By Bryan Little
WHATEVER one may think about Liverpool's Metropolitan Cathedral one can never escape its impact on the local skyline. For despite many lofty, competing secular buildings the city's two great houses of God are essential in the Merseyside scene, reminding us that in Liverpool eternal truths have a right to their visible assertion along with such highrising buildings as office blocks, flats, or the slim beacon tower just finished in the St. John's precinct in the very heart of the city.
One best sees the two cathedrals from such a vantage point as the upper deck of a ferry at Birkenhead. From there, the pencil—slender beacon does not really compete with the cathedrals, for these lie well to its right, in the upper town. The great tower of flats at Edge Hill lies back in the middle distance, and the cathedrals have their sector of the skyline very much to themselves.
The Anglican one, displaying all its uncompleted length, and with Sir Giles Scott's great Gothic tower both loftier and more massive than Frederick Gibberd's lantern, presents the more imposing bulk. The Lutyens design, had it been fully rendered, would have been a more massive, more sculptural foil to Scott's Arts and Crafts Gothic masterpiece. The Catholic cathedral, as it rises just above the noble early Victorian brickwork of the Albert Dock warehouses, is evidently the more "contemporary" structure.
From a nearer viewpoint it is clear that what has been created on the Catholic site between Mount Pleasant and Brownlow Hill is a contrast of unfinished "period" architecture and of constructional work only possible in this age of pre-stressed concrete and quick building technique.
Symbolic of the change from what Archbishop Downey proposed and what Archbishop Beck now has is the stairway from the pavement of Brownlow Hill to the great piazza laid out above the Lutycns crypt. For against their background of superb "Wrenaissance" masonry the new steps, of the open-tread type and in plain concrete, courageously proclaim the switch in planning and style which has given us the great centrally planned cathedral.
What has greatly helped the sponsors of the new cathedral is the speed of its completion made possible by modern technology. It is hard to realise that only eight years have passed since Archbishop Heenan abandoned the scaled down version of Lutyens' design, holding the competition which led to the acceptance of Frederick Gibberd's scheme, and to its rendering in the amalgam of concrete, Portland stone, aluminium, and glass which we can now accept as a major architectural work of our time. I recall, by way of contrast, that one of my grandfathers. a prominent Liverpool citizen who died as far back as 1902, gave money to the building fund for the
Anglican cathedral which remains unfinished.
Yet as an idea this Catholic cathedral long antedates the diocesan headquarters of Liverpool's Anglicans. The diocese of Liverpool is over thirty years older than its opposite number in the Church of England. Liverpool's Catholics have hoped, since the 1850's when Edward Pugin's plans for a great Gothic cathedral at Everton were started, for a worthy headquarters for England's most populous Catholic diocese.
The Everton project got no further than its Lady chapel, now the eastern portion of the church of Our Lady Immaculate. The. Regency Gothic church of St. Nicholas, opened two months after Waterloo, a building of real character and charm but too small to function well as a cathedral, did duty, for over a century.
The building now ready for consecration is amazingly different both from Edward Pugin's scheme, and from the Lutyens cathedral whose superb crypt lies close beside it. Though capacious, and with several side chapels whose use, under the liturgical conditions of 1967, may not be easy to contrive it veers well away from the idea of a cathedral— numerous resident clergy and altars by the dozen—which held sway in 1930.
The Cathedral of Christ the King is still very large for the parish purposes it will serve. Its size, moreover, is supplemented by the existence of the Lutyens crypt, with several excellent chapels and a socially useful hall. Yet it is certainly something more than a parish church which happens to contain an episcopal throne.
The quality of its architecture, of its glazing, and of such fittings as we shall be able to admire on Whit Sunday, should ensure that thousands will come to it besides its own parishioners. Its mission will be to all Liverpool's Catholics. and to others who hold other Catholic loyalties, or who reckon themselves outside organised Christianity.
