In August 1965 the architects were commissioned to undertake the
design and construction of a new Cathedral, on a new site in Clifton.
They immediately set up a dialogue with the church and its advisors to formulate a brief.
of Clifton Cathedral
The Second Council of the Vatican was meeting in Rome, Italy, discussing the renewal of the Church in its relationship to the world, and the Council’s decree on liturgical worship helped to focus attention at Clifton on the role of the people, with the bishop and their priests in the celebration of the Eucharist.
The major requirement was to provide a space where a congregation of 1000 could be grouped closely around the High Altar so that they should feel and be a part of the celebration of the Mass. The other main requirements were for the placing of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and the Baptismal Font. The arrangement of these three main parts of the building in relationship to the movement of people entering and leaving constitutes the design concept and determines the shape of the building.
In the summer of 1965 the Clifton Diocesan Trust approached the Partnership, then called Sir Percy Thomas and Son, to attend an interview in respect of a building project they had in mind. The practice had previously, at the request of the Church, submitted examples of its recent work. It was at the end of such an interview that a somewhat stunned Frederick Jennett made his way back to the Bristol Office bearing the news of the most important commission that the practice has undertaken. After the initial euphoria had subsided it was necessary to sit down and think. It was necessary to think how to approach the project, to think how to obtain the requirements, to ensure as far as possible that these requirements were essential, and to think how to eliminate the unnecessary. Above all, the main concern was to avoid being carried away by a history of church building styles, idioms, and tricks of the trade. In essence the approach was to be the same as for any other building type that we have been involved in designing. If the analysis of the brief underlined the essential, then the conception would put these parts together in such away that the function was satisfied and aided and abetted by an environment conducive to participation of everyone in the performance of that function.
A Cathedral is Born
The story of the Cathedral takes us back to the days of Catholic Emancipation and the Vicars Apostolic. Public worship by Catholics had been legal in England since the Relief Act of 1790. The Emancipation Act of 1829 further encouraged the Catholic population to emerge from the time of persecution and political discrimination. In 1830-31, the first attempt to build a larger church for the faithful in Bristol ended in disaster. Work was started on the site in 1834 but was abandoned in 1843. The chosen site in Park Place, Clifton above a steep quarry was not suitable and the foundations of the new church gave way under the weight. Bishop Peter Augustine Baines had planned a building with Corinthian columns and portico that would have been magnificent had it been finished according to its original design, indeed the building would have been the largest and most impressive Catholic Church in the country. But again, in common with other buildings in the area then (the construction of the Clifton Suspension Bridge being one such) the foundations and the underlying geological formation were inadequate. The ruin of the church and the land then came into the ownership of the bank, and the priest legally holding title to the mortgage fled to the continent to escape his debtors. Not an auspicious beginning you might say. In 1846, Bishop Ullathorne was appointed Vicar Apostolic of the Western District. A Benedictine monk he had first as a young boy been to sea as a cabin boy, and later, after his ordination as a priest he was a leading Catholic figure in Australia where he worked among the convicts and those transported to the emerging colony. Coming to the West Country, he was determined to have a church for the growing congregation in Clifton. He employed as his architect, Charles Hansom, who it is said, was told to ‘put his reputation in his pocket’, and following Ullathorne’s instructions he covered the worshipping space with an ingenious, comparatively light aisled structure of timber uprights and arches which supported a timber roof, in the style of an upturned boat. The Church of the Holy Apostles was opened in the autumn of 1848. In another two years it became the Pro-Cathedral of the new Catholic Diocese of Clifton. The Pro-Cathedral’s provisional status was reflected in the fact that it was never consecrated. In the 1870s, the exterior style of the church was changed and Charles Hansom, again, as the chosen architect designed a North Italian Romanesque style for the school (later the parish hall), the atrium with its porch and the pinnacled facade. The planned tower was never built. The temporary Pro-Cathedral Church served the growing Catholic community for many years, and in time saw immigration from Ireland and the influx of American and Polish troops during World War II. There was a rapid growth in the worshipping congregation. Succeeding to the See of Clifton in 1949, Bishop Rudderham decided during the 1960s that the Pro-Cathedral should be renovated, and consecrated with the intention of bringing to an end its provisional status as the mother church of the diocese. An architect produced a scheme under which repairs, redecoration and liturgical rearrangement could have been completed, but the cost would have been very high. In addition, although the roof supports of 1848 could have been strengthened, their lasting stability could not be assured. Indeed, the site engineers had every reason to believe that the foundations were still on the move. Though restoration was actively considered, a new situation was created when a group of businessmen came forward with a generous offer that resulted in the building of the new Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul on a new site in Clifton Park in 1970-73. So after 125 years as mother church of the diocese and as parish church, the Pro-Cathedral bequeathed its title and its work to the new Cathedral, and a Cathedral was born in 1973.
