It was 50 years ago today … buildings and spirituality for introverts

Another 50th anniversary happened in Liverpool this weekend – as well as the release of Sergeant Pepper. It was fifty years ago at Whitsun that Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral was consecrated. Designed by Frederick Gibberd, it was built cheaply and quickly, after Edwin Lutyens’s original plan for a massive Romanesque design was abandoned for being impossibly expensive. I’m a fan of Lutyens and would love to have seen his design completed - only the crypt was built. The Anglican cathedral may be massive  – Lutyens would have topped it.

I was training as an architect when Gibberd’s design was completed and thought it a rather banal design, cheap and simplistic. The architect Michael Manser likened it to “a gargantuan concrete aberration from the Apollo space programme.” Its quality of newness, modernity and light was in marked contrast to the typical Catholic church buildings characterised by “shadows and secrets: poorly lit Victorian churches, low-wattage votive candles, knee-knackering confessionals with the priest’s face a pinkish blur behind the grille.”

Liverpool’s liturgical scheme was also a stark contrast to the other post-war designed cathedral, Coventry. Archbishop Heenan had written in his instructions to the architect, with the Second Vatican Council in mind: “The ministers at the altar should not be remote figures. They must be in sight of the people with whom they offer the sacrifice.” Frederick Gibberd said he was doodling on the back of an envelope and the idea just came in a rush – a thin shell, like a tent, raised above an altar. I prefer the complex architectural spaces of mediaeval cathedrals, to be honest, but I also like clarity and simplicity and modernist plain white cubes. When I visited the Metropolitan cathedral last year after a long gap, I warmed to it. It’s still primarily one huge, undefined space, but circling the perimeter and encountering the series of chapels creates an experience of exploration. In San Francisco by contrast, the Catholic cathedral of St Mary of the Assumption completed in 1971, just four years later, has a much more complex structure and interior and communicates to me a richer spiritual environment.

Joe Moran, professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, wrote an article for the Guardian Review on Saturday about the cathedral. Joe Moran is an atheist, but one drawn to the effect buildings can have on our spiritual selves. He quotes sociologist Grace Davie in his narrative. She has argued that cathedrals appeal to us today because they offer “vicarious religion”, a “believing without belonging”. Cathedrals fulfil what Davie calls “the desire for anonymity – meaning the option to come and go without an explanation, or even a greeting, and to move gradually from one stage of commitment to another”. This has great appeal to me. I prefer to be anonymous when visiting places of worship and squirm when engaged by a steward with a penchant for warmly greeting every person who walks through the door. In response, I feel guilty. Shouldn’t I, a priest, an ambassador for Christ, be filled with missionary and evangelistic fervour for the proclamation of the Kingdom to all who enter the Christian domain and be open to every encounter?

Moran describes his own experience of entering the Metropolitan cathedral when worship is in progress. The job of worship, he says, seems to have been outsourced to a dwindling core of professionals. And yet he never feels left out. Instead, he feels as if a space has been carved out for the mind to wander and find its own equilibrium, before we are decanted once again into the noise and haste of our own life.

He references the French art historian Marcel Aubert who wrote in 1937: “The ancient temple was made only for God; the cathedral is made for all. Vast, high, protected by its vaults, amply lit, it shelters all its children who come there to hide, to seek reassurance or information.” Cathedrals were the only lavish buildings that were open to all, Moran says, until the department store arrived in the 19th century.

Nowadays public places can feel almost too welcoming. The cathedral invites you in but without seeming needy like this. It never asks you to “get involved” or “have your say”. It does not offer free wifi. It has none of that jazz-hands jolliness where everyone is “excited” and “passionate” to be serving whatever it is they are serving you. Unlike the Apple Store in the Liverpool One shopping complex – a bit like a cathedral, I think, with its grand entrance, light-filled nave and huge altars where believers come to worship the iPhone – there is no danger of being pounced on by evangelists seeking converts to the techno-faith.

Inhaling silence

For Moran, the cathedral is a place to go “when the rest of the world feels shouty and oversold. It asks nothing of you, other than that you match its quietness with your own. A cathedral is now one of the few public places where us deep introverts can inhale that scarce and precious drug: silence.”

What really draws Moran, a non-believer, to the cathedral, is his faith – battered but basically intact – in other people. “You don’t need to believe in an afterlife to find solace in Gibberd’s church-in-the-round. But you do need to believe in this life, and in the value of spaces that show an unspoken solicitude for others, that feel solid and anchoring, that allow us to mark time against them and give shape and form to our existence.”

Moran got me thinking about the relationships between faith and experience, and the qualities of place and space and their spiritual effect on me.

Whether we are aware of it or not, places and spaces affect our heart-centre, our souls and bodies and feelings. This can be obvious when the environment is noisy, crowded and stressed. It may be less obvious as we move from one quality of space to another.

Public places

I am sensitive to the quality of public space. As Moran identifies, there can be similarities as well as differences between secular and sacred spaces, and between different versions of the secular and sacred. He helped me identify just how different my experience can be. Some cathedrals can diminish and intimidate my humanity, others draw me into depth and encourage me to flourish. The same contrast can be true of art galleries and museums (Tate Britain compared with Tate Modern), theatres (the National Theatre and the Barbican), concert halls, libraries, department stores (Harrods and Peter Jones), shopping centres (almost any new generic centre compared with a complex street-scape such as Bath), railway stations (Euston and St Pancras). In some environments I feel dehumanised, tense, anxious. In marked contrast, in other places my heart and soul and spirit can be touched, opened, melted, centred, nurtured – I can soar.

Spiritual spaces

Spiritual spaces for me don’t have to be buildings designed for religious use and to communicate particular images of God and the holy. A visit to Liverpool One shopping centre last year affected me spiritually and in some ways more effectively than the Anglican cathedral. I was drawn to sit and gaze and absorb and observe, and my inner being was rested and enriched. Churches can often be a big turn off.

I know that I am drawn to buildings that express in the built environment what I experience in my faith environment. I enjoy being in spaces that are complex, layered, that invite me to explore and surprise me with contrasts, that sometimes have exquisite detail and beauty, and austere grandeur at others. James Stirling's Neue Staatsgaleri in Stuttgart is one of the most inspirationally spatially complex buildings I’ve ever explored. It’s not the greatest architecture, but Stirling had an intuitive grasp of how to create deeply spiritual space.

HTB Apple Store spirituality

I’m clearly drawn, like Joe Moran, to architecture and spirituality for contemplative introverts. Of course there is a correlation between the architecture that draws and inspires me and my intuitive spiritual heart. Joe identifies another important ingredient for the introvert me – the fear of “of being pounced on by evangelists seeking converts to the techno-faith”, whether that is indeed in a shop or a charismatic evangelical church or a cathedral with over-enthusiastic welcomers. I value buildings and places that are generous and sheltering, open to all who come to hide or seek reassurance, not seeming needy, or asking me to “get involved” or “have my say” or where everyone is “excited” and “passionate.” No, please, God forbid, absolutely not that, not for me, anyway.

Creating buildings and spaces that have the quality I seek is not easily achieved. If it’s a new build, rare is the architect or designer who has clearly sat inside the space in his or her imagination and felt the quality of the space. If the building is ancient, that it has evolved into this kind of place is a combination of chance evolution and current stewardship.

My musings raise fundamental questions about the nature of faith and spirituality and the core of being human, about the quality and purpose of buildings, and the effect we have on people when they walk through our church doors, both the effect of the building environment and the effect of the worship and prayer culture.

All buildings have the potential either to enhance or diminish the way we experience God, the holy, sacred, divine, numinous, unconditional, infinite, intimate, ever-present other.