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1967 June: Metropolitan Cathedral by Frederick Gibberd and Partners (Liverpool, UK)

Nicholas Taylor’s essay on Frederick Gibberd’s Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, first published June 1967. Photography by Henk Snoek and John Mills

Merseyside is a modern holy city as Coventry never was. The Beatlemania of the Cavern and the FA Cup hysterics of the Kop are merely the icing of a rich religious cake. The teeming Irish community has previously been confined by poverty to the gilding of back street Madonnas-apart from the ‘creative poverty’ of Leonard Stokes at Sefton Park and F. X. Velarde at Clubmoor.

Frederick Gibberd’s cathedral triumphantly redresses the balance, at least externally, by its challenging relationship with Sir Giles Scott’s Catalan Gothic splendour for the Protestant ship-owners further along the ridge. The loosely defined image of the ‘big top’ or ‘wigwam’ will probably prove as big a success with the people in general as Spence’s Coventry, and there are already signs that it may acquire the same identity with Liverpool’s own civic image that Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City towers have with Chicago’s.

The reason is that it expresses with uncommon force one particular historical emotion: at Coventry it was the War Memorial with its symbolism of Sacrifice in the ruins and of Resurrection in the new church; at Liverpool it is the ecclesia triumphans of the Foleys and O’Reillys, a symbol of Catholic kingship riding high above the former Protestant ascendancy of merchants in the quaysides below.

‘The tower serves the functional purpose of lighting the sanctuary but,’ Gibberd emphasizes, ‘it was largely determined by the environmental conditions. The great cathedrals of Christendom are generally crowns of the urban composition. Giles Gilbert Scott’s tower already provided one crown for Liverpool and it seemed to me that, if it could be balanced by a tower of the Metroplitan Cathedral, the city would have a unique topography….

Symbolism was not the primary purpose of the pinnacle structure: that its bracing indicates a crown (not of thorns-it is the Cathedral of Christ the King) was of less importance to me than the environmental consideration of dissolving the silhouette into the Liverpool atmosphere.’

It is indeed a mighty Pop landmark, appropriately seen at its best on the landward side from the old Littlewood’s building, which in a sense paid for it all through diocesan football pools. The architect has transmitted high emotional frequencies, not by introspective subtlety but by putting what can only be called architectural cliches into an uncannily right relationship with their site and with their surroundings.

Archbishop Downey’s purchase of the Brownlow Hill site in 1928 was a stroke of genius: lofty and aspiring, it is yet much closer to the bustle of commerce than the Anglican St. James’s Mount, with which the new lean structure contrasts more noticeably on the skyline than Lutyens’s Byzantine fantasy would have done.

Gibberd has deliberately heightened the contrast with Scott’s rosered pile by changing his finishes from grey concrete frame and pink Hollington stone infill in the competition design to white ceramic mosaic and greyish-white Portland stone; and the crowning lantern has been made more solid and less tapered.

There was widespread criticism back in 1960 that the architectural form lacked scale, being merely a blown-up tent. This happily proves untrue externally - the interior is another matter, as we shall see the more reasonable analogy, if there has to be one, being with the Octagon of Ely Cathedral. Gibberd uses the same peculiarly English stick-like forms, his boomerangshaped reinforced concrete members looking as wooden as the actual tree trunks at Ely.

Everything is tightly corseted within the three massive ring beams, except for the flying buttresses added at the suggestion of James Lowe, the structural engineer. Gibberd is not quite happy about them: ‘These buttresses seem to have become a characteristic of the cathedral, out of all proportion to their importance, and to some they have given it a superficial resemblance to Niemeyer’s cathedral at Brasilia, which I find infuriating because it is not a wigwam form: the walls are vertical and the load is taken by triangulated delta frames, not single inclined members.’

Yet, as so often happens with such puritanical honesty-Gibberd’s own background is Congregationalist (oddly enough, from Coventry) - a powerfully emotional image has been created from the sharp joints and clumsinesses of deliberate sincerity, where smoother curves and a more fluent vocabulary might have dulled it.

The result has a surprisingly unpuritanical appeal-the kind of bony glamour that a top model-girl possesses. In Gibberd’s own words, it is ‘a precise, geometric structure on a precise, geometric base growing out of irregular rocky surroundings’ - the decayed roofs of the city centre on one side and the miscellaneous scrapbook of recent university architecture on the other.

The base in every sense of Gibberd’s external success has been his inspired use of Lutyens’s unfinished crypt at the northern end of the site as a dark granitefaced podium supporting an ‘open-air basilica.’ Out of this vast paved space for people to mill around in soars the tent, with the external altar backed up against the picture-frame end of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.

Gibberd, who was classically trained in his youth, has skilfully exploited the latent symmetry of Lutyens to fix the otherwise undefined rotunda, with its tendency visually to spin, on afirmly directional north-south axis. The Blessed Sacrament Chapel’s sculptural emphasis is carried through on the opposite side of the building in the dramatic Breuer-derived ‘banner’ of the main entrance and bell-tower facing down Hope Street, to which eventually a straight flight of steps will descend, replacing the University’s temporary nuclear science building.

