The medieval period was indisputably the golden age of Cathedral building. Many of the characteristics of Gothic cathedrals – their stunning feats of structural engineering, their high, light spaces enclosed by fine fretwork of stone and stained glass, their cruciform plans and towering spires – seem to embody the very essence of the building type. Even the pious anonymity of the master masons who designed and built these cathedrals, the monastic dedication which led them to devote entire lives to glorifying their god through architecture, seems an appropriate expression of cathedral building as a kind of holy task. But so much has changed since the completion of the great cathedrals of Europe. The practice of architecture has changed almost beyond recognition, and so has the broader role of the church in society. Even the processes, rituals and architectural requirements of the liturgy have shifted dramatically, updated by the second Vatican council in XXX. So how would one go about designing a cathedral today? And perhaps more pointedly, why would there be a need to? Popular belief has it that organised religion is in decline, as disillusioned individuals seek their own personal modes and celebrations of spirituality, and draw away from the traditions of the ‘old’ churches. In this context, the construction of a new cathedral in the early twenty-first century seems strangely – and fascinatingly – out of time.
Of course, on one level the justification for this is quite simple: there would be a need to build a new cathedral if the old one burnt down. And this is precisely what happened on 19 February 1996, when a deliberately lit fire largely destroyed the existing St Patricks building, leaving only the walls intact. The Cathedral had already been through four architectural incarnations, including an Augustus Welby Pugin design demolished in 1935. Following this most recent catastrophe, MGT architects were engaged to re-plan, rebuild, modify, and extend the complex once again. Aldo Giurgula, the architect of Parliament House in Canberra – as sprightly as ever at the age of 83 – came out of retirement to work on the project. As part of a larger masterplan, the existing derelict building was comprehensively rearranged, and is now linked perpendicularly to a new main worship space. Visitors enter through new doors at the Southern end of the existing building and make a right turn into the new 800 seat extension.
Even for a non-believer, the experience of entering a cathedral, or any religious building, can be extremely moving. The scale and proportion of the space, the quality of the light, the material and the ornament – all of these things can be affecting on a purely aesthetic level, which must be amplified much more profoundly by the affect of religious faith. In a Gothic cathederal, for instance, the structural system was perfectly in tune with the religious purpose and message – as though the stone itself were aspiring towards heaven, its rib vaults and flying buttresses all striving towards a higher ideal. The new St Patrick’s Cathedral may employ a very different logic, but it too uses the revelation of structure as a path to architectural profundity. Rather than the Gothic system of arcuation – of arches – it employs the even more ancient, perhaps even primal system of trabeation – of posts and beams. Thus the main cathedral hall has a kind of monumental rhythm, of repeated massive ‘beams’ (actually trusses) resting on side blade walls. This structure frees the walls from a load-bearing role, and they express this in screen-like, lively swooping curves, clad externally with copper.
The design has been described by detractors as ‘stark’, ‘not a prayerful space’, ‘ultra modern’, even ‘as ugly as sin’. Certainly it is a departure from traditional church architecture. But this is a reflection of two important things: major changes in religious doctrine and the liturgy, including the placement of the altar in the centre of the church rather than at the termination of a central axis. The other reason why the new cathedral necessarily looks different is because there is no longer an established style or language for church architecture. Yet even without the guidance of conventions, a church building is still expected to have a kind of transcendence, to be inviting but noble, austere yet rich, distinctive without being sensational, modest but not banal, and peaceful without being too comfortable. In pursuing such goals, practicality clearly does not provide all the answers – a church is not an auditorium, even though it has some of the same pragmatic requirements; adequate acoustics, thermal comfort, and the ability to see the altar do not a cathedral make. This has been one major criticism of the Vatican II liturgical reforms – that in the quest to make the church more accessible, simple, and community oriented, the mystery, majesty, and passion of religious faith has been diffused, or lost altogether. But in the new cathedral, Guirgula and his colleagues have employed the most simple, yet potentially profound, elements of the architectural palette – light, proportion, volume, craft, and expression of structure. The importance of craft, of fine materials finely used, is particularly evident in the new ‘furnishings’, all of which were designed and fabricated by a select group of artists and artisans chosen and co-ordinated by consultant Pamille Berg. This art program is crucial to the overall effect of the new cathedral. Both the ‘practical’ sacred vessels for the celebration of the Mass, and the iconic representations, give a warmth and intimacy that the architecture alone could not accomplish. From the massive, anchoring presence of the eleven tonne stone altar by Anne Ferguson, Philip Cooper’s bas-relief Stations of the Cross, Robin Blau’s sculture of a particularly muscular and imposing crucified Christ, to the pews themselves designed and fabricated by Kevin Perkins, the furnishing of the cathedral has been accomplished with great care and consideration throughout.
There are two specific moments where the conjunction between art and architecture is particularly potent. The first is the Sacred Heart shrine, located in the chapel of reparations, which houses a painting commissioned from artist Graham Eadie. Eadie’s image is a remarkable and confronting piece of work to encounter in a cathedral, particualrly given its location in the same corner of the original building where the arsonist lit his destructive fire. Several of the walls here have been left untreated, and their blackened and peeling surfaces are a reminder both of human sin and weakness, and of the possibility for absolution and redemption. Taken together, it is a powerful and challenging message, communicated jointly through art and architecture.
The second moment where the art and architecture work in striking accord is in the new main space. Giurgula notes that, having accommodated the required number of seats, the size and proportion of this space turned out to be very much like that of a gymnasium. The challenge, then, was to imbue such a space with a meaning and affect much greater than these utilitarian connotations, to moderate the scale, and to provide a central focus reinforcing the location of the altar in the middle, surrounded by the congregation, as dictated by the Vatican II reforms. All of these spatial considerations have been spectacularly achieved by the suspended steel ‘aureole’, designed by Robin Blau, which hovers above the altar. This finely wrought construction suggests a whole range of possible associations, both abstract and figurative. It is a paragon of religious art: it makes visible the invisible, communicates the unspeakable, and makes intangible faith apparent in and through things.
In comparison with the success of these artworks, there is one jarring note in the architecture of the new hall of worship. This is the way in which the interior of the new space is open on its south side – glass doors give views and access onto an adjacent cloistered walk, open square, and parish hall. The hall, in particular, is a rather banal building to face when seated within the cathedral, and while the apparent idea is good – Guirgula speaks of opening the church to life in the world, of children playing in the open space in the shadow the cathedral – in practice the proximity is distracting. The strategy on the other side of the space, where windows are kept low to the ground and eye level is occupied by the ‘Stations of the Cross’, is much more successful in comparison. Likewise the cloister, while it has a cheerful kind of jauntiness, in an Australia vernacular kind of way, seems to lack the gravitas required for a space directly visible from the interior of the cathedral hall.
In the mind of the heathen (or this one, at least), there is always the niggling question of whether it is irrelevant, or even blasphemous, to examine religious art and architecture in formalist, aesthetic terms. This could, on one level, be seen as idolatory – the worship of symbols and sacraments for themselves, rather than for what they represent. The history of reform in the churches can be generalised as a cyclic revolt against the trappings of religion – art and architecture prominent amongst them – in an attempt to return to ‘true’, intangible faith. But on whichever level one reads it, whether content or form, the rebuilt St Patrick’s cathedral is a significant building. It is surely one of the few, and one of the finest, religious buildings to be constructed this century.