Roman Catholic Church Architecture in Britain, 1955-75

Weightman & Bullen

Recently, the Manchester Modernist Society called on me for assistance with a listing application for a church that was in imminent threat of demolition – St Catherine of Siena, Lowton, in Lancashire. Despite a detailed application explaining its significance in the history of modern British church architecture, the building was refused listed status by the government on English Heritage’s advice, on the grounds that, compared with Weightman & Bullen’s other (listed) churches, it lacked “confidence and swagger”; and also partly because some of its most important internal arrangements – notably the baptistery – had been lost. Nevertheless we argued that it was important, firstly for its overt modernist style, including high-quality decorative details following trends set by contemporary international Expo architecture as well as Roman Catholic artistic culture; secondly for its advanced liturgical plan for the period, with canted pews facing a shallow apse on a hexagonal plan; thirdly for its place in the firm’s work, leading up to more experimental work such as their circular church of St Mary, Leyland; and finally for being an early work by a female architect, Patricia Brown, and thus one of very few churches designed by women. Her employers, Weightman & Bullen of Liverpool, were one of the leading British architecture firms in the movement towards a modern church architecture in the mid-twentieth-century. Here, in the first of an occasional series of essays, I will give a brief overview of their work.

St Catherine, Lowton, was designed in 1957 and completed in 1959, and was praised by the local press as revolutionary in its modern style and unusual plan form. Many of its design features became standard in the firm’s subsequent work – most importantly the baptistery, located on the axis of the altar, placed under the tower at the entrance – giving this sacramental feature a prominence that was quite unusual in church architecture of this period.

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Archbishop John C. Heenan of Liverpool preaching at the opening ceremony, 1959. Source: parish archive.

The congregation’s closeness to the liturgy and attention to it were supposed to be aided by the plan shape, the absence of columns aiding sightlines, and the angled pews making the altar visually (though not literally) the central point. The steel frame structure made a wide span economically feasible, and was frankly expressed. Areas of lavish decoration emphasised important ritual objects – the font, the holy water stoups, the communion rail, the pulpit, altar and baldachino. More detail and images (provided from our research) can be seen at the Sacred Suburbs website.

Weightman & Bullen had been founded earlier in the twentieth century, and its leading partner in the post-war period, Alfred Bullen, maintained a good relationship with the Catholic clergy in Liverpool, not least because one of his brothers was a priest who was prominent in the diocese. Lowton marks a departure in their work from a more traditional approach to church planning: Holy Ghost, Bootle, built earlier in the 1950s but demolished some years ago, was a huge longitudinal church, combining modern simplicity of form with round arches and sheer brick walls to suggest the Romanesque style that had become a defining Catholic image for a church, locally (including in the work of Liverpool architect F. X. Velarde), nationally, and even internationally. At the same time as Lowton was on the drawing board, they were also designing St William of York in Thornton, Liverpool – similarly centralising in plan (even more so since the choir stood in a gallery behind the altar), though more traditional in its elevations.

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St William of York, Thornton, Liverpool

The reason for the sharp change towards modernism in the late 1950s was the same as in many other firms’ work: the arrival of a new generation of architects with an interest in modern architecture, given a free hand in design. Weightman & Bullen drew its staff from the Liverpool School of Architecture, which embraced the modern movement. After Patricia Brown and her husband David Brown (contemporaries at Liverpool of James Stirling and Colin Rowe) left to establish a new office for the firm in York, Polish architects – refugees from the war who were given shelter in Liverpool when the Polish School of Architecture was briefly established there – took over. The leading architect was Stanislaus Pater Lancucki, and he was often assisted by Jerzy Fazcynski; both had key roles in the design of the firm’s most important work, St Mary, Leyland.

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Blessed Sacrament chapel at St Mary, Leyland

Leyland was designed in 1960, and took the ideas of Lowton to a new experimental stage, with a literally central altar in a circular plan, a baptistery in the broad entrance vestibule, a separate Blessed Sacrament chapel on the axis, and circular pews rising up towards a processional route around the edge, from which side chapels emerged. The plan is almost exactly like that of Frederick Gibberd’s Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral – no coincidence, perhaps, since (as our research showed) Archbishop John C. Heenan of Liverpool had approved Weightman & Bullen’s plans a month before he went to London to judge the cathedral competition. The artistic embellishment of Leyland, opened in 1964, was also more ambitious than their previous churches (partly thanks to its highly cultured and demanding Benedictine clients), with every item of liturgical furnishing made the subject of an artistic commission. The ceramic frieze over the entrance by Adam Kossowski is one of his most stunning works; the nave is enclosed in Patrick Reyntiens’s vibrant glass; and the Stations of the Cross by Arthur Dooley are justly renowned.

Even this building was preceded by two other modern churches of note designed in the late 1950s: St Ambrose, Speke – modern and monumental in style, with baptistery under the tower, a broad plan with freestanding altar, and a Lady chapel at the rear intended originally as a Blessed Sacrament chapel; and St Margaret Mary, Liverpool – also broad in plan, smaller but no less a modern landmark.

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St Ambrose, Speke, Liverpool

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St Margaret Mary, Liverpool

Over in York, Patricia and David Brown obtained several notable commissions where they developed Weightman & Bullen’s church architecture in other directions. St Nicholas at Gipton, Leeds, made expressive use of folded concrete vaulting, and has a baptistery – in the firm’s favoured location – with vivid slab glass by Pierre Fourmaintraux. It was somewhat traditional in liturgical form, with a large high altar against the east wall. In the 1960s they were commissioned to design a Catholic teacher training college, Trinity and All Saints College, in Leeds, and the chapel – a dramatic design of interlocking triangles – formed its centrepiece.

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St Nicholas, Gipton, Leeds

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Trinity and All Saints College Chapel, Leeds (now Leeds Trinity University)

Weightman & Bullen also built churches across Wales – small rural churches in north Wales; and, as they became semi-official architects to the Diocese of Menevia (based in Swansea) in the 1960s, a few churches in the south, for which Merrick Sloan was the designing architect. These included an incongruous brick brutalist church in Newcastle Emlyn, and the important pilgrimage church of Our Lady of the Taper at Cardigan, where laminated timber and brick are used to create a warm, bright church in a castle-like enclosure.

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Our Lady Queen of Peace, Newcastle Emlyn (it originally had a tower, demolished)

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Our Lady of the Taper, Cardigan

Text and images by Robert Proctor.

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This entry was published on 22 March 2015 at 10:24 and is filed under Essays. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.