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The Original Icon of Christ the King

19 Sep 2005

In the early 1960s, when architectural historian Quentin Hughes was writing his book Seaport, Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King was being built.

In the book there’s a night shot of the skeletal frame, raking buttresses and lantern tower, rising above terraces of three and four-storey buildings in Renshaw Street and Mount Pleasant. The skyline is pitched roofs and chimney pots, and in the background are the towers of Alfred Waterhouse’s building for Liverpool University. Architect Frederick Gibberd’s Catholic cathedral was a shock to the city from the very beginning.

Its history is famously fraught. Sir Edwin Lutyens’ original scheme for the site was a monster, on a scale that dwarfed the Anglican cathedral and might have made even the Pope blush. Cardinal Heenan finally got the job done. He held a competition in 1960, specifying that architects had to use the existing Lutyens’ crypt, spend no more than £1m on the shell, design a building that could go up within five years, and have the altar face the congregation. Building work began on Gibberd’s winning design in October 1962, and the completed cathedral was consecrated on 14 May 1967. In the meantime, ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’ has leaked, creaked and cracked, and Gibberd’s estate and his widow have been pursued through the courts by the Archdiocese. But despite difficulties, Liverpool has finally got one of Britain’s finest contemporary buildings.

Its neighbour, the Anglican cathedral, was completed in 1978. Twin temples to a city’s receding sectarian past, they are framed in each other’s doorways, like bellicose neighbours across a backyard fence. The square-shouldered Anglican cathedral bears down on the city with a bouncer’s mute disdain, while at the other end of Hope Street, Gibberd’s rather more cheerful masterpiece appears the better bet for absolution. Whatever the expression of these two buildings, they alone would make Liverpool one of the most architecturally striking cities in the country.

Gibberd did a mini-dress rehearsal for his cathedral at Hopwood Hall, a Catholic college in Middleton near Manchester. His conical chapel there has a copper roof, colour-glazed funnel-tower and concrete frame filled in with concrete blocks. Since deconsecrated, it’s now the college’s boxing academy. The cathedral could have used a boxing ring, what with the scraps between architect, contractors and Archdiocese. Gibberd was building quickly and with untried technology; the aluminium roof failed while the mosaic cladding retained water and fell off the frame. The new roof is stainless steel and the cladding is jointed, glass-reinforced plastic. The cathedral finally has its Hollywood flight of ceremonial steps and integrated visitor centre by architects Falconer Chester, rising from Mount Pleasant to the main entrance below sculptor William Mitchell’s South American-tinged bell tower and monumental doors. If any other building looks like this, it is in Brasilia.

Inside, the volume and light are superb. The 13 side chapels, main entrance and two porches are outlined, sides and top, in blue and red glass by artist John Piper and stained-glass designer Patrick Reyntiens. It’s the intense red that punches your eyes out. The lantern tower is less dominant than you’d think, ruffed by Gibberd’s strikingly simple crown canopy of aluminium, lights and loudspeakers. The tower’s sunburst orange-red drops into vision as you walk from the main entrance to the main space. It’s a Big Top, theatre-in-the-round that, despite Cardinal Heenan’s early accession to the more democratised liturgy post-Vatican II (Pope John XXIII’s modernising council was convoked from 1962-65), is unambiguous about the main event. There’s applied art by a stellar cast of Sixties artists, a lot of whom had appeared on the bill at Coventry Cathedral. The most timely and emblematic piece is Elizabeth Frink’s crucifix, the crucified Christ, without a cross, like a premonition or a religious symbol stripped to its essentials. Gibberd’s modernist sensitivities might have been pricked by imported pieces of parish art that have been draped about since, though they make the place a touch less ecclesiastical, a bit more carnival.

Gibberd could not have his ceremonial steps because of buildings to the front, on Mount Pleasant, but they are there now. Falconer Chester has given them appropriate scale (despite a new building too close for comfort) and has also integrated the new visitor centre attractively, turning the street corner from Mount Pleasant in coarse-cut slate topped with a roof garden. The quality of this building is matched by the offer; it’s the best bet for lunch in Liverpool.

Not even the fashionable vertical banners that line the runway before the flight of steps mess up the piece. Gibberd’s cathedral soars. How could we have missed it? Why is such a challenging and resolved building hardly ever mentioned outside Liverpool? Perhaps the 40 and more years of snagging turned us off. Maybe we turned away when the Beatles split up. Something as quintessentially Sixties as Mary Quant and Bridget Riley probably needed to go away in order to come back.

Liverpool is stuffed with great architecture, hardly any of it contemporary. There are set pieces such as St George’s Hall, shock pieces such as Oriel Chambers by Peter Ellis from 1864, and hidden treats such as the Tate and Lyle sugar silo. Much is made of the Three Graces, and not even commercial under-performance can detract from the power, scale and organisation of Jesse Hartley’s Docks. Giles Gilbert Scott’s Anglican cathedral is amazing; living history, 74 years in delivery, like an early Rolls-Royce held in Customs for half a century. Gibberd’s Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King looks like no other building in this country. Its precinct may be matter-of-fact to some tastes. The palette is monotone, but the outline is sufficiently varied as to avoid banality. It is inside that makes this space so special, like a lobster pot to catch the light. Inside the funnel, on seeing the dark anonymous ceiling lifted up on a frame of blue light, pierced by the most undeniable red, you will believe, if not in God, then in the power of abstract expression. In every other case, Liverpool would do well to shed its Sixties heritage. In the case of Gibberd’s Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, its time has come.

Gibberd’s brief was to make what he could of the existing Lutyens’ crypt. He sited his building to the side of it, and presented the roof of the crypt as an open piazza, with an underused open-air altar. There’s a midday mass in the crypt each weekday, and a concert room. University students sit exams down here, God help them. The place is awesome; the unfinished building it represents, almost unimaginable; megalomaniacal, magnificent. It’s worth visiting if only to see the carved round slab of Travertine that rolls into place forming the door to the Chapel of the Relics, like the Temple of Doom. This great fragment of an unfinished building in no way detracts from the completed scheme above. Together they demonstrate the social and liturgical step-change across two halves of a troubled century, and a great architect’s response to it. Gibberd’s other important sacred building is the Central London Mosque in Regent’s Park. As the late comedian Dave Allen might have said, “may your God go with you”.

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