St Paul’s Cathedral and Coventry Cathedral
This is a transcript of episode 34 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, Will Gompertz, Duncan Wilson, Deyan Sudjic and John Witcombe as we continue our journey through the history of art, architecture & sculpture in England.
A History of England in 100 Places is sponsored by Ecclesiastical
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.
Welcome to Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places. I'm your host, Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, a historian based at the University of Roehampton. In these programmes we are exploring the amazing places which have helped make England the country it is today.
How does it work? Well, 10 categories, 10 expert judges, and thousands of your nominations will lead us to a list of 100 places that together tell England's story.
In this episode we are continuing our journey through the Art, Architecture & Sculpture category, which is being judged from your nominations by BBC Arts Editor, Will Gompertz.
To continue exploring these locations, I am joined by Deyan Sudjic, Director of the Design Museum, and Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England.
Our fourth location in this category is the jewel in the crown of London's iconic skyline, St Paul's Cathedral. This masterpiece by the architect Christopher Wren is in many ways a symbol of London. It is considered such an important part of the London skyline that it is actually a protected view, which ensures that Londoners from certain viewpoints in the city can still catch a glimpse of its magnificent dome.
Although the site has had a church from 604 A.D, the present Wren creation was of course part of the major rebuilding programme in the city after the Great Fire of London.
When designed and built it was an architectural revolution, which shocked many. It wasn't long before it became an integral element of the city's landscape. So why did Will Gompertz choose St Paul's Cathedral?
St Paul's Cathedral is just one of those landmarks in the UK which is so evocative of everything, in a way, that the country stands for. That it has this scale and ambition and this beauty, all united by Sir Christopher Wren in this wonderful building, which is such an important landmark within London; that its sight line, either way, you see St Paul's from different places within the capital, are protected. So I love the outside of St Paul's. I think it's just such a wonderful shape, such a wonderful piece of architecture. But I also love the inside of St Paul's, particularly the Whispering Gallery, which is one of those phenomenal places to visit which not everybody knows about. You can go up to the top of St Paul's, you can stand within the dome shape and it's a huge spread -the diameter is massive- but you can stand on one side of the Whispering Gallery, at the inside of the top of the dome, and a friend can stand on the other side and you literally just whisper, like that, against the wall. It doesn't matter how many thousands of people are in the gallery, the person on the other side can hear you. So there is something completely magical, and spiritual, and ethereal about the whole experience, which captures the magic for me, of St Paul's Cathedral.
Let's talk about the origins of this cathedral which, as Will said, is an icon for London, England and in fact the whole world.
We shouldn't take St Paul's for granted. It was something that was very unusual in England, a baroque Cathedral. Most of our cathedrals are still Gothic. It was a new style and it was a time when London was being re-planned after the 'Great Fire', so it's a really important symbol of all of that.
It's not just a Cathedral, it is a political statement. It's a religious statement and it's a civic statement. It carries on its very elegantly crafted shoulders an amazing political burden, which it wears very lightly. Even now it still is a sense of Britain's differentness. It's not the same dome that the French would have built at the same time. It's not the same dome that the Italians or the Romans would have built. It says something about that particular moment. And it's one which has shaped how London sees itself, how Britain sees itself. You only have to think about those extraordinary pictures of the dome against the background of World War II bombing and the fire watch and the importance that it has as a national symbol. If it had been destroyed, London would have been seen as a very different place.
It's remarkable I think also in that it was planned and designed by Wren, a fascinating figure, who began his life as a scientist rather than somebody associated with creating form and shape.
Its plan is a reflection also of religious rights. Everything about that building means something.
But of course it could have looked very different. If we hadn't had the 'Great Fire', we would have had one of the previous iterations of the Cathedral, of which there were many. If we go back to the 16th century, we've got St Paul's with a very, very tall spire before it was struck by lightning. So it's worth thinking about the fact that it's also a Cathedral in a space where there have been many previous versions. There is a sense of continuity as well as something new?
The idea that you don't rebuild what has been destroyed is an idea which comes and goes throughout the years. In our own time we have been much more interested, I suppose, in recreating the loss- if you think about the fire at Windsor Castle, for example, where it was seen as very important to reinstate what had been there before. That didn't happen with St Paul's, absolute differently. It was seen, I think, as a moment of modernity in the Britain of that time, that something so different from the Gothic could be rebuilt in its place.