A book by Peter Harrison is available from Clifton Diocese.
The Design Brief
Analysis and Synthesis
The Blessed Sacrament Chapel
The Blessed Sacrament Chapel which doubles as a weekday chapel, is capable of seating 65 people, and is positioned to one side of the Sanctuary so the Font is between the Chapel and the Nave. The space from the Chapel flows through a 30-foot high opening on to the Sanctuary whereby it is supplementary to the main congregation when the church is crowded on feast days. These are the main parts of the church: the Sanctuary, the Nave, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, and the Font, and this space is ‘enclosed’ by the main ring wall beam.
The Hierarchy of Spaces
The main dimensions of the church measured from the Sanctuary back in three directions centred around the dimension of 1 foot 6 inches. Consequently this was adopted as the module or regulating dimension for the whole of the design. A similarity can be drawn with the classical temples of Rome and Greece where the module was the radius of the base of the column. This module was to dictate the lines of all the inside face; of the building together with the thickness of the beams and the spacing of the columns. When the building became a constructional operation on site, the design of the timber formwork against which to cast the concrete was such that the bolt ties which hold the formwork together were positioned at 1% times the module. These bolt ties have been left exposed within the building so that the design module or rule is expressed on the constructed form. Whenever the formwork designer required bolt ties at closer centres, he was allowed to have half or quarter the module but was instructed-to- revert to the module as soon as possible thereafter.
The framework used is Russian Redwood from the Kara Sea area. A large, quantity had been imported already into Bristol and this was reserved for the contract. During the course of the job more timber was required and the contractor traced a stockpile in Hull that had been shipped at the same time from the Kara Sea as the stock in Bristol. By obtaining this extra supply from Hull, it was possible to maintain the same quality of formwork which maintains the same colour and figure variations.
The Men on Site
It was fortunate to be able to constitute a design team wherein the personalities were compatible and inspired each other. Similarly it was even more fortunate to find a contractor with the enthusiasm of John Laing who was to build the design. We had given various talks and lectures to various bodies in connection with the design development. No lecture was of more value than that given to the thirty or forty men on site one rainy afternoon in 1970. It explained with colour slides the early design drawings crystallising into the final design proposals and showing how the design detail had been developed by using a large balsa wood model. The balsa wood model was large enough for a person to put his head through the floor. It had been used to create the correct amount of daylighting that was required within the building, and it was how the Lord Bishop came to enter his cathedral for the first time before any concrete was ever poured on site!
This model was now on site and stayed on site for the duration of the contract. It had been the architect’s design tool; it was now the contractor’s reference point and aide memoire. It was possible in the talk to identify the steel fixer, the formwork designer, the carpenter, and the concrete placer with their respective responsibilities in producing a perfectly cast piece of concrete wall. Concrete was poured at three o’clock each afternoon and the formwork removed at eleven o’clock the following morning. It was impossible to keep the construction team away as the formwork was removed. Such was their interest in seeing if either had made an error which would have negated the quality of the wall. During the course of the job I was never asked if I would approve some concrete which they themselves knew to be substandard. On two occasions there were some concrete pourers which they were not happy with, but their standards were such that I described them themselves as becoming connoisseurs. This does not mean that there had been no poor quality concrete. It is just that their interest and their site agent’s interest was such that they had no need to ask what was acceptable and what was not, and the substandard was demolished by themselves immediately that it appeared. At the consecration there were many familiar and contented faces who for the past three years had been disguised in concrete dust.
The Artists' Work
The quality of the interior is a concept of simple geometrical forms into which is integrated the functional richness of the furnishings. The Narthex contains a large window by Henry Haigh. It is 9 feet high, 70 feet long, and is in one-inch Dalle de Ver glass cast in concrete. The right-hand portion depicts the Holy Ghost descending on the heads of the Apostles in the Upper Room, and that on the left depicts the Jubilation of the World through the death of Christ. The windows are in abstract. Henry and I talked many times about his work-his drawings of the Welsh countryside, his studies of natural forms, rocks, stones, water, and grasses. This is his handwriting, his mode of expression, and his feelings in the windows are expressed in this style.
[The original Cathedral guidebook described the stained glass windows as follows: ‘Jubilation’ – The window on the left is concerned with the growing awareness of the presence of God’s Spirit, as expressed in the sense of happiness or freedom that may be experienced on an open beach where earth, sky and sea meet and intermingle. ‘Pentecost’ – The second window on the right depicts the day of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit as described in the Acts of the Apostles, when the disciples had met together in one room they ‘suddenly heard what sounded like a powerful wind from heaven, the noise of which filled the entire house… and something appeared to them like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each of them. They were filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak foreign languages as the Spirit gave them the gift of speech.’ [Acts 2: 1-4]. This event emboldened the apostles to go out to preach the gospel to the whole of the known world.]
