BY DR PAUL WALKER
The house of God torn asunder
A FEW EDITIONS ago, an article in this newspaper had a lot of negative things to say about the six post-war Catholic churches recommended by English Heritage for listing. Its author thought them a "depraved perception of beauty". A few years earlier, another article wrote disparaging)), about the enlargement of Brentwood Cathedral under the heading: "Railway station or classical gem?" and concluded we had lost our way, and our confidence, in the art of architecture.
In this tournament of the aesthetically challenged, who can win? Who is in the right? What is wrong with churches that look different from how their critics think they have always looked? What does a church look like? Should predetermined notions prevent any reassessment, any redesigning, and reordering, ever?
Even Westminster Cathedral was likened to a railway station when first built.For that matter, what does a station look like?
The only statutory criteria for listing are that buildings should be of "special architectural or historic interest". There is no mention of their having to be beautiful or old. Buildings just 30-yearsold (and down to 10, in exceptional circumstances) can now be listed, and not only churches and stately homes, but also bridges, factories and prefabs.
Today, churches are just one of many building types in our built environment. Now they follow the aesthetic agenda, they do not set it and there is more than one agenda.
In the post-war period, especially after the Festival of Britain in 1951, there was a growing feeling among church architects that the `squared off, planed down' stereotypes they were being commissioned to design were played out. They did not reflect the more adventurous developments in pastoral liturgy and its architecture in mainland Europe especially in France and Germany. In England, with the demands of mass housing schemes and population shifts, new building techniques, new economies and new notions of permanence characterised the aesthetic of a new, pragmatic church architecture, though for a brief period, mainly while enjoying the benefits of war damage compensation, there was the flowering of a new Catholic art that vibrantly complemented it.
In structuring its recommendations for all new listings of post-war churches including Catholic English Heritage objectified its criteria in four categories: Churches in a Traditional Style 1945-60, Modern Churches with a Traditional Plan 1950-60, The Liturgical Movement and its Progress in England, The Liturgical Movement from Around 1960.
In the first, it placed the three "squared off, planed down" churches of Goodhart-Rendel and Sir Giles Scott and the dubious inclusion of the French Church, Leicester Square, which adds little and changes little (its circular plan being entirely fortuitous).
None is placed in the second and third categories. Surprising. Surely at least one by F X Velarde should have been. And if the art of Jean Cocteau in the French Church is among its prime reasons for listing, then St Aidan's, East Acton (c 1963) by Buries, Newton and Partners must also be a contender, with its painted altarpiece by Graham Sutherland, and many other works by leading Catholic artists of the time.
Major schemes of avantgarde church art are even more integral to the architecture of the two remaining
recommendations, at Leyland and Nottingham, by Jerzy Facynski of Weightman and Bullern and Gerard Goalen; Patrick Reyntiens at both Leyland and Nottingham, and Adam Kossowski, Arthur Dooley and several others at Leyland alone.
Their energetic and confident use of a new architectural language to express the dynamics and culture of a renewed liturgy, places them firmly in the fourth category (which contains the already listed Metropolitan Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Liverpool, and Gibberd's attendant essay for it at Hopwood Hall).
Though the use of modern art had been encouraged by the Church, even before Vatican II, artistic indulgence had also been questioned.
In Germany the confessional austerity of Emil Steffann, and in France the serving of poverty by Rainer Senn, in Belgium the simple hospitality of Frederic Debuyst, all influenced a generation of architects in Britain. Churches were regarded as temporary 'tents of meeting' and 'plain brick boxes with no tricks', using the commonplace to manifest the sacred in the secular. Fine design was alright for a Church that deserved it, and could afford it; the real agenda was in social ethics and liberation politics, in justice and peace.
While English Catholic church architecture may not have taken radical understandings of its function to extremes, traits are clearly evident.
After 1965 they develop further, shifting to indeterminate forms whose plans are often more significant than their elevations.
If the relatively conventional criteria used by English Heritage for these present recommendations have proved somewhat questionable for some, then those for the following period will be more so.