Two cathedrals face each other in Liverpool. That of the Anglican cult, and that of the Catholic one. The first was built following a competition in which the elite of English architects participated. The second was commissioned directly from a builder then considered as the best representative of the national culture. Besides this different genesis, each building had a dissimilar destiny.
In the 19th century, the development of its port activity had made Liverpool one of the British Empire's most dynamic cities. Around 1900, sea freight was flowing money there – especially with the White Star Line, company of the Titanic ... This resulted in the erection of three solid buildings on the port, symbolizing local prosperity. The naval authorities give in the so British baroque Edwardian, the Cunard naval company in the French Beaux-Arts on an Americanized scale, while the Royal Liver insurance companies show off their powerful fortune in a true skyscraper... This monumental trio, perhaps more pachydermic than graceful, reveals an England between continuation of grandiloquent national architectural signs and undeniable influence of the already very attractive American scene. Strategic place in the transatlantic exchanges, Liverpool thus knew a massive increase of its population, and consequent working-class districts emerged from the ground.
It also prompted ecclesiastical circles to concern themselves with so many souls: the Anglican Church launched the first competition for a cathedral on a central site in 1886. George Bodley (1827-1907), a specialist in the revival of religious Gothic architecture, proposed a sanctuary very inspired by medieval British cathedrals, while William Emerson (1843-1924), previously mainly active in India, won the competition with a more imaginative project combining neo-Gothic and octagonal dome derived from the Florence Italian cathedral… The lively stylistic debates and financial worries however led to the abandonment of these plans.
This failure cooled the enthusiasm for a time. However, the new bishop energetically initiated a second competition in 1902. This one received much more varied responses. Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928), a leading figure in Scottish Art Nouveau, vigorously reworked the geometric heritage of English Perpendicular Gothic, including fenestration with an organic approach. After having shone in an Arts and Crafts vein, William Lethaby (1857-1931) imagined an astonishing concrete cathedral, using recent technology under almost Byzantine forms. Arthur Beresford Pite (1861-1934) also envisioned a cathedral inspired by the Byzantium shrines – with traditional construction methods, marking a clear influence of John Bentley (1839-1902) recent Westminster Cathedral. Charles Reilly (1874-1948) – soon to be a key teacher in Liverpool – hailed the memory of Christopher Wren (1632-1723) St Paul's Cathedral in London – whom the Edwardian period revered as the great English architect par excellence. Like John Oldrid Scott (1841-1913) project, many other proposals continued the nineteenth-century neo-gothic ecclesiological vein without major modification.
The jury, including the influential Bodley, selected a project updating the gothic spatial arrangements of Salisbury Cathedral while inventing a dynamic silhouette with two large towers surrounding the transept crossing and a nave interrupted by a profusion of buttresses and restless jumps. Compared to other blueprints, this proposal had as many formal weaknesses as future promises.
Opening the envelopes identifying the authors revealed to everyone's surprise that the winning project was Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960) work, son of George Gilbert Scott Jr. (1839-1897) and grandson of George Gilbert Scott Sr (1811-1878). Two architects whose role had been essential in United Kingdom neo-gothic religious creativity, now followed by a third-generation making a sensational entry into the profession! Because the lucky one was only 22 years old and was still studying with Temple Moore (1856-1920), another specialist in sacred buildings, blowing politeness to his uncle John Oldrid Scott, an unlucky candidate in this same competition.
Despite his practical inexperience, the construction of the cathedral was still entrusted to young Scott. This, however, under Bodley’s technical guidance. The latter made an ambiguous proposition, between fair play for the aspiring builder and paternalism overseeing the heir of a rival dynasty. Cooperation between the two men was however complex, alternating between understanding and dispute. Realizing the uneven nature of his project, Scott quickly made several important revisions. The 1904 second version retained the general masses and the transept two towers, but already greatly simplified the ornamental contribution. Bodley having to sign each drawing, tensions were not lacking – especially when the eldest began the construction of his rather conventional Washington cathedral, while his cathedral project for San Francisco duplicated Scott’s Liverpool sense of volumes… For instance, the disagreements on the Lady Chapel windows undermined Scott, feeling dispossessed of his work. Maybe too divergent objectives? Bodley thought of a cathedral inherited from the past; Scott was forging a cathedral regenerating the heritage.