Particularly skilful is the varied articulation of the other fourteen subsidiary volumes, each side chapel being clearly visible as an individual entity from nearby, yet merging at a distance into a convincingly solid bounding wall to the whole.

The ribs of the big structural frame are sometimes lost briefly among the projections; but from beside the east and west porches the nearest can be seen entire from base to pinnacle, slicing at random, with appealing clumsiness, through the edge of the podium, which is carried round the entire structure as a cruciform promenade (see site plan).

One of the best things Gibberd has done is to rescue the two fantastic staircases which Lutyens designed at the north-west and north-east corners of the crypt; their granite cantilevers (since 1939 supported on scaffolding) have finally been balanced by massive concrete pyramids poured on top.

As a whole, whatever minor infelicities there are (such as the bronze spirelet on the Lady Chapel and the barley-sugar helices absorbing wind pressure on the pinnacles of the crown), Gibberd has splendidly restated the traditional parti of a Catholic shrine: a geometrical temple on a panoramic platform on a sacred hilltop.

The difference is that in Italy worshippers would not have been made to face an altar into the sun and they would have been able to retire to a protective cloister on one or more sides. Gibberd’s pilgrims can expect few bodily comforts to complement those of the spirit. They and their children will be deposited on an exposed hill-top-not far from the city centre, it is true, but soon to be cut off from it by the ‘spaghetti’ of the inner motorway.

The university’s nearby car parks will fortunately be empty at the weekend when demands at the cathedral are greatest; but the other amenities in the crypt are simply inadequate, the tearoom being actually an afterthought, which had to be blasted through concrete walls already erected.

At the corner of Hope Street opposite the bell-tower the city planning officer intends eventually to create a small shopping parade, but this will be of a permanent kind and may not be organized for some years. In the meantime it is essential that the cathedral should be able to provide-if possible at street level and not on the podium-a series of elegant temporary units to house the cafes, postcard stalls and religious trinket marts which may otherwise deface the cathedral precinct with unplanned shacks.

The ancillary buildings so far erected-the presbytery, the convent and the university chaplaincy-have been designed by Gibberd’s office in disappointingly heavy Portland stone with slate lintels and arched doorways.

The Roman Catholic Church has been doing a mortifying rethink on its role in a ‘post-Christian society.’ The whole emphasis of progressive talk about the cathedral will probably therefore be turned away from its external success as an oldstyle popular pilgrimage spot and instead focused internally on its supposed importance in the development of the Liturgical Movement.

It is true that in shape it is not a refurbished medieval basilica as Coventry is, but adopts a wholly centralized layout. As Cardinal Heenan said in his letter to competitors, ‘The high altar is not an ornament to embellish the cathedral building. The cathedral, on the contrary, is built to enshrine the altar of sacrifice.’

Gibberd has answered this demand by putting the altar in a dead central position; by bending the congregation round it in more than a semi-cricle, he has eventually provided for 2,020 people within 80 feet of the altar (reduced from 8,000 in the slightly larger competition design).

But he has frankly admitted: ‘I have only the slightest knowledge of the new Liturgical Movement: if, for example, someone says that a bishop’s throne must be behind the high altar, or that the font may be associated with the sanctuary, then I cannot question these statements.’

‘In so far as the seating is concerned,’ he has said, ‘the plan could just as well be a semi-circle’-which might indeed be more logical, in view of the small space taken up by the priests on their side of the altar compared with that of the congregation. Choir stalls and a ceremonial ramp fill it out at Liverpool.

Gibberd claims that ‘the circular plan form is a natural grouping (my italics) in which there is a sense of physical proximity to the centre of activity and a relationship of person to person which emphasizes the communal aspect of worship.’ Yet the truly natural grouping which can be seen around any rostrum at Speakers’ Corner can best be described as a series of circular rings held together tangentially at one side-resulting in an off-centre scallop or fan shape.

Gibberd’s circular cliché feeds the popular misapprehension of ‘the church-in-the-round,’ at a time when the Renaissance idea of a geometrically central altar has been rejected for some years by the more imaginative Liturgical Movement architects on the Continent and in this country.

Admittedly most of their churches are small in size, making irregular roofs relatively easy to build; for a big space, Gibberd’s regular progression of cylinder, cone and lantern had a compelling logic in terms of technique. Taylor Woodrow’s single tower crane, revolving slowly upwards, was visually perhaps the most splendid piece of contractors’ tackle seen in England since the war.

In the space left behind, however, there is a fatal lack of definition. (Admittedly this has been written before the insertion of the seating; but not much visually can be hoped for from that, particularly as it is intended to be removable). The sequence on the main axis starts promisingly within the soaring main porch. The low glazed link further raises expectancy and then whoosh, the entire space opens out in a single coup d’oeil.