Yes, and I suspect that process was made a bit easier by the sheer scale of devastation of the 'Great Fire', meaning that there was an opportunity, which of course famously wasn't entirely taken, to replan the centre of London. And St Paul's was the centre of this.
Wren was a great master of his brief, but also a master of his clients. I know from working at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich that he managed to get built what he wanted to get built, despite his clients, as many great architects did. Because he had a very clear vision of what this building should be.
It is extraordinary that it was built, if you think about the fact, as you alluded to Duncan, there were plans for the rebuilding of London on a geometric pattern that didn't happen. John Evelyn's plans got rejected, Wren's plans got rejected, but Wren's cathedral was built. How did he get that final design? How did he begin rebuilding?
Well he had to get the Royal warrant to build it and he had to go through a committee, including churchmen and representatives of the Crown to get it approved. He had a time of it!
I think the fact that Charles II was a newly established monarch, I think, also had quite a lot to do with making such a powerful statement in that the monarchy was back with a bang.
Architecture, I think, always comes freighted with messages about power, about religion, about civic importance and splendour, and that's done in the most obvious ways of sheer scale, sheer size, showing conspicuous use of costly materials is another way to show value and price. It's also about the unforgettablity of the image.
The sight of St Paul's dome over the London skyline is a remarkable image, even now. Even now that London's skyline is crowded with thrusting and not always very attractive high-rises. There is still that special power.
People think of the English as being somehow a compromising, gentle culture, which actually values the past and traditions. Actually, it's not true. London has always been ruthless about itself. It's been ruthless about change and adaption and nowhere is that more true than it has been in the last 10 years. Yet still in the context of that you see that dome of St Paul's still maintaining that confidence and that power rising above the river against the sky.
What about the interior? Let's talk about the intricacies inside the cathedral?
I think one of the principal constructional tricks he pulls off is the triple dome. With the dome you can see from the inside being lower than the dome you can see from the outside, with a cone in the middle to give it structural strength and support the centre of the outer dome. That took a lot of working out. Wren of course was a scientist and mathematician- it was all very, for the time, extraordinarily well engineered in quite a modern way.
But it's got a scale that makes all of us feel both small, but empowered, by being in that space. The human figure is not crushed by that interior. You feel uplifted by it. You feel you are moved by it. The architecture pushes you, propels you to the space underneath that extraordinary dome, which does feel like the focus, but the journey to get there is also full of incident. It's full of landmarks and memorials that chart British history. It's still a place which is alive now.
The one thing I think Wren, as a great scientist, didn't seem terribly interested in, was acoustics. Having sung there quite a lot myself, the sound does disappear up into the dome. Now of course that is one of the tricks, one of the things as a visitor, you can experience in the Whispering Gallery, but it does challenge baroque music there, particularly!
Yes, or anyone giving a sermon!
Wren's legacy of architectural work is very broad and you can see it in Oxford, Cambridge, Hampton Court Palace, Greenwich. But St Paul's Cathedral is his most important work, I think. His gravestone in the cathedral features the Latin inscription which translates as, 'reader if you seek his memorial, look around you'.
It is incredible, isn't it, that a building the size of St Paul's Cathedral survived the Second World War? It was in fact bombed during the Blitz on 12 September 1940. A time delayed bomb which struck the Cathedral was successfully defused. Of course, had it detonated, it would have totally destroyed the cathedral. It is testament to the close connections that Londoners feel for the cathedral that it was seen as a symbol of hope throughout the conflict. As long as it stood unharmed, all was not lost.
Well from here we move exactly to one that was not so lucky during the war. Another astounding Cathedral.
Coventry Cathedral was rebuilt after the Second World War beside the ruins of the old Cathedral, which was destroyed by the German Luftwaffe on 14 November 1940.
Firebombing damaged large areas of the city centre as well as Coventry's historic Cathedral, leaving only a shell and the spire. More than 800 people were killed with thousands injured and homeless.
On that November night in 1940, the 4 fire watchers on duty at the Cathedral were beaten back by the rapidly spreading flames from the incendiary bombs on the low-pitched roofs. They could see that the roof would be lost, but they watched hopelessly as the walls also began to buckle from the heat.
The decision was taken to rebuild the Cathedral the very next day, not as an act of defiance, but as an expression of faith, trust and hope for the future of the world. So why did Will Gompertz choose Coventry Cathedral?