The cathedral's main exterior impression is one of structural integrity, of clean, unencumbered lines and surfaces. It is less a feat of studied artifice than a tautly planned work of construction. The landscaping and paving of its surroundings have improved greatly since early this year, and the cathedral will be a worthy element in a district much brightened up by the forward-looking architectural policy of the University.
The chief exterior features are the great concrete struts and uprights, and the lantern which those mosaic-clad members uphold. Those supports, and the pinnacled lantern above them, are the main elements in a great pavilion in concrete.
Any judgment on 4r. Gibberd's achievement must con sider what the competing architects were asked to do.
Mr. Gibberd was drawn to the wholly central plan which was, in 1960, more "with it" than in 1967. The Liverpool congregation will not, however, on most days be so large as to need the whole segment set aside, round the sanctuary, for the general laity. The permanently installed benches will provide for some eight hundred people who will mostly be grouped, in rather less than half a circle, in front of the High Altar.
Mr. Gibberd's work must mainly be considered for the way in which he has enclosed and roofed the great space of the nave. He used pre-stressed concrete for the sixteen trian gulated supports upholding his great lantern, and for the sloping struts which run down to the deep foundations, distributing the lantern's weight and so making the vertical supports more slender and less obtrusive than those first allowed for.
Within the nave, and below the glazed tower which makes an upward extension of the central sanctuary, the seating plan of a Greek theatre guided the architect in the evolution of his liturgical plan, and in the way in which his main axis runs, from the main doorway through the central altar, to the Blessed Sacrament chapel.
It is a pity that the High Altar, and the fine composition of the organ pipes, combine to lessen the view of the church's most important chapel from its principal entrance. A finer view, both of the sanctuary and of the chapel, comes from within the Baptistry whose marble font I have seen, and which seems likely to be among the most attractive of the cathedral's subsidiary spaces.
Much of the cathedral's splendid Piper — Reyntiens glass is now well known from coloured pictures. The varied hues of the lantern are literally the cathedral's crowning glory. Many rich colours already glow from many smaller windows; a whimsical touch comes from the little roundels which are just like oranges and grapefruit.. The blue, white, and yellow swirls of the windows of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel I lately saw, and much liked, as they were being put in. The glazing not by Piper and Reyntiens will be that designed by Margaret Trahearne.
Her windows in the Lady Chapel suffuse a curious glow of creamy gold. The artist explained to me that her chosen colours, like all others in this chapel, will symbolise Our Lady's Virgin purity.
Margaret Trahearne's other
window, with a plain cross as the central element in its design, will be in the chapel of St. Paul of the Cross; its cornposition of graded reds seems likely to be a striking contribution to the glass which will add to the variety and excitement of the chapels.
The woodwork of the confessional doors, and down in the spacious sacristies, is workmanlike in its simplicity. My main worry is over that important piece of cathedral fur niture, t h e Archbishop's throne. I have not seen its design by Richard Russell, but I gather that it will be movable, and that the centrality of the sanctuary has so far defeated efforts to give the throne a permanent site.
My final thoughts are on the religious atmosphere which one finds on the eve of the new Catholic Cathedral's opening. Had such a cathedral
teen opened sixty. or even hirty years ago it would have been a purely Catholic occasion.
In a city with a sad past of religious bitterness and denominational strife it would have appeared, to many. as an almost hostile act. Sectarian feeling is not yet dead on Merseyside, but so much have things changed that the corning celebrations will have features inconceivable a few years ago. No one would then have thought that a great Catholic occasion would sec the official, and most welcome, presence of the Anglican Bishop and Dean, or of Free Church and Jewish representatives.
The choir of the Anglican cathedral will play a prominent part in the opening celebrations after the Consecration. The inauguration of Liverpool's Catholic Cathedral will thus have its ecumenical flavour.
One must hope that the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King will fulfil a wide role in an age when every church building in this country has its missionary task among the rootless, the hostile. and the unattached.