Opinion & Features

The cathedral that never was

A curator at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery with a model of Lutyens’s design

Sixty years ago work resumed on a project in Liverpool which, had it been completed, would have seen England blessed with a Catholic cathedral of such vast majesty that only St Peter’s in Rome would have exceeded it. Yet within two years this dream, born of the ambitious faith of Archbishop Richard Downey and the vision of the renowned architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, would fade away thanks to the cold financial realities of post-war Britain.

Had it been built, this vast but elegant building would have completely dominated Liverpool’s skyline, making it the second-largest place of worship in the world. And all at a staggering cost of nearly £2 billion in today’s money.

The idea to build a Catholic cathedral in Liverpool was not a new one: the commission was first awarded to Pugin in 1853. That project foundered when funds were diverted to the education of Liverpool’s Catholic children and the site converted into a parish church. With the appointment of Richard Downey as Archbishop of Liverpool, the plan for a new cathedral was revived. The scale of his ambition was made clear in an interview he gave to Time magazine in 1929: “Hitherto all cathedrals have been dedicated to saints. I hope this one will be dedicated to Christ himself with a great figure surmounted on the cathedral, visible for many a mile out at sea.”

Downey had already secured the services of the greatest British architect of the day, Sir Edwin Lutyens. Even now the cathedral’s proposed dimensions can seem rather disturbing. For sheer scale the only contemporaneous design to match it would have been the Volkshalle, the proposed centrepiece for Albert Speer’s plan – thankfully never realised – to turn post-war Berlin into a ghastly Hitlerian wonderland.

However, a glance at one of the numerous watercolours depicting how the design might have looked upon completion immediately illustrates Lutyens’s genius for humanising monumental structures through the sympathetic use of style and materials. The institutional coldness of classicism is salved by the incorporation of the Byzantine style at all levels. And the building’s vast reddish-brown brick walls, occasionally leavened with elegant lines of silver-grey Irish granite, would not have intimidated visitors in the deliberate manner of Speer’s cold and clinically dehumanising behemoths. Indeed, the warmth of these vast walls would surely have beckoned passers-by and emboldened the would-be catechumens among them.

Evidence of Lutyens’s geometric humanity can be found in the three great entrances to the cathedral, into which he had clearly incorporated his existing design for the Thiepval Memorial to the missing of the Somme. In using brick as the prime material at Thiepval, as he intended to do in Liverpool, Lutyens created a memorial that was not only suitably vast but one which also demonstrated an absolute understanding that the individual is the basic unit of life – something classicism rarely reflects.

When the time finally came to begin construction the estimated cost was £3 million. Yet the funds had been raised by the city’s Catholic community and so, on Whit Monday 1933, work began at the site of the old Liverpool Workhouse on Brownlow Hill. Slowly the foundations were laid and the enormous complex of brick vaults began to take shape. But the outbreak of World War II brought construction to a standstill. During the Liverpool Blitz the completed sections of the crypt were pressed into service as public bomb shelters.

After the war, with both labour and materials in short supply, construction costs rocketed and by 1953 the estimated cost of completing the cathedral had risen to the impossible sum of £27 million. Although work on the crypt was completed in 1958, the project then went into hibernation as a heavily damaged city concentrated on rebuilding itself. Attempts to scale down the design proved unpopular, so in 1959 Archbishop Heenan took the decision to break with the past: he announced an international competition for a new cathedral design – “a modern design for a modern city”.

It is still possible to gain a glimpse of what might have been at the Museum of Liverpool, home to the original 12ft-high architectural model of Lutyens’s design. And beneath the modern cathedral you can still walk through the crypt, so vast that the modern building above only covers a quarter of its total surface area. There you can just about begin to imagine the wonder of the modern world of which Lutyens dreamed: the
cathedral that never was.

Alfred Searls writes about books, music and architecture for the online magazine Northern Soul (northernsoul.me.uk)