The Great Model of Lutyens’ project for Liverpool RC Cathedral.
The Historic Churches Commission has refused to authorise the reordering of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool. The change would have involved siting a new, smaller altar at a lower level.
It is difficult to say whether Frederick Gibberd had an underlying geometrical plan for the Blessed Sacrament Chapel that might explain the proportions and position of individual elements. Unity is provided by the combination of colour, line, light and relief in Ceri Richards’ great painted reredos, tabernacle doors and stained-glass windows. The original intention was that Richards would produce an altar frontal as part of the scheme. This was never executed.
NB The reredos was too big to be accommodated in Richards’ studio so he painted it in the basement of the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain).
To Liverpool for one of the talks in the Le Corbusier Lives! season hosted by Liverpool John Moores University, and for a second look at the Corb exhibition in the Metropolitan Cathedral crypt. The talk was actually a series of short talks by Adrian Forty, Irena Murray and Alan Powers regarding Le Corbusier and Britain. The subject matter sounded quite wide but soon narrowed down to observations on Corb’s correspondence with British students (lots of headed paper from the Students Common Room at the AA in Bedford Square) and practising architects in the pre-war period. Only Alan Powers had the light delivery and humorous touch to make the material live. One could imagine P.G. Wodehouse writing some of the letters, and there was a wonderful self-description of a British architect (was it Maxwell Fry?) ripping up his Beaux Arts student work and committing himself to the application of the portal frame to the problem of housing. The audience did not really respond to the theme presented by the historians and instead attempted to widen the discussion to bigger questions of architectural determinism. The panel discussion produced, for me, only two interesting observations: Corb didn’t seem to like people very much, and his youthful exposure to Ruskin’s ideas and writings may have re-emerged and influenced his work after the war.
A previous post has made a number of points about the exhibition. In many ways it is a general review of familiar material and the ‘art of architecture’ thesis is weak. The models are mostly of external form only (Firminy is the exception). The title block stencils (on the working drawings for Ronchamp) are delightful. The architecture of the crypt is ignored in the configuration of the display – imagine the power of the contrast if Lutyens’ vaults and portals had been lit better. The most evocative part of the exhibition was a short description in the chronology panel accompanying the exhibits:
1936: trip to South America in the dirigible Graf Zeppelin for a lecture series; contacts Oscar Niemeyer, Lucio Costa and Affonso Eduardo Reidy in Rio de Janeiro.
The combination of the great architect, the German airship, and Sugar Loaf is irresistible.
Images from ‘Planes: Aviation in Rio de Janeiro’
To Liverpool for the architectural event of the autumn – the collision between Lutyens and Le Corbusier in the Metropolitan Cathedral Crypt. Unfortunately the overbearing and labyrinthine staging of the exhibition makes what might have been an interesting combat between these two titans difficult to discern. The spatial and material genius of Lutyens is cleverly obscured to enhance the importance of the most famous bespectacled Swiss, although an interesting family of geometrically abstract holy water stoups peak provocatively around planar screens, presenting a cunningly utilitarian riposte to Le Corbusier’s ‘sculptures’.
Leaving these frustrations aside, however, the exhibition is comprehensive, giving a full account of Le Corbusier’s career. The early years are well represented, and the presentation continues in a slightly confusing way through to the last works, notably the Philips Pavilion which is given the full audio-visual reconstruction treatment. Physical models, both original and recent are complemented by virtual reconstructions of unbuilt projects, notably the Palace of the Soviets. Small electronic panels flick through examples of Le Corbusier’s sketchbooks, and archive films add life to the sometimes arid display. In totality it is an exhibition best suited to the initiates of architecture which will do little to spread understanding of his work beyond the existing fan base. However, for those of us already in the club, it is well worth the trip.
PS A pair of opera glasses might be useful to read the captions, which are very small and often hard to find
See also Eisenman in Liverpool!
OK, the main event is obviously the opening of the Corb exhibition in Lutyens’ crypt (the subtitle ‘The Art of Architecture’ doesn’t inspire) but Peter Eisenman has got to be worth a trip.
The exhibition of the great model of Lutyens’ project for Liverpool Roman Catholic Cathedral ends on 22 April (Walker Art Gallery website). The building is stupendous: buildings, pylons and aedicules piled up and punctuated by saints mounted on columns and balancing on ledges. The form is then covered in an order of stark, black punctured openings, raised geometrical panels and baroque niches all unified by a layering of contrasting masonry. The sculpted figures, empty niches and distant forms combine to give the impression of a building occupied by more than the congregation.
In my opinion, the presentation of the model is poor. The different scales of architectural form and detail are bleached by the light blasting from all directions. The style of display is perhaps prompted by the priorities of the Museum: the finished model is presented as a technical achievement in restoration and conservation rather than a representation of a building of great formal and emotional power.
Edwin Lutyens was the greatest British architect of the twentieth century. The crowning achievement of his career would have been the construction of the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool. Of course, the building was never completed – construction, started in 1930, was stopped by WWll with only the crypt complete. Pevsner in ‘The Buildings of England: South Lancashire’ describes it as “undoubtedly the greatest monument of the inter-war years, in its unjustified optimism and its refusal to accept the new style of architecture”. The crypt can be visited, sitting below the post-war cathedral by Frederick Gibberd. And now the great model of Lutyens’ cathedral can be seen at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool: The Cathedral That Never Was. Until 22 April 2007. See you there.