The main doors are a present from the Bristol Corporation. They are timber cored and finished in fibreglass and metallic fillers. They are the work of William Mitchell.
The Font is encircled by a low concrete wall which embodies the Holy water stoups. It is the work of Simon Verity. The original idea was to create a pile of rocks and to allow water to flow continuously through the rocks, stopping it when required to baptise. This necessitated a bowl of some description to be carved in the stone or concrete and sculpted -to the rocks. Simon was at a loss to find rocks of sufficient size to comply with the scale of the maquette which I had made. We met one morning on the M4 Motorway whilst I was en route from London to Bristol. Tucked under rugs in the back of his shooting brake was a lump of Caen stone – but what a stone. He had carved it into a wineglass surrounded by ascending and descending doves and inscribed the inside of the shallow bowl with fishes. the whole thing was no higher than four inches. He said it was possible to allow the water from the bowl to escape and run down the outside face of the Font into a pool, and I departed for Bristol with a gem. The periphery of the finished Font is inscribed, “Once you were no people but now you are God’s people.”
The organ comes from Austria. Originally it was intended to come from the old Pro-Cathedral, but common sense and a yearning for the best finally held sway. From a short list of six the commission was given to Rieger Orgelbau of Schwarzach. I had met Josef Van Glatter-Gotz in London, Leichenstein, and Schwarzach. He had built a beautiful organ for Freibourg which intrigued me by its geometrical forms although the Clifton organ would need to be much smaller with its limited budget. A concept on the same principals was evolved except that the console stood on the ground and the structure of the organ supported and expressed the main parts of the organ-Great, Choir, Brustwerk, and Pedal. The pipes are in polished tin and the pedal pipes are in burnished copper.
The Stations of the Cross
The original intention was to try to find a sculptor who would provide moulds which could be placed in the framework, and the wall and sculpture cast in one operation. This would have meant that the finished sculpture would have needed protection for two years from damage during construction and it was more practical to leave recesses into which the finished stations could be placed.
I was interested that the finished work should appear to be part of the wall and I think this object has been realised. The 14 stations have been designed and made by William Mitchell using Faircrete. This material is a concrete and fibreglass mix which retains its plasticity for approximately one hour after pouring and can be moulded with the hands and tools.
The first sketches of the tabernacle indicated a pure hexagonal-shaped box approximately four feet high into which was set the safe. I found a young sculptor, John Alder, an ex-student of the RCA, who was prepared to make the tabernacle in stainless steel. He had been engaged on his own particular trends in sculpture and I found it was possible to combine the way he was working with a design for the tabernacle. In the event the formal tabernacle is a pure stainless steel safe enclosed in a highly-polished stainless steel tubular cage.
The clerics felt that the Blessed Sacrament Chapel needed some form of enclosure so that the space did not stand out into the ambulatory. It was at this time that the Lord Abbot of Prinnash offered to the Cathedral the gift of a screen which could be manufactured at the abbey by Brother Patrick. I made a small maquette in balsa wood which portrayed a very simple geometrical scheme where the spacing of the verticals varied on an arithmetic progression. It was enriched by adding stainless steel tubes. I might add that it was a pleasant change to have a subcontractor artist who actually delivered and fixed on time with the minimum of fuss and a high degree of proficiency. If it needed just a tickle here or a tickle there, Brother Patrick obliged. So adept at performing the unusual was he that I managed to persuade him to make in addition to the screen a votive candle stand. This took the form of another geometrical figure, an Icosahedron, a 20-sided figure where each face is an equilateral triangle. The size of each triangle is, of course, the module for the design of the building. The figure is made up of 318 bar welded together and nickel plated. The latter was the most difficult of all to achieve and thanks in this respect are due to Father Dunstan who seemed to spend the week driving up and down the M4 from London to Bristol.
The day before the consecration the building was bedlam with approximately 200 people walking this way and that. The last of us left the building at 2 o’clock in the morning only to reappear the next day to find over a thousand people seated, waiting for the great moment to arrive. It was a most impressive and emotional day for all those concerned in the diocese and for me personally to see the building finally being put to the use it was designed for was most fulfilling.
Architects: Percy Thomas, Ronald Weeks A.R.I.B.A. DIPL ARCH UCL, Structural Consultants: Felix Samuell and Partners Environmental Consultants: Engineering Design Consultants Quantity Surveyor: I E Symonds and Partners Contractor: John Laing