Tom de Paor admires William Burges’s all-encompassing approach to the design of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral
St Fin Barre’s Cathedral
What I most admire in St Fin Barre’s is its feeling. It’s a wonderfully complete piece of work that makes just a lovely place, and that is the hardest thing to achieve. Somehow the 20th and 21st centuries have become very narrow-minded in terms of taste and, in comparison, it is fruity. But it’s a total experience. This small cathedral communicates as a whole work, which is unusual. The question of whether it’s beautiful or not evaporates. It’s very interesting.
I lived in Cork for a few years when I was architect in residence at the National Sculpture Factory back in 1994/5. I got to explore Cork and that was when I came to know Fin Barre. Then we made a study to reorganise its back of house and, though that project never progressed, I’ve enjoyed Fin Barre’s simplicity and abundance ever since – particularly its robust crafts. Burges’s adaptation of 13th century French Gothic, at a time when church expression re-embraced iconography under the Oxford Movement and Irish Revival thinking, remains urgent today.
I think the reason it is so inspiring for me is the quality of the space you find inside. It has a very plain floor and the section of the space becomes more colourful as it rises to the timber-boarded ceilings (the apse was painted to Burges’s design in 1931). The ambulatory is a great double curved space continuous to the side aisles with practically no transept. I like its use as a warped room with workaday furniture pushed against the walls for parish events.
Burges’s architecture is alert and great for the very visceral sense of how to synthesise the structure and the fabric – at Fin Barre’s they are one thing. Because the church is so compressed – it’s higher than it is long – it has a curious presence. It’s a small footprint pushed in close and then up relatively high to command the town.
Outside, the scale changes quickly as one walks around the massing of the building, and each address is different, formal yet picturesque. The ashlar cleavage between the chapter house and the ambulatory to the south-east as the church backs into the necropolis is enjoyable. The composition dissembles between the limestone exterior and polychromatic interior. The larger orders of structure and fabric act as a scene to the figuration of the narratives.
The language of the building interior scales the structure to the inhabitant with lovely material variety from vault to pier screen, railing, lectern and simple pew on unfinished timber floor. Articulation of the joinery members is often achieved by the subtraction of material at simple junctions. After this fashion our landside bar vault in the new terminal at Dublin airport was made as a deformed plywood grid shell with the material removed at each slot joint to allow the grid to meet at counterpoints.
Because Burges knew he was making the whole thing, the architecture is stripped back, I think to stage the applied arts. Nowadays, ornament is applied to the structure but here the architecture is a host for the ornament, which is integral. This allowed for the ornament to be completed later to Burges’s designs when funds were assembled. There’s the sense that the architecture was a stage set with pieces within that were of a finer order. I suppose a 20th century equivalent might be the way Mies incorporated the German flag into the Barcelona Pavilion or later, Le Corbusier painting the windows at Ronchamp by hand.
I like Burges’s valour at making everything – it’s a total work. In an age of so much product in architecture, it’s very enjoyable to see him take on each piece as well as he could. Burges designed the architectural framework and drew everything for what went inside: the statuary, the metalwork and the stained glass, which I think is particularly amazing.
His Design Book is very interesting, whether the watercoloured section drawings or his pencil cartoons for The Massacre of the Innocents window, which are quick and fine. The great achievement of the interior is in the narrow nave, which is side-lit in a kaleidoscope of intensely coloured lens. This technology was based on then recent analysis of medieval coloured glass. The pure colour is just very beautiful. In places it almost looks like work by Gilbert and George – the seven candles window in the ambulatory is a particular favourite of mine. I always enjoy the requirement for writing on buildings and admire Burges’s elaboration of the wall tablets of the nave as engraved polychromatic dado, with this white marble strip. It is all of a voice.
St Fin Barre and its contents really are a whole. These days I wouldn’t have thought it was possible or perhaps desirable for the architect to do absolutely everything, though I covet the option.
There are a couple of dropped stitches in the design. When he was designing it he omitted a vestry and a location for the organ and these are still issues today. But it’s amazing that Burges, an architect from another country, was able to carry the congregation and inspire them to pay for all the works beyond the competition budget of £15,000.
I thought of Burges a lot when I was working on the Picture Palace arthouse cinema in Galway which we’re on site with now. Like St Fin Barre’s, it has a relatively big foreshortened elevation to the south with windows. Here again different coloured glass is used to colour individual spaces and make atmosphere. All windows are academy ratio proportion, the exteriors are landscape and the interiors portrait. This glass then carries signage as necessary. Like at St Fin Barre’s, it has the benefit of spotlighting the interior with light and colour. I love the beautiful Angel of the Resurrection on the apse of Fin Barre’s, and on our cinema this is remembered in a little weathervane that gives the building a silhouette in the city.
Our pavilion for the Palazzo in the Giardini at last summer’s Venice Biennale, called 4am, draws on the idea found at Fin Barre’s of architecture as an armature for ornament – the hung fabric with lead weights, the Murano glass, the limestone object and the scent were thought of similarly, as applied but discrete bespoke objects, as figures staged on the architecture of the softwood cribbage.
I enjoy St Fin Barre’s for its polychromy and fierce invention. I think it’s beautiful.
One man’s vision of ceremony and mystery, with 1,260 sculptures
The present St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, designed by William Burges, is the 11th church on the site since the founding of a monastery there in AD 606 by St Fin Barre himself.
Burges, an architect from London, was drawn to early French Gothic as an appropriate expression of the church at the time and was keen to design a cathedral in this style. After narrowly losing the job of designing a cathedral in Lille, he was successful in winning the commission at Cork. His design cost £100,000 instead of the stipulated £15,000, but the client committee decided to go ahead anyway and raise the remaining money by voluntary subscription.
Burges designed every aspect of the cathedral including stonework, woodwork, metalwork and glasswork. He was particularly keen on incorporating sculpture into architecture – there are 1,260 pieces in the cathedral including the statues of the wise and foolish virgins on either side of the main entrance. Burges’s plan for colourful decoration on the walls and ceiling of the nave was never implemented.
The architecture is an expression of a new way of worship prompted by the Oxford Movement, which felt that the sense of ceremony and mystery had been lost in the previously plainer approach to worship. Burges responded with a wealth of iconography at St Fin Barre’s, in particular depictions of the struggle between good and evil. Four gargoyles over the main entrance, for example, represent various sins. A mosaic floor decorates the seven steps to the altar, culminating with a net from heaven gathering up all mankind for redemption. Burges includes corks on the edge of the nets as a jokey reference to the city’s name.
The building, the cathedral of the Church of Ireland diocese in Cork, is undergoing external refurbishment. The drawings for the cathedral are also being restored.
The guitarist Jimmy Page is an avid collector of Burges’s work and lives in Burges’s own London home, Tower House.
Tom de Paor was speaking to Pamela Buxton