Paul Monaghan’s inspiration: Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool
Paul Monaghan of AHMM tells how the boldness of Frederick Gibberd’s Catholic cathedral made a far-reaching impression
Inspiration Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King
Architect Frederick Gibberd
This building was my first exposure to modern architecture. As a child I went to a Catholic school in Liverpool – St Edward’s College – and every year we went to the Metropolitan Cathedral for St Edward’s Day.
At the time the building was fascinating to me with its very strong form and, once inside, all that light and colour. Liverpool in the 1960s was very dirty and messy, still peppered with bomb sites, prefabs and black smog-stained buildings. And here was this beautiful building, seeming to emerge up out of the grime, so full of light, art and sculpture. It was part of the great period of post-war architecture in the fifties and sixties – a very optimistic period in Liverpool – the docks were still working, the Beatles were in their heyday – and this building captures something of that optimism.
It quickly became known as Paddy’s Wigwam as people immediately adopted it as their own.
I think this was one of the first times a building was given a popular nickname, and I liked the idea that a building could become an icon for the city. It was uncompromisingly modern, but at the same time it was very popular.
I have learnt many things from this building, but perhaps the most powerful lesson has been that modern buildings built with pride and integrity can be really loved by the public.
The fifties and sixties was a very optimistic period in Liverpool, and the building captures that
Aware that the other cathedral (the Anglican Cathedral) was being built in Liverpool at the same time, Frederick Gibberd changed his design so that the two buildings would complement each other on the city’s skyline. He introduced the tall spires on the top to give a more vertical emphasis and make the proportions of his cathedral more slender. Although these may look like a crown on top of the building, for Gibberd they were functional – the diagonals between the spires acting as cross-bracing against the wind.
When we designed our Unity mixed-use development it felt challenging to be adding to that famous skyline of the Liver Building, the Three Graces, the Wigwam and the Anglican Cathedral. But Gibberd had already shown that you could be bold. The dramatic cantilevered stainless steel pavilion which floats on top of our tower was a response to this challenge; itself loved and hated in equal numbers.
I think this cathedral is a hidden gem although it is often referred to pejoratively when compared to Niemeyer’s Metropolitan Cathedral in Brasilia. A lot of people think Gibberd copied Niemeyer but in fact the Liverpool building finished three years earlier. As an architecture student, I began to learn about Gibberd’s sources for the building, such as Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp and particularly Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral, where the structure and form are more elegantly integrated. But even as a child, I could see that it was very legible as a structure. It really is like a huge tent or wigwam with ring beams and ties that were structurally very cost-effective. The building had a budget of £1 million that even then was remarkably cheap for a cathedral and here was another lesson: the job of the architect is to make something special happen without the need for huge budgets.
The competition brief for the cathedral stipulated that everyone in the congregation should be as near to the altar as possible, and Gibberd concluded that to achieve this the worship needed to be in the round. This was quite radical for a Catholic cathedral at the time. Standing here, what strikes me most is the quality of the light and the drama of the space. Then there are the colours, which are very beautiful especially the blue and red elements.
Most churches at the time were representational in their decoration but this was far more abstract. The baldacchino (suspended canopy) or “crown of thorns” floating above the altar is the key element of focus within the sacristy. As a functional architect, Gibberd struggled with the symbolic nature of design and didn’t want anything in the building to be read as a metaphor, even though he realised that sometimes this was inevitable. In this case, the canopy carries the lighting rig and the speakers, so manages to be both functional and symbolic.
The plans for this building are very elegant, with the arrangement of different-shaped chapels around the edge, each with their own character but at the same time connecting into the main space. The Lady Chapel is almost a church in itself.
While the powerful spatial elements dominate, it is the details and collaborations that make this building so special. A large number of artists were commissioned to create works used all over the building and in particular, the peripheral chapels. Obviously these relationships with Gibberd worked well, as all the works complement and enhance the building overall. For example, the wall hangings in the main space have the dual purpose of helping the acoustics by counteracting the large amount of hard surfaces.
Then there are the striking colours within the stained glass tower designed by John Piper, who also created the windows for Coventry Cathedral. Interestingly, they were innovatively constructed using pre-cast panels which stand to this day despite some major refurbishment work. Like Gibberd, we have also always worked with other artists and designers on our buildings and always enjoy these collaborations.
Gibberd didn’t want anything in the building to be read as a metaphor
Whenever I visit I always enjoy the great bell tower entrance at the cathedral and how it relates to Hope Street (even without the steps that Gibberd had envisaged, and which were added much later). To save money, the sliding doors were constructed from GRP and clad with a bronze overlay depicting the four apostles. Above are the bells Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
For our Royal Court Theatre project in Liverpool we have directly quoted this bell tower where it forms a large display case for the theatre’s posters. It has also influenced a little chapel AHMM is designing at St Michael & All Angels school in Southwark. Although I wasn’t conscious of it when we were designing it, I can see now it includes our most direct quotes from the cathedral.
I spent some time teaching at the university nearby and often used to pop in to the cathedral to have a look around. There have been changes over the years. There was a lot of innovation in the original construction, some of which didn’t work. The building certainly leaked and had a big refurbishment in the nineties, which included a rather crude reworking of the buttresses, which were originally covered with mosaic.
The acoustic atmosphere was such a big part of the experience of the building. It had notoriously slow acoustics – one note used to take five seconds to reverberate. But last year I was asked to give a speech there for my school prize day service, and I practised speaking really slowly, but I didn’t need to – somehow they’ve corrected the sound digitally.
The new entrance steps, designed by my old school friend Paul Falconer of Falconer Chester Hall, work very well and give the cathedral a more civic feel at ground level. However, the rear of the cathedral with its outdoor chapel now feels a touch neglected. It’s just too austere. Perhaps they should have a design competition for it – add a bit of 21st century thinking to this piece of classic modernist architecture.
Liverpool’s modernist landmark was a cut-price substitute for Lutyens’ cathedral
Frederick Gibberd’s famous “Paddy’s Wigwam” in Liverpool was commissioned as a cut-price replacement for the grandiose scheme by Edwin Lutyens. Dedicated to Christ the King, Lutyens’ cathedral was to have been one of the largest in the world. Construction began on the former workhouse site at Brownlow Hill, but was interrupted by the second world war, and by 1958 only the massive crypt was complete. With costs estimated at £27 million, the Lutyens scheme was first scaled down and then abandoned. In 1960 a design competition was launched for a new design with just a £1 million budget for the shell structure. Frederick Gibberd’s circular design was chosen from 300 entries. It was consecrated in 1967, and holds a congregation of 2,300.
The grade II* listed building is notable not only for its form but for Gibberd’s collaboration with a number of artists, most notably John Piper who with Patrick Reyntiens created the stained glass window in the tower depicting the Blessed Trinity. Other artists include Elisabeth Frink, Ceri Richards and William Mitchell, who created the bronze sliding doors and the carvings on the Portland stone bell tower that forms the entrance.
Writing in 1968, Gibberd said: “Whether it is fine architecture, I do not know: what I do know is that it is both well built and economically built.”
Unfortunately, the building soon began to suffer structural and leakage problems and in the eighties the archdiocese launched a legal claim against the architect and the builder, eventually settling out of court. An £8 million refurbishment from 1992-2003 included the removal of the mosaic on the buttresses and the opening up of the crypt to visitors. The ceremonial steps envisaged by Gibberd leading up to the main entrance were finally completed in 2003.
Paul Monaghan was speaking to Pamela Buxton