Liverpool's Catholic Cathedral (Gibberd version)
When I take groups to Liverpool, I love to lead them from one cathedral to the other, usually from the Anglican Cathedral, which has pointed arches and a vista towards a distant high altar, to the spectacular circular space of the uncompromisingly modern Catholic Cathedral.
The Metropolitan Cathedral, as it is properly known, was initiated in 1960 when Archibishop (later Cardinal) John Heenan decided a cathedral had to be built, and quickly, on the Brownlow Hill land that had been a building site since the 1930s.
His brief, in the years before the Second Vatican Council, was to have a building that would give a congregation of two thousand an uninterrupted view of the high altar, would cost no more than a million pounds, and could be built within five years.
The competition winner was Sir Frederick Gibberd, who engineered a circular space, with a corona supported by ring beams held in place by sixteen angled pillars and diagonal concrete buttresses.
Within each bay of this structure he placed a variety of free-standing chapels, most of which were initially left plain for future generations to embellish. The echoing space of the interior is lit by John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens' deeply coloured glass.
The Metropolitan Cathedral was consecrated in 1967 – completed on time and within budget.
Like so much 1960s architecture, the haste to complete meant that new, untried materials were used which did not stand the test of time. Within a generation, the leaking roof had to be reinstated and much of the cladding replaced. The processional approach that Gibberd intended was only constructed at the start of this century.
Nevertheless, the spiky profile of the Metropolitan Cathedral has integrated into the Liverpool skyline with a much lighter touch than Lutyens' bombastic basilica ever could.
It's ironic that the architect of the Anglican Cathedral, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, was a Catholic; Sir Frederick Gibberd, architect of the Catholic Cathedral, was in fact a Methodist.
For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.
The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing. To view sample pages click here. Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.
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