50 years of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral: The structure’s importance, architecture and history

50 years of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral: The structure’s importance, architecture and history

This year Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral celebrates the golden jubilee of its grand opening, but the history of how the building came to be spans far more than five decades. Move Commercial explores the thinking behind the unique structure and focuses on its importance as a work of architecture, prominent city attraction and place of worship.

Words by Natasha Young

A ‘cathedral in our time’ was the vision and in 1958 architects around the world were invited to create a new religious Liverpool landmark.

Around 300 designs were submitted, with their creators abandoning the conventions of traditional cathedrals to suggest striking, unusual buildings.

“The actual specification was that it had to be a modern cathedral and that, through its design, everybody had a clear view of the altar and it was central in some way for the celebration of mass,” explains Canon Anthony O’Brien, the dean of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.

“We were going into the 1960s and there were lots of new ideas in every way, such as art and entertainment, and lots of things were changing but so was building design.

“Sixties’ modern buildings were all in vogue – concrete had come into play, along with other types of materials, so that’s what designers came up with.”

Built with a sense of urgency and a tight budget, the winning design by Sir Frederick Gibberd was completed in under five years. But it had become about more than fulfilling Liverpool’s needs for a Catholic cathedral – it was an opportunity to redefine what a cathedral building is.

“Over the 20th Century and to date there hasn’t been many opportunities to build a cathedral,” says Father O’Brien. “The majority in our country were built centuries ago and they just get repaired and extended.

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“The design [Gibberd] came up with added a completely new way of thinking about how our cathedral should be and what the needs were for the building to satisfy. It’s quite different to how people would perceive traditional cathedral shape and design.”

From the significant central colourful glass lantern and the standout bell tower to its attention-grabbing overall structure, the emergence of this cathedral came as a shock to many people, according to Father O’Brien.

“People watched it going up and thought ‘what is it going to look like?’” he says. “It’s striking but they call it brutalist architecture and it is harsh.

“That took people a bit of getting used to. It didn’t have those sweeping designs from the past.

“Some people hated it with a vengeance – certain design and architecture people – but many loved it and, over the years, it has won round many of its critics. It’s now looked on by the vast majority of people with real affection and it does have that wow factor.”

Drastically breaking the traditional mould wasn’t always the plan though, as the now 50-year-old building is actually the fourth attempt to build Liverpool’s Catholic cathedral.

First came a design by Edward Welby Pugin, who was commissioned in 1853.

With a large steeple as a centrepiece, the building was to be situated on St Domingo Road in Everton. However the construction of the Lady Chapel was as far as the project progressed before the Archdiocese instead turned its resources to the development of Catholic schools.

“If we’d have had the Lutyens design it would have taken 80-90 years to completely build and that’s if the funds hadn’t ran out, so we’d have only just seen it come to fruition over the last 10 years.”

“The idea of a cathedral was still in the background but forgotten about,” says Father O’Brien.

That was until the 1920s when, due to a growing Catholic population boosted by Irish immigrants, Liverpool’s need for a cathedral was recognised once again.

Sir Edwin Lutyens was commissioned to design a building to contrast with the gothic Anglican development which was underway at the opposite end of Hope Street.

His plan was large and ambitious, with a grand dome reminiscent of that of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral.

“They started in 1933 with Lutyens’ building and it was going to be a vast undertaking – bigger than the Anglican cathedral,” explains Father O’Brien.

“Then after World War II there wasn’t the appetite nor the money or materials to continue building.”

The project stalled, leaving a completed crypt which hosted mass for some time before eventually forming part of today’s cathedral.

“If [the cathedral had been built] in Everton we’d have been out on a limb and we’d have regretted it greatly,” admits Father O’Brien. “When they were talking about Lutyens’ design though it just so happened that the [current] site had become vacant because it was the site of the workhouse, where a lot of poor Irish immigrants were based. There was a real Catholic association with the workhouse and that made getting the site important.

“We ended up on a street called ‘Hope’, quite closely linked with our sister cathedral down the road and, of course, Liverpool has been at the forefront of Catholics and Anglicans working closely together. We’re still seen as an example of how churches work together and Liverpool should be proud of that.”

Adrian Gilbert Scott, brother of Liverpool Cathedral’s architect Giles Gilbert, had been enlisted in 1953 to scale down Lutyens’ plans, still looking to achieve a dome but with a smaller budget. The project was later shelved, making way for the modern approach.

“If we’d have had the Lutyens design it would have taken 80-90 years to completely build and that’s if the funds hadn’t ran out, so we’d have only just seen it come to fruition over the last 10 years,” says Father O’Brien.


Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral's golden jubilee


During the five decades the chosen incarnation has been open to the public, it has been the subject of numerous changes to enhance its presence and access.

“There’s a whole new front entrance, with that big flight of steps we call the processional entrance and the piazza below,” says Father O’Brien. “Gibberd wanted a flight of steps at the front but they ran out of money, so they just had a ramp at the side for years and there was a building near that front area.

“Eventually the people using that building went into liquidation and that land became available to use, so around 2000 we started building those ceremonial steps.

“The glass columns were a later addition around 2008, and the glass marks that this is what’s significant about the building. As you go out of the cathedral the artist’s symbolism is that you take the light from Christ with you.

“Then the most recent addition was in 2010-11 when we built the Rotunda to the side of the cathedral, providing a direct link to Lutyens Crypt with a lift.”

These days an estimated 400,000 visitors head to Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral annually, including the regular congregation and wider Catholic community, as well as tourists from across the UK and the globe and architectural enthusiasts eager to witness the work of two designers – Lutyens and Gibberd – on one modern cathedral site.

“We don’t charge people to enter the cathedral and we’d fight tooth and nail to keep that because we want everyone to have access,” says Father O’Brien, although funding the iconic structure’s maintenance and estimated £3,000 per day running costs is an ongoing issue.

“We run at a loss and if we have significant projects we often have to look for grants, but that’s the story of cathedrals across the country apart from the very big ones with millions of tourists paying to go in.”

The building’s position at the heart of the growing Knowledge Quarter helps, as ground rent for surrounding land which is now home to science and research buildings makes a contribution. Plus there are car park rates, collections during services, visitor donations, commercial activities, gift shop sales and event space hire.

A schedule of celebrations is also expected to drive footfall to the building in 2017 in honour of the milestone anniversary.

“It’s about giving thanks for everything this building has been and meant to people because, Catholic or not, people have lots of memories connected with the cathedral, the events that happened there or events to do with Liverpool where people have gathered at the cathedral,” says Father O’Brien.

“It’s also about not forgetting that we now have a duty to try and enable this building to continue for the next 50 years.”