Bodley's death set him free, prompting him to produce a very radical revision in 1910. This time, he opted for a more compact plan, and a single colossal tower at the crossing of the transept. The formal language also experienced a consequent simplification, towards volumes less dependent on historical precedents and more abstract. This consequent effort of reinvention set the tone, since for the next fifty years Scott continued ceaselessly to refine volumetric and aesthetic details according to this spirit. The almost vegetal fluidity of the tracery of the windows finally brought him closer to what Mackintosh, his hapless Scottish rival, had imagined. Above all, Scott found an epic sense of the masses – energizing the cathedral's pink sandstone mineral cliff appearance with punch.
This greatly impressed Bertram Goodhue (1869-1924), who saw in Scott’s work an example to reshape the neo-gothic style by better integrating modern evolutions. Goodhue, prolific American author of neo-gothic sanctuaries thus separated shortly after from his rather conservative associate Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942). Then he achieved more creative originality in his solo creations – including at St Vincent Ferrer Church in New York or at the University of Chicago Rockefeller Chapel.
Completed in 1910, the Lady Chapel initiated the cultic use of the gigantic building in gestation. The choir was started immediately and ended during the difficult years of the First World War. The conflict reduced the personnel and the available budgets, but these inevitable slowdowns did not threaten this heroic project. Erection of the nave began at the end of the 1920s, while the 1930s saw the slow rise of the majestic and sturdy cross-tower.
Again, Scott meticulously refined the overall silhouette and details. The memory of York, Canterbury and Wells gothic cathedrals guided his composition, while some flamboyant details derive from his knowledge of French flamboyant gothic – like the Norman one of Saint-Ouen Abbey and Rouen cathedral. Likewise, the volumes forming a mineral cliff, seeming almost military, seem to be a tribute to the fortified Occitan Albi cathedral. While paying homage to the great medieval sanctuaries, Scott always made sure to formally reinvent them, adapting his work to the purist taste of the twentieth century.
The second world war slowed down again the work, Scott then preparing the drawings for the main facade. There he accentuated the stripping of the blind masses as if in the midst of battles he was inspired by the Southern France medieval fortified churches! However, his proposals during the conflict to restore the bombed Coventry cathedral disappointed. The architect, therefore, remained faithful to his Liverpool magnum opus, where he was able to continue with perseverance his evolved vision of gothic style.
Meanwhile, in the same city, the Catholics wanted to respond to the Anglicans, ordering directly from Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) plans for their own cathedral in 1930. The project monumentality was due as much to the desire of the Catholic bishop to counterattack the English Church achievement, as to the architect's temptation to produce a major monument in British architecture. Continuing his Thiepval Arch recent abstract experiment, Lutyens crowned his cathedral with a tremendous dome – evidently derived from Wren’s St. Paul. Realized, the dome of the Catholic sanctuary would have miniaturized that of the port authorities seat – like a dialogue between Gulliver and the Lilliput inhabitants...
However, unlike the Anglican cathedral, work was interrupted during the Second World War. Only the crypt was completed according to the initial project. After the conflict, Lutyens having died, the bishopric solicited Adrian Gilbert Scott (1882-1963) – the younger brother of the builder of the Anglican shrine! – to remodel the project on a smaller budget. Even more dependent on the memory of Wren, his drawings were hardly convincing.
So, the Catholics also begun a competition, as the winner for the reconstruction of the bombed-out Coventry cathedral, Basil Spence (1907-1976) had just proved the possibility to modernize well-sacred architecture. If the Anglican competition in Coventry attracted many more responses than the Catholic one in Liverpool, the sanctuary of Roman worship was finally entrusted in 1962 to Frederick Gibberd (1908-1984). The latter used the elements left by Lutyens as a base – laying there an ample but less monumental sanctuary, of rather conformist modernism.
The Anglican cathedral had a much more favorable fate. Despite Scott himself passing away at the dawn of the century sixth decade, his team continued the work into the 1970s, relying rather faithfully on his plans. As with its medieval predecessors, however, the building underwent several modifications. Between the corner turrets, the main facade was hollowed out to open a wide bay. In architecture, there is no fait accompli until the building is completed ... However, sometimes the monument can even be modified later.
Reigning majestically in the Liverpudlian panorama, Scott's sanctuary may seem a gothic strangeness lost in the twentieth century. Yet his sense of purified masses connects him well to his time. What was indeed the twilight of neo-gothic creativity hoped to create a new creative breath updating the Middle Ages heritage. As for the Catholic cathedral, a sin of pride is revealed in its joust with its Anglican sister...
This epic clash between competing bell towers ended while the Beatles were composing nearby among their first songs. Thus, Eleanor Rigby has an air of bitter elegy, evoking a lonely destiny shattered under indifferent vaults. Cathedrals can providentially uplift souls seeking consolation or, on the contrary, inadvertently crush miserable lives under their stones.