Next door to the RIBA’s exhibition, The Exploring Eye: The Photography of Eric de Maré (open until 2 October 2011), is the new Museum of Liverpool. In the museum’s galleries is a model of a building that would have been “twice the height of St Paul’s and quite happily kept the rain off the Statue of Liberty, torch and all.” (1) It was a design for one of Liverpool’s landmarks, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King. When comparing the model to what sits on Mount Pleasant today, it would seem that none of Edwin Lutyens’ design was ever built – in fact part of it was, but only the crypt (in 2007 this was the venue for the RIBA’s exhibition on Le Corbusier). This model has become a physical record of a grandiose project that would have dwarfed most other churches and rivalled even St. Peter’s in Rome.
In 1929 Lutyens won the commission to design the cathedral, and his plans were highly praised. The final drawings went on show at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 1932 where Christopher Hussey, writing for Country Life, said: “When erected the cathedral must be one of the wonders of the world, and one that none but the genius of this particular architect could have conceived.” (2)
Romantic notions were imagined of life under its many arches and a dome bigger than that of the Pantheon. It was conceived that the cathedral would never close: “The poor of Liverpool could…congregate there night and day and partake in its shelter.”(3)
The wooden model was made by John B. Thorp in 1929 to a scale of 1:48, which, when considering the size of the planned building, made it quite enormous. (4) Some of the statistics offered by The Builder in 1930 revealed the ambitions that existed at the time for the cathedral, the floor area of which was compared with those of existing places of worship (5):
227,069 sq ft – St. Peters, Rome
216,500 sq ft – Catholic Cathedral, Liverpool (Lutyens)
100,000 sq ft – Liverpool Anglican Cathedral
59,700 sq ft – St. Paul’s, London
Standing 13 feet high (4 metres), 12 ft wide and 17 ft long (3.7 m x 5.2 m), the model has been described by the Architects’ Journal as being “intensely realistic” and was used to show the details of the design and as an aid to raise money for the project during the 1930s. (6) Fund raising was always vital as the project relied on private contributions, some coming from local Catholic parishioners. Due to World War II, work on the cathedral stopped in 1941, but it was in the end the lack of money that killed off Lutyens’ vision when the original projected cost of £3 million grew to almost tens times that by the end of the war. (7)
After the rejection of Lutyens’ design
In 1967 articles were printed about the opening of the cathedral, but four and half years earlier work had begun to build it to a completely different – and cheaper – design by Frederick Gibberd & Partners.
When Lutyens’ design had been abandoned, the model began a long period of neglect and some of its pieces disappeared. The fortunes of the model began a downward trajectory, which wouldn’t change until the end of the 20th century. Little is heard about this giant model until a major fund raising effort was begun in 1990 to raise £70,000 for its initial restoration. (8) By 2007, the RIBA Journal reports that after 13 years of work costing half a million pounds, the model was fully restored and ready to go on public display. (9)
Through this model and the collections of the RIBA, it is possible to discover what could have been “one of the wonders of the world” and a large Baroque addition to Liverpool’s varied architectural scene.
If you wish to see this original material for yourself, it is available at the RIBA British Architectural Library which is open to the public and is admission free. For those who aren’t able to visit, a remote reprographic service is available for most journals. The online catalogue lists the journals and articles that are held in the Library.
The Library also holds drawings showing the plan, sections and details of Lutyens’ cathedral, including one which were displayed at the Royal Academy in 1932. A large archive of his work and personal correspondence, most noticeably with his wife Emily and Sir Herbert Baker, is available for research. These can be accessed through the RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
1. Architects’ Journal: Model Restoration, 1990 November 7, Vol. 192 No.19, p.30
2. Country Life: Liverpool Roman Catholic Cathedral, 1932 April 30, pp.493
3. Builder: Liverpool Roman Catholic Cathedral: short description of design, 1930 June 20, p.1170
4. RIBA Journal: Glory in the highest, 2007, Vol.114 No.2, February p.9
5. The Builder: Liverpool Roman Catholic Cathedral: short description of design, 1930 June 20, p.1170
6. Architects’ Journal: Model Restoration, 1990 November 7, Vol. 192 No.19, p.30
7. Architects’ Journal: Roman Catholic Cathedralof Chris the King, Liverpool, 1967 June 14, p.1419
8. Architects’ Journal: Model Restoration, 1990 November 7, Vol. 192 No.19, pp.30-31
9. RIBA Journal: Glory in the highest, 2007, Vol.114 No.2, February p.9