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1934 Edwin Lutyens' Cathedral Model

Unusually, the 1934 Summer Exhibition was dominated by an architectural model. Architects often complained about being relegated to a side gallery, but in 1934, one architectural exhibit was hard to miss. Edwin Lutyens’ model of his proposed design for Liverpool’s Roman Catholic Cathedral towered over the heads of visitors, dominating the Octagon Room at Burlington House (Fig. 1).

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On entering the exhibition, the view through to Room 6 was blocked by this vast Piranesian vision, arch over arch, pinnacle over obelisk, delicate detail over gargantuan mass, all stepping back to a soaring dome. To scale, a person would be a little over an inch high before this structure, and the whole rose thirteen-and-a-half feet from its pedestal. The Royal Academy’s official restrictions on the size of artworks had to be waived to accommodate it. The finished Cathedral was intended to be eighty feet taller than St Peter’s and the second-largest church in Europe in terms of floor area—the side chapels alone would have been roughly as big as Christopher Wren’s St Mary-le-Bow.

But the model was not merely large; it embodied a vision of genius. The design solved many geometrical challenges that had faced the designers of great domed cathedrals in the past. The crossing would rest on four clearly articulated piers, punctuated by eight arches of two different sizes, avoiding the difficulty Wren faced at St Paul’s, where he made arches of different widths the same height. Instead of the ridged effect of vertical buttressing, a massive battered wall would cradle the dome, creating a successful visual counterweight to its mass. The dome was to be an engineering wonder, either plated in stainless steel so that it would shine in the sunlight, or built of mammoth carved granite blocks. It was the product of architectural skill developed over a lifetime by one of Britain’s greatest architects, and the critics were dazzled: writing for Country Life, Christopher Hussey called it “one of the most romantic buildings that have ever been conceived.”1 Eric Gill was obsessed by it, and architectural thinkers from John Summerson to Jonathan Glancey would continue to ponder it decades later. It was, Summerson wrote, “a landmark in the architectural history of its time … no less than Bernini’s rejected design for the Louvre.”2 The model itself was so sublime a work of art, so important a historical statement, that a whole gallery would be built to house it at the Museum of Liverpool eighty years later—even though by that time, the construction of the cathedral itself had been abandoned for half a century. Years after his father’s death, Robert Lutyens would call it, “the greatest cathedral never built”. Surviving only in drawings and in the vast model, he described it as a design suspended in “the singular purity of its non-completion”.3

Summerson wrote that Lutyens’ cathedral was the next step in the lineage of the triumphal arch, traced from ancient Rome through to Alberti. The central motif was the “penetrated block” with its “symbolic force”, a sort of essential gateway. The model revealed the strict relation of the façade and the interior—arches as tall as office towers tunnelling into the masonry cliff of the porch and continuing right through the interior. All of the arches were of 1:3 proportion, marching in greater and lesser series through the interior to define nave, aisle, and chapel. Summerson wrote, “Dimensional interdependence of this complexity has rarely, if ever, been achieved in a cathedral design and certainly in no cathedral ever built.”4

The model conquered the Summer Exhibition like no previous architectural exhibit; it was the most ambitious architectural model ever attempted in Britain. Only Wren’s seventeenth-century Great Model of Saint Paul’s Cathedral could claim to rival it. In this case, however, the purpose of the model was not to convince the king, but rather the public. The Liverpool model was to serve as a fundraising tool—allowing people to see what their money would support. It presented the complex design in three dimensions, and importantly, it stood as an authoritative record of a design that Lutyens knew he would not live to complete.5 At the Summer Exhibition, the generation that conceived, and funded, the commencement of the largest and most modern cathedral in Britain, could stand in the presence of its masses and towering dome. The entrance to the Octagon Room became a sort of portal into the future, and visitors who passed through it felt viscerally tiny in the model’s hulking physical presence. Could a model be “picture of the year”, the tabloids wondered?6 Nearby, Charles Holden displayed drawings of the University of London Senate House—a building that would become a major icon of the London skyline—but these went largely unremarked in the shadow of the great dome. Lutyens’ success presumably contributed to his election as President of the Academy four years later.

Built from wood and composition by London’s leading model shop, Thorp Models Ltd, the model was the product of two years’ work. Even so, when the Exhibition opened, the interior was incomplete, so the decision was taken to leave the model closed. Charles Sargeant Jagger even modelled a miniature version of the sculpture of Christ the King that Lutyens had commissioned him to create over the west front. 

But the huge model was not just a bit of artistic bombast. The cathedral had a social purpose, and the display at the Academy was meant to attract attention, funding, and the sustained commitment of the British public to its social and spiritual work. Among the cathedral’s claims to modernity was the vast porch, heated during the winter to provide a shelter within sight of the lighted altars for the city’s poor, with clean bathrooms open at all times of day and night. Telephone boxes were to be built into the piers.

During the inter-war period, the Academy took an active role in shaping politics around the built environment. They were preparing to host an exhibition of British art and industry the following winter, and they would sponsor a London planning committee during the Second World War. They were able to inspire major activity and movement. The Summer Exhibition was one of the most prominent places through which architects interacted with the art world and the public.

At the Summer Exhibition’s opening banquet, the speeches revolved around architecture. The Prince of Wales, the prime minister, and the Archbishop of Canterbury all rose to speak about the importance of improving housing. The focus was as much on aesthetics as amenities—the prime minister called for public housing with “beautiful proportions” and “calm outline”.7 It was taken for granted that beauty had a public benefit and that the Academy was a force on the side of beauty.

  1. Christopher Hussey, “The Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool”, Country Life, 5 May 1934, 452.↩︎

  2. John Summerson, “Arches of Triumph”, in Colin Amery and Margaret Richardson (eds), Lutyens: The Work of the English Architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869–1944): Hayward Gallery, London, 18 November 1981–31 January 1982 (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1981), 52.↩︎

  3. Both quotations are from Robert Lutyens, letter, 1969, quoted in Julian Treuherz (ed.), “The Cathedral That Never Was”, brochure (National Museums Liverpool, 2007), 2.↩︎

  4. Summerson, “Arches of Triumph”, 49.↩︎

  5. Lutyens died in 1944 with his cathedral drawings spread around him.↩︎

  6. Douglas Percy Bliss, “Royal Academy Impressions”, The Saturday Review, 12 May 1934, 543.↩︎

  7. “Royal Academy Banquet”, The Times, 4 May 1934, 9.↩︎

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Explore the 1934 catalogue