Liverpool's heavenly architecture

The Catholic Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.
Picture: John Hearn

Merseyside's architecture, just like its football clubs, has both united and divided the locals through the years. 

There are a lot of reasons people go on pilgrimage to Liverpool. The sacred sites of the Fab Four, whose cult of Beatlemania draws devotees of the sainted Mop-Tops from around the world.

Then there are the shrines of Anfield and Goodison Park, for those of the round ball persuasion.

Some even come for the churches. Architecture buffs are drawn because Liverpool has not one, but two great cathedrals. Not the ancient monuments that Chaucer’s pilgrims of the middle ages might have known, but from a more recent past.

Both sit on the hill above the town, dual camps reflecting the cities split allegiances, the Catholics and Protestants, or perhaps Everton FC and Liverpool FC.

The Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ is at first glance traditional looking, but up closer it reveals a much more modern sensibility. Begun in 1910, and only completed in the 1970s it has an almost Art-Deco stripped-back monumental simplicity. It looms ominously above the huddled masses of the selfie-snappers, its size magnified by the dark stained top of the tower gradually lightening to the base.

Inside its size is even more powerfully expressed despite a stone bridge over the nave looking for all the world like an old fashioned railway footbridge. It is among the top 10 biggest church buildings in the world and very impressive. The effect is augmented by the organ music gradually increasing in volume until reaching a crescendo just as the gigantic domed ceiling comes into view.

The designer of this strange hybrid was something of a hybrid himself.

Giles Gilbert Scott descended from a family of famous architects. His grandfather George was an early champion of the Victorian Gothic Revival, whose Albert Memorial and massive Glasgow University remain triumphs of the style.

His father George Jr was a respected architect, but died alone and forgotten in an era less kind to the mentally ill.

Scott won the contest to build Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral at age 22, beating among others Charles Rennie Mackintosh. This despite admitting he had no existing buildings to his credit and that he was Catholic.

He went on to design the London power stations Battersea and Bankside (now the Tate Modern) and died in 1960. But Scott is best remembered for a more modest piece of design, the ubiquitous red phone box, once seen in abundance across the UK.

Back in Liverpool, as we head down lovely Hope Street, past Georgian town houses, now a lively hub of student bars and restaurants in this university precinct, we see in the distance the spiky modern tower of the other cathedral. The Catholic Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.

This icon of 1960s brutalism is again popular now that the once reviled style is very much in vogue. The name brutalist was originally intended as insulting but has been embraced by a new generation. Unlike the Anglican cathedral, which was started just before the First World War and only completed in 1978, architect Frederick Gibberd, built this one in just five years. Starting in 1962 and finishing in 1967.

The jagged angles of the tent-like exterior are perfectly complemented by the abstract relief sculpture made by artist William Mitchell, whose work has been until recently neglected by the art establishment.

The doors, which look like patinated bronze, but which are in fact a kind of fibreglass, provide a wonderfully strange presence. Inside the circular plan creates a gigantic open space clear of pillars. The space is dominated by the central lantern, seemingly defying gravity above, and even on a dull grey day filled with light from the fabulously coloured stained glass.

Built at a time of renewal and reform of the Catholic Church, this radical building expresses the optimism of the era. It is a great achievement not only because of the usual tight budget and the need to cater for what was then a very big congregation, but also because it had to sit on the existing footprint of an earlier never-completed church.

These two buildings, just in sight of each other, speak eloquently of the contradictions and strengths of this great city on the Mersey. 


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