History of our Cathedral
Time for Something New
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. 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 BornThe 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 tour of the Cathedral and how it was built
The Design Brief
From August to December 1965 a dialogue was set up with a Church Committee consisting of priests, lay people, and architects. The Committee was generally chaired by Dr. Rudderham. The architects attending each meeting every two weeks were: Frederick Jennett, Anton; Poremba, and myself. Toni Poremba took written notes; all my notes were in sketch form and diagrams.
An earlier meeting had been simple and straightforward. A simple dissertation by the Church on planning a building to make the people and the clergy participate together in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. The arrangement of the priest was to be facing the people from behind the altar.
The second meeting was somewhat different.
I had spent the intervening weeks since the commission in building up research information. I had participated in the architectural competition for the design of the Metropolitan Cathedral, Christ the King at Liverpool. I already had some knowledge as to the requirements within the building. There was, however, one vital difference. Whereas the design- for Liverpool was the result of a competition, the competitors take a brief as set down in the competition conditions. Although they are allowed to ask questions which receive official answers by a certain date, after that date there is no further communication with the client. Since Liverpool, fundamental changes had taken place in the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy. [In fact, Sacrosanctum Concilium was adopted by the Second Council of the Vatican in 1965 two years before the competition for the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool, and that information therefore should have been available to the Liverpool Archdiocesan Authorities before the competition was launched.]
At Clifton it would be possible to ask about these changes, and to ask the fundamental questions related to the function, and those questions would need an answer. My research had shown that Germany, France, Belgium and Holland were more attuned to the reorganisation of church planning than was the case in England. Whether the trends being followed on the Continent were just trends or whether they were based on rational thinking would be disclosed in a question and answer dialogue with the Church.
The second meeting had an agenda. The beginning of the meeting agreed a list of parts of the church that would be required. For example, a Sanctuary, Nave, Blessed Sacrament Chapel, Baptistery etc. The second part of the meeting was to talk about the first item, namely the Sanctuary. Against the word ‘Sanctuary’ on the agenda was listed as many other items as we had been able to ascertain from our researches might be required on the Sanctuary. The first item was an Altar. The first question was one of the most difficult to ask in front of such a powerful gathering of clergy. “What is the purpose of the, Altar?” The answer was not simple and straightforward much to everyone’s astonishment, and the dialogue had begun. Each item was treated in this way, those which were outdated were eliminated. Others which were now essential were added.
By ‘the end of four months we had a very good understanding of the problem. This understanding of the problem was summarised in one final diagram which tied all the parts together in their correct relationships both visual’ and physical. It is this diagram which has finally been built an plan and moulded in three dimensions to create the internal environment.
Analysis and Synthesis
The next phase of the design process was one of refining the information in the brief and putting the parts together to form a more cohesive plan. It is difficult at this stage to avoid being influenced by what one may have seen in travelling abroad or in glossy magazines. Sometimes one is conscious of these experiences and as such they can be analysed to determine the reasoning behind them, and do they fit the need for the present design problem. Other times the influence is in the subconscious and this problem is more difficult to eradicate. When these experiences do occur in the design process I find it best to illustrate the ideas in drawings and sketches, analyse them and if they do not fit together, forget them. The latter is sometimes easier said than done.
The synthesis of the Plan form stems from the arrangement of a congregation of a thousand people in as close a proximity as possible to the High Altar so that they may take an active part in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. If the design can make them feel part of the whole then this is half way to taking an active part. With a priest celebrating versus populum it is necessary to limit the angle of command that the priest can direct over the people spread out in front of him. The arrangement of the people must not wrap too far around him so that he is forced to spread like an umpire at a tennis match. To this main assembly must be added the Blessed Sacrament Chapel Tabernacle which should adjoin the Sanctuary and the Font. The Font is one of the fundamental points of the arrangement of the Clifton Cathedral plan.
Traditionally the Font is to be found at the back of the church just inside the west door. This stems from when the west door was the most-used entry into the church. The baptismal rite begins in the vestibule, then proceeds into the church so that the participant is baptised into the church.
In most western churches with an indifferent climate; the north porch becomes the more-used entry and the Font is sometimes transferred to that vicinity. Seldom is the position of the Font such that it is in view of many of the seats in the Nave. In order that greater emphasis can be placed upon the baptismal rite, it should be allowed to take place before a full congregation. It is necessary to consider the position of the Font so that it is in general view of the majority of the Nave seating. In Clifton this was a requirement and to fulfil the relationship ‘fully, the main entrance moved with the Font to be in full view of the people. It was then possible to achieve a cross axial relationship of Font-Ambo-Altar… “Rebirth” – “Teaching of the Word” – “Sacrifice.”
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 roof of the Baptistery and Blessed Sacrament Chapel has been kept flat at approximately 30 feet high. The roof over the Nave is allowed to increase in height from 30 feet at the rear to 54 feet over the front of the Sanctuary. The Sanctuary is defined from the Nave space by the main star beam. Over the Sanctuary and High Altar the volume soars to 90 feet.
The importance of each space is heightened by increasing the intensity of the daylighting until there is a flood of light onto-the High Altar and back wall of the Sanctuary. There are no windows in any of the wall beams except for the coloured glass window to the Narthex. Instead the daylighting enters the building by roof lights.
At this stage the design team became involved in the analysis of the internal environment to be created and the structural concept for roofing the clear space. The environmental consultants had measured with tape recorders the noise levels of traffic in the surrounding roads. From these measurements it was decided that the building should be scaled, that it should have no opening lights, and that the doors should be designed so as to resist the passage of sound from outside to inside.
This necessitates some ventilation in the building although probably the majority of the medieval cathedrals contain the same air as was built in S(X) years previously! To prevent low-frequency sound entering the building, the fabric should be relatively dense in mass. Similarly to withstand the external extremes of hot and cold spells, it is advantageous to create a fabric again of dense mass. If this mass of fabric is warmed up sufficiently and is fully insulated on the outside so that it retains its heat, then the fabric can act as a thermal storage unit for the building. Simultaneously the structural engineer was being asked to predict a life span for the building of approximately 300 years. To underwrite this life span he proposed that the concept should be a compressive structure and suggested that we should use concrete shells for the roof. The space dividers or wall beams were of such a depth as to become structural beams and so a reinforced concrete conception embodied the total requirements.
The main heating for the space is by withdrawable electric cables set 4.5 inches into the concrete floor. The building takes three days to warm up and two days to cool, such that the internal environment is very much a steady state. Should the need arise for a rapid top-up of heating, then warm air can be introduced through the ventilation system. The air is brought in at the rear wall of the Nave through concrete gargoyles and extracted through the front of the steps to the Sanctuary.
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 Reiger 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