The cathedral that never was: a lesson in pragmatic creativity

Lutyens unbuilt Liverpool cathedral

I recently listened to a BBC Radio 4 feature called ‘Unbuilt Britain: Liverpool’s Other Cathedral‘ which tells the story of the renowned British architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens (29 March 1869 – 1 January 1944) and his never-built work, a cathedral of such magnitude and magnificence that it would have dominated Liverpool’s skyline and rivalled any around the world.

The cathedral was commissioned in 1930 and was for the most part to be funded by the working class Catholics of Liverpool’s growing industrial port. The cathedral plans were so ambitious however that even the finely detailed model was never fully completed.

Hearing the story of Lutyens’ cathedral brought home for me the pitfalls of allowing creativity and vision to override resource and circumstance and of taming an initial vision to a practicable size. The story is a poignant allegory of digital ‘cathedral’ making and a lesson in the timeless value of pragmatism when developing any architecture or space, even digital.

A few excerpts may outline the story briefly though I encourage you to listen to the feature, it is wonderful:

“I read somewhere that the model alone cost something like £5000, which today is something like a quarter of a million pounds, I mean that’s just for the model of the cathedral so in a way it rather helps to explain, doesn’t it, why the real thing didn’t get built.”

“Why the cathedral authorities didn’t get the clue when they couldn’t afford to build the model that they weren’t going to be able to afford to build the cathedral?”

“It was too ambitious … And the Archbishop at the time was thinking big really.”

“Surely everyone involved in the project must have know somewhere in the hearts, or their souls, that it was unlikely to happen.”

Because digital ‘cathedrals’ don’t involve the physicality of stone and cement, it’s easy to assume that we digital architects, designers and builders might be exempt from the malady of over-ambitious dreams. As we enter our construction sites, we may not be faced with swirling dust and half-poured concrete but our dust is in code, our concrete in .jpg and .txt or whatever else.

In its seeming etheric’ness and neatness, and with its lack of physical mark-making on earth’s ground, digital can be dangerously easy to underestimate and even more easy to forgive when the dream is not delivered.

We snip a corner here, limit a little functionality there, ignore a primary architectural ethos because it’s suddenly no longer viable and, even with best planning, end up plugging in content just before release. Not that every project runs this route but it does happen often enough to wonder: what would our skylines look like if builders were allowed to produce skyscrapers with such ease for the ‘MVP’?

A whittled down version of something to accommodate dwindling time and budget is not an MVP. The MVP should be designed to maintain the ethos, to present the vision, even if only with essential parts.

As Lutyens might have carefully considered the number of stairs leading up to the portico, the exact curve of the arches, the coherence of all parts to the whole, so our architects and content prototypers design entire experiences and (in best cases) test and verify the shape and expression so that it may emote audiences in the desired way – the urge to buy, to share, to revisit, to act. In the case of cathedrals, to find inspiration and love for God.

I’ve worked on a project, no so long ago, in which the best of the best were hired in designing and planning a digital space, a journey, an experience. A vanilla prototype was built, tested, and refined and the person with the very biggest office signed it off with applause – ‘this is the way forward’.

We were in possession of a substantial model (which had required significant financial investment) and sign off from the very top. All we needed to do was build.

Whilst Lutyens’ model was overly ambitious and the project hampered by dwindling funds and the advent of World War II, our model was realistic to build even if innovative and bold. Once building it however, we found our model, the architecture of it, pulled apart by various levels of stakeholders, the content ethos put to a later date, the work of the best of the best reinvented by lesser experienced practitioners working from analytics alone and not as artists and designers do – on the fuel of informed, obsessive and practiced craftsmanship.

The signed-off design was redesigned to be more acceptable to those on the inside and not more delightful to users. With time moving fast and money running out, the ideal was whittled down to ‘MVP’ – a so called minimum viable.

The project had in effect plunged money into a model which may never see the light of day, or may, at a later (and safer) date when everyone might magically agree. In my experience, innovation cannot be procrastinated. It’s a now or never and brave affair.

As for the Liverpool cathedral, only the crypt was built – and served as an excellent air raid shelter during World War II. It didn’t dominate the skyline or rival any cathedral around the world. A BBC documentary wasn’t made about it, a museum exhibition was not set up for it. These were saved for the incomplete model and for Lutyens’ vision of a skyline altering cathedral.

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