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Exhibition Review: Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, ‘A New Cathedral, 1960’

Exhibition Review: Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, ‘A New Cathedral, 1960’ 

Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral

Review by Matthew Smith

This year marks 50 years since the grand opening of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.

To celebrate the golden jubilee of the city’s iconic landmark, the cathedral, in collaboration with Liverpool John Moores University, brings together the edited highlights of the submitted designs from the 1960 architectural competition for the first time.

Located within the main entrance of the cathedral, this splendid display is a fantastic opportunity to view a wide range of design drawings and imagine all that could have been.

From traditional cathedral designs and contemporary influences, to bold leaps forward in futuristic architecture and esoteric design, it’s clear from the exhibition that the winning submission for Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral truly broke with convention.

The architectural competition was one of many in the 20th Century and it attracted global attention with 298 entries from around the world, but it was only one of four cathedrals in the UK to have been built in modern times.

Many of the designs were bold and futuristic.

This new exhibition showcases the shortlisted and commended schemes together with a sample of other entries, illustrating the range of solutions for the brief.

To undertake the project, proposals needed to comply with the requirements of the brief – provisions to seat 3,000 worshippers with an unobstructed view of the high altar and a budget of £1 million. The latter of which may have paved the way for innovative methods of construction, architecture and production.

The winning design, submitted by Frederick Gibberd, had an important effect on British Catholic architecture and set a precedent for similar future projects.

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

To put Gibberd’s design into context, the development of the cathedral coincided with the renaissance of the city and contributed to Liverpool’s post-war reconstruction.

What is interesting when comparing Gibberd’s winning design to his competitors is that whilst it’s obvious that other designs combined some of the principal requirements of the brief, it appears that it was only Gibberd who harmoniously combined all aspects of the brief into one cohesive image.

To understand this architectural competition you have to put it into its local context and look at Liverpool at the end of the 1950s.

The exhibition begins on the left hand side as you enter the cathedral and provides a brief introduction to some of the designs submitted.

The concern was with the future, the old era was ending and the city still bore the scars from the Second World War. What Liverpool needed at that time was a building which would reflect the past and its traditions, but one which would bend the arc of history towards the future. And Gibberd’s design drawings illustrate his innovative concept.

Overall, this is a really interesting exhibition and will give visitors the chance to mark the jubilee celebrations whilst gaining an insight into an important turning point in the design and architecture of Catholic churches.

What is most compelling about the showcase is that even though some designs didn’t win, many careers were launched off the back of this competition and many famous names would then go on to dominate modern architecture.

> Related | Architecture: Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral – the experts’ view

The only improvement that could be made to this exhibition is that there seemed to be a lack of context. Perhaps if there are any plans to expand the exhibition the curators could consider displaying text next to the design drawings to give the plans a more extensive backdrop.

As the exhibition opens today (27 July) you can also expect to see some newly commissioned physical models of a selection of the key schemes and I’ll be sure to return to spend more time checking these out.

What is clear though is that Gibberd’s winning design has, for the past half a century, graced the skyline of Liverpool and been a symbol of peace and goodwill, not just in his time but in ours.

‘A New Cathedral, 1960’ is on display until 10 September.