A single-room parish church is small enough for functional diversions within it to be tightly marked and controlled. In the Metropolitan Cathedral by contrast there is nothing fixed at all except the altar, which is raised by three steps on a low sanctuary platform, and the organ console behind it. The font, instead of being associated with the sanctuary for baptisms involving the entire congregation, is retracted to its conventional position as a chapel beside the main entrance.

Admittedly one doubt of 1960 proves unfounded: that the Piper-Reyntiens glazed lantern would ride too high above the sanctuary to relate meaningfully to it. Although the representation of the Trinity in three bursts of light is not comprehensible except on the rare occasions when the visitor is standing directly beneath it, the quality of that light is superb and possessed of never-ending refinements of depth and focus depending on the time, the seasons and the weather.

The finest view of all inside the cathedral is that which unfolds gradually to the clergy and choir as they proceed up the ceremonial ramp from the sacristies in the crypt; they emerge behind the high altar in a smooth curve which carries them exhilaratinglyiinto the midst of the central space. From an oblique angle the thorny baldacchino, with its sophisticated battery of mechanical equipment, succeeds admirably in spatially relating lantern with altar.

Only on the main axis does this connection break down, because the canopy’s aluminium tubes are hung at a height where they cut across and are submerged by the massed organ pipes directly behind; these in turn crush into insignificance, except at close range, the liturgically important opening behind the sanctuary which focuses on the tabernacle of the Blessed Sacrament Altar.

Much more serious, however, is the curious lack of scale inside the main space, which is, after all, 194 feet in diameter within the main structure and an average of 235 feet across the chapels. It appears quite a small assembly hall until the size of men on the opposite side is picked out.

There are, I think, two main reasons for this. There is the specific failure to achieve internally adequate proportions for the subsidiary chapels, which externally are so convincing. They are very small and shallow on plan, 18 feet square for the smallest and 28 feet by 18 feet for those slightly larger, but reach a quite disproportionate height of 45-50 feet.

This would not matter so much if most of them were not wide open to the central space, becoming merely recessions off it and not distinct spaces in themselves. But even those that are shut off for private prayer lack scale: that of St. Joseph is crushed by its insensitive 45 foot light-funnel; that in the equivalent position on the east has a roundheaded doorway, an alien form in itself, which turns out to be at least twice as high as from a distance it appears to be.

The competition drawings were littered with similar doorways but, and this is the second, more crucial point-at that stage Gibberd proposed to face the entire wall surfaces of the chapels, inside as well as out, with Hollington stone. This has now been replaced, on every surface that can be seen from the main space, by acoustic plaster or buff rendering.

The English eye, I believe, has an instinctive appreciation of scale based on the presumed dimensions of brick and stone courses. It is Sir Giles Scott’s exploitation of such dimensions that makes the choir aisles of the Anglican Cathedral at Liverpool such an exhilarating and (in spite of the decor) convincing experience.

The eye which picks out what are apparently the same stones low down in the aisle wall, high up in the transeptal vault and higher still in the main choir is able to measure the spaces between. In the Catholic crypt, the elderly Lutyens played games of perverse power by standing these accepted notions on their heads. (The effect is even better than he intended, as one of Gibberd’s first acts was to insist that the brick vaults should not be plastered over, as even Lutyens himself had intended.)

Whereas Le Corbusier took to rough-shuttering his monumental buildings in regular courses, all Gibberd can offer is the indefinable vagueness of acoustic plaster, supplemented by the grid of the ceiling. Gibberd had himself solved such problems of scale exceedingly well in the chapel of De La Salle College, Hopwood Hall, Middleton (illustrated in AR, August, 1965), which was the one church he had been asked to design before Liverpoolabout a year before.

There, instead of placing the altar centrally in a circle, he placed it to one side in a hexagon; and against the pull of a similar central lantern he tied the space firmly down to human height by means of a continuous clerestory strip which defines a low ambulatory wall. A visit to this little building makes the more acute one’s disappointment with the trite forms of detailing given to such chapels at the cathedral as have so far been fitted out.

The stained glass at these lower levels by Piper and Reyntiens is decidedly unhelpful: they have filled the three-sided frame round each chapel with bright blue glass in harsh diagonals, which besides being exhausting to the eyes, does much to destroy the integrity of the main structural ribs.

But Gibberd has not made the usual mistake of over-furnishing. He has omitted most of the pseudo-symbolic sculpture that has plastered on to his competition drawings. He has also deliberately left most of the chapels bare (apart from stained glass), so that, as funds allow, the growth of the community can be symbolized by’ the growth and change in its cathedral.

This may leave the way open for tinsel Madonnas and Sunday School martyrs, but it is better to have those than to wrap up the whole cathedral as a fait accompli, with inherent dangers of spiritual stagnancy and liturgical obsolescence. It is admirable that an architect should have had such humility as to allow his cathedral to be tampered with by its users.

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