Wednesday, September 7


The Eternal Thing that Transcends Mere Architecture

A view of the massive model constructed for Sir Edwin Lutyens' Liverpool Cathedral design, 1934

One of the greatest architects of the twentieth century is also probably one of the least known. This is no surprise: with the exception of the magnificent sacred surrealism of Gaudi, the most interesting buildings of the twentieth century were designed by men with names like Bernard Schutze and David Adler, minor masters all but forgotten in the modernist stampede. (Even the major ones, like McKim, Mead and White don't get too much press, either). Sir Edwin Lutyens, though, deserves better: he broke new ground within the classical tradition with his mixture of sober geometry, whimsical lapses into the vernacular and a sensibility which quietly mingled Gothic, classic and a whole range of other influences, even drawing on such distant sources as Mughal India, but never in a showy or self-conscious way. That his magnum opus, the sublime Liverpool Cathedral, was never built and has since been replaced by a spiky modernist-Gothic salt shaker, only adds to the crime of his obscurity.

The Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King would have been the largest church in Britain, almost twice as large as Wren's St. Paul's, and only surpassed by St. Peter's in Rome. Lutyens tells of his first meeting with Archbishop Downey of Liverpool: "I think Dr. Downey [sic; Catholic bishops were sometimes titled Doctor in England at the time] had it in his mind that, in so much that the Anglican Cathedral was being built by a Roman Catholic, his architect should belong to the Church of England. I thought it an excellent idea. 'Why not?' said I. I went to Liverpool... and was shown into a large dull-gloomed room and waited, feeling nervous and rather shy, till in came his Grace--a red biretta on his head and a voluminous sash around his ample waist... He held out a friendly hand. His pectoral Cross swung towards me, and the first words he said were 'Will you have a cocktail?'"

The result was a massive set of plans incarnated in a 17-foot-long, 11-foot high model exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1934. On 5 June 1933, the foundation stone was laid in the presence of the Papal Legate, and mass was said under an 80-foot-tall baldacchino designed by the architect. By 1941, when the war stopped the work, four million bricks and 40,000 cubic feet of Penrith granite had been put down into the crypt. The crypt was completed in 1958, but the estimate of three million pounds for the whole project had been upped to twenty-seven million in 1953, and a smaller domed project by Adrian Gilbert Scott, the brother of the Anglican Cathedral's Catholic architect, put in charge. It was quickly abandoned, and an ugly modern design by Sir Frederick Gibberd won a design competition opened by Cardinal Heenan in 1959. It was completed in 1967.

The design is intruiging, inspiring and slightly idiosyncratic. Lutyens' love of quasi-modern geometric massing sometimes outdoes him (as with the somewhat peculiar and blocky skyline), but the overall affect remains remarkable, a great massive pile of brick and stone heaving a dome skyward. Appropriately, for a church dedicated to Christ's kingship, the theme of the triumphal arch predominates, most notably with the triple-portalled front entrance. The interior would have seemed more Romanesque than classical, dark and hulking and massive with great arches and piers rising into the gloom. Remarkable delicacy accompanies the details of the friezes and capitals, little Mannerist tricks that nonetheless made sense, the sort of thing Lutyens had long specialized in. Byzantine domes hover above the vaults, and a massive baldacchino stands over the high altar, at once sturdy and soaring. All we have are sketches, as the final plans were lost in the curial archives sometime after the great architect's death. Lutyens had done them in the knowledge he would not live to see the church finished, or even to supervise much of the work at all.

In 1969, Lutyens's son Robert wrote, "there is one work of my father's which stands quite outside time and period...which has been saved from prejudiced denigration, by the singular purity--by the abstraction--of its non-completion... It is there, yet it is nowhere; and let no-one condemn it as an unattainable artifact. It could and should have been built. It may well have been the final affirmation of his faith in the eternal thing that so transcends mere building. It is architecture--asserted once and forever--and the very greatest building that was never built!"

One of the only pictures I could find of this thing online was on a page dedicated to the fantasies of a deceased musician who enjoyed designing stop-lists for imaginary organs. This nonetheless seems a fitting tribute to Lutyens, whose humor remains famous to this day.

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