone at the cathedral’s apex changed as I wandered round, peering into the many side-chapels, through greens and purples and reds. My idea of a cold, grey concrete spaceship was banished. The place felt calming, warm, and inviting.
It certainly had an earthiness, and a spirit, about it. I think this was summed up well by a sign near one of the chapels featuring a quote from the late Catholic journalist Norman Cresswell: ‘This great Cathedral was built by the people of the Archdiocese of Liverpool…They did it, bless ‘em, by giving when they had so little to give […] they did it with old newspapers and wedding rings; with treasured heirlooms and bits of this and that. They did it. And today is their day.’
Having seen the cathedrals in person I read a Peter Hitchens opinion piece about them. In this he argued that, while the Anglican cathedral was a commendable example of Edwardian grit and ambition, the Metropolitan cathedral was the work of ‘men who thought we could dispense with the past’ and was ‘more suited to guitars and folk masses than to the solemnity of the old church’. He regretted the loss of the Lutyens design, ‘which would have been a worthy partner to its Anglican brother church’.
Many people are similarly unsure about the Metropolitan cathedral. Some have a distaste for modernist design in general, perhaps because they think it values ‘progressiveness’ for its own sake, overlooking considerations of beauty and architectural tradition. I agree that many mid-20th Century buildings were ill-thought-out attempts at progressive design (some might put Oxford’s own engineering building in this category, for instance). But I think justified distaste for these specific buildings needn’t entail a distaste for all buildings built in the modernist style, or which break from tradition.
Every old tradition was once a new practice, and without new ideas things become stale. The spirit of innovation embodied by the space-tent is exciting and praiseworthy, even if it has its extravagances. Its beauty and ambition are clear not only when you see it in the flesh, but also when you consider the building’s place in history. The cathedral was built at the same time as Vatican II, a Church council charged with working out how to help the Church connect with the modern world. The cathedral, whose circular floor plan allows the laity to form a unity with the priest and each other, rather than have each separate at each end of a great hall as in conventional churches, embodies this spirit of openness. The cathedral therefore stands as a majestic representative of a particular time and feeling in the history of the Church.
I also wonder what would be gained by having two very large, traditional cathedrals in proximity. Hitchens may conceive the Lutyens design as a ‘partner’ to the Anglican cathedral, but I suspect that they and their worshippers would have instead become engaged in a petty architectural tussle forevermore. That is not what religious buildings should be for. Aside from providing space for worship and activities, they are for raising the mind to God. I can’t think of anything about a competition over buildings that helps with that.
What the Catholic Church did in this case was completely other. They effectively said “no” to a competition, and “yes” to being different, imaginative, and pragmatic. Liverpool is much better for it. It now has two complementary, rather than competing, Christian monuments, each a product of its unique historical circumstances.
Image credit: Alan Walker// CC BY-SA 2.0