The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Building the Modern Church: Roman Catholic Church Architecture in Britain, 1955 to 1975

Robert Proctor (Ashgate, 356pp, £60)

Reviewed by Robert Drake

This book takes up where A Glimpse of Heaven by Christopher Martin (EH, 2006) left off. It documents RC church architecture in its most prolific and exciting period, in the grip of a significant liturgical change. Its breadth and erudition anchors the often daring architecture in its context and shows how the liturgical movement (stemming mostly from Germany inter-war) influenced a more austere church aesthetic than the sentimental piety of Lourdes and Lisieux.

The book starts off with 1950s examples of what Robert Proctor calls ‘Manchester Romanesque, Midlands Byzantine’ by firms like Sandy and Norris, Reynolds and Scott, Velarde and HS Goodhart Rendel in basilican style: large, usually brick churches in urban areas. These were built in the 1950s before liturgical change really got going, and conservative Bishops often overruled the more radical ideas of architects (for example, objecting to abstract art) and sometimes of parish priests for congregations to play a greater part in the Eucharist. Still, many of these churches had fine fittings and applied art: stained glass, Stations of the Cross, paintings or tapestries often reflecting what was going in Coventry Cathedral, even if their architecture was not particularly revolutionary – I would cite St Raphael, Stalybridge near Manchester which the Society helped to get listed.

However, as the 1963 Second Vatican Council changes came into force, with priests facing the congregation and masses in English rather than Latin, radical design changes were needed, and architects like Gerald Goalen and Weightman and Bullen in the NW and Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia in Scotland rose to the challenge. The churches reflected the idea of the ecumenical New Churches Research Group formed in 1959, in which Robert Maguire and Keith Murray played a leading role (their Anglican church St Paul’s Bow Common of 1960 was also very influential). Out went side altars adorned with statuary, and in came a focus on the mensa, or altar table.

It was a severe aesthetic, perhaps with semi-abstract Stations, and mosaic or ceramic representations of the Saints by Polish artists such as Adam Kossowski. In London, John Newton of Burles, Newton and Partners built a fine group of churches, including St Aidan, East Acton (with painting by Sutherland), The Immaculate Heart of Mary (Hayes) and St Anselm’s, Southall (glass by Reyntiens).

One challenge was how to accommodate devotional statues or relics and, in some places, shrines or pilgrimage sites. In the 1950s there were huge processions on saints days for the inauguration of new RC churches, particularly in the North. Marian devotion (i.e. to the Virgin Mary) certainly continued, and architects had to accommodate this, even if it did not fit with their modernist devotion to the liturgy at the centre of Catholic worship. However, in this era RC churches identified with modernity as part of the post-war civic structure. For the first time, churches were on prominent sites rather than tucked down back streets, and usually contained high quality artworks and stained glass. As EH’s ‘Taking Stock’ assessment of RC churches raises awareness of this previously neglected aspect of post-war church building, this book will be an essential underpinning to this story.