THE NEW piazza in front of Westminster Cathedral was officially opened last Tuesday by Councillor Roger M Dawe, the Lord Mayor of Westminster at a ceremony attended by a number of church dignitaries including Bishop Christopher Butler, the Vicar Capitular of Westminster diocese.
In bright sunshine the Lord Mayor removed a cover from a plaque commemorating the formal opening and gave a short speech thanking all those who had worked on the project to plan and develop the shops and offices complex along the south side of Victoria Street. A crowd of about one hundred and fifty gathered to listen to the Lord Mayor and the Bishop Butler who spoke after him.
The planning for the redevelopment of the site along Victoria Street, which runs from Victoria Station to Parliament Square, began in the late 1960s when the Church Commissioners, the owners of the land, suggested the formation of a partnership enterprise with their developers, Chelwood Properties, the Cathedral authorities and the City planners.
A meeting took place between Cardinal Heenan, Sir Ronald Harris for the Church Commissioners, and Lord Ashdown for the developers and the result MB the emergence of the site in such a way as to build Iwo new blocks opposite the Cathedral, leaving a space between them so that the Cathedral can be clearly seen from Victoria Street.
In his address Bishop Butler joined in the regrets of the Lord Mayor that Cardinal I leenan had not lived to see the completed project and celebrate its opening. He thanked the City Council for their co-operation, planning and careful thought and the developers in particular for cleaning the front of the Cathedral especially for the occasion.
He also expressed gratitude to the Church Commissioners for the original idea of opening the front of the Cathedral onto Victoria Street. "On behalf of the Cathedral authorities and the diocese of Westminster for taking us out of our ghetto and opening us to the throbbing life of the great city" Bishop Butler said. He thanked the Commissioners as the financial administrators of the Church of England, "Our sister Church," as Pope Paul had said, for their generosity in giving up so much of the land to allow the Cathedral to appear in such a beautiful vista.
"Beauty" said Bishop Butler" is often sacrificed to usefulness these days, or usefulness sacrificed to beauty; but the Cathedral piazza shows what can be done when beauty and usefulness combine to the Glory of the God of all goodness."
The new piazza, Westminster's principle contribution to European Architectural Heritage Year, is paved in red brick and a special stone chosen to blend in with the architectural style of the Cathedral. For the last seventy years since the Cathedral was completed in 1905, it has been impossible to see the Cathedral front properly because of the high Victorian block of flats across the narrow street.
Now, solid and sedate, the bizarre Byzantine front of the Cathedral stands, castle-like, over the spacious precinct. Trees have been planted in specially constructed deep boxes and the pigeons already waddle around the benches in true piazza style.
At night the precinct itself is lit by old-style lanterns, specially renovated to fit the character of their surroundings and the Cathedral face is lit by floodlights.
The new buildings between Victoria Street and Ashley Place, BP House and Ashdown House, have been designed by the architects, Elsom Pack and Roberts, to give maximum effect to the new precinct and the view of the Cathedral. They are built on the "Ziggurat" concept like a pile of children's bricks. The polished granite and bronzed glass frontages above an arcade are 'stepped round the piazza giving an impression of space and openness. The balcony over the main doors of the Cathedral, the existence or which must have been known to few, may atm have a use.
Maybe it was built in anticipation of the removal of the block or flats opposite, no doubt as a vantage point from which some future Cardinal might address and bless the thronging faithful. The watchers on that balcony certainly had an excellent view of the ceremony on Tuesday.