Coventry Cathedral is just one of those remarkable happenstances where a council, or a county, or a city, can make a decision. So Coventry has been badly bombed during the war, it's in a terrible state and their old cathedral gets very badly damaged. And I suppose at that point, you could just knock the old one down, or you could try and rebuild it as it was. But actually, the decision was made to make something completely different, to take a step forward, not to take a step back. And to make something which was positive and timely and of the moment and spoke to the future.
So for me, Coventry Cathedral is not only just a very beautiful modern building, it's also a response to war atrocities and violence and the very worst of human nature. A beautiful response to hate. It's a response full of love and joy and positivity. And I think it's just a great emblem of what art can do for man and mankind and how it can make us think differently from the version of us, which can become very destructive.
Let us start by paying a visit to Coventry Cathedral.
My name is John Witcombe, formerly the Very Reverend John Witcombe. I'm the Dean of Coventry.
In front of us is the ruins of the apse. The thing that is extraordinary about it is that it has no roof. On the night of November 14 1940, a Luftwaffe raid criss crossed the city for 11 hours, destroying the whole of the city centre and the old oak roof of the cathedral caught fire and burnt. The Provost of the Cathedral was on the roof trying to shovel off the incendiaries. Finally it became too much and he had to retreat as the Cathedral burned. But the thing that really changed the story for us was that the next morning as he walked into the cathedral ruins, still smoking, he immediately said, we are going to rebuild as a sign of hope and as a sign of peace.
There was a competition which was launched to invite submissions for rebuilding- over 200 entries were received. The unique gift of the winning entry by Basil Spence, later Sir Basil Spence, was that he actually retained the whole of the ruined cathedral, linked it with the extraordinary porch, which we're just walking into, which therefore meant that we kept hold of this image of brokenness, but linked it to an image of rebirth.
Right in front of us is our west wall. It's an extraordinary pane of glass. It's 80 plus feet high. It's nearly 60 feet wide. It's engraved with rank on rank of angels, and saints, and apostles from the Christian tradition. It's all about the journey. It's all about the transition. It's all about the integration of brokenness and rebirth.
Inevitably, as you walk in here my voice drops because there's a sense of quietness. People are just brought to a halt. There are these extraordinary soaring pillars, which even from here we can see taper down to actually really tiny brass pins. They are so slender but they hold up an incredible kind of honeycomb roof with this beautiful maple slatting, which I think was a gift from the people of Canada.
I talked to the architect, the man who worked with the architect, Anthony Blee. He cut out all of these shapes on his living room floor! Because this was before the days of computer aided design, so he just hoped they were all going to fit in this fine concrete vaulting. It's just incredible sense of space, which is designed to lead the eye towards the great tapestry, which we are going to see in just a moment, once we have moved past probably the easiest glory of the cathedral, which is the baptistry window.
To really see it we have to stand back a little bit.
John Piper's design, but the way that it was actually realised in glass by Patrick Reyntiens is as significant to the whole design. 195 lights, actually many different panes within all of those lights. To get the depth of colour Reyntiens actually layered up to 4 different layers of glass to get the depth of particularly the reds and blues, which you see right up at the top if you crane your neck, up there.
From here at the back of the cathedral you can see the Graham Sutherland tapestry. Quite a challenging image. Apart from that, the walls look really grey and rather dark. So what we're going to do is what we do actually with all our visitors. We're going to walk up the cathedral, keep our eyes on the tapestry and we're going to try and avoid looking either to the left or the right. So that's what we'll do now.
The glory of the building is now revealed when you turn around. The walls looked grey but now they have burst into colour. We have got these 5 massive pairs of stained-glass windows the height of the building, so in other words over 70 feet high. I defy anybody not to be blown away by that!
Coventry has had 3 Cathedrals in the past thousand years: the 12th century priory church of St Mary, the mediaeval parish church cathedral of St Michael and the modern Coventry Cathedral, also named for St Michael. And the fortunes of the city are closely associated to the story of its Cathedrals, one of death and rebirth. So let's talk more about this magnificent Cathedral that is with us today.
Look, I decided I wanted to be an architect when I went to see Coventry Cathedral as a 12-year-old. I took the bus from London up to Coventry and found this extraordinary colourful burst of energy in the middle of what was then still a city rebuilding itself. But as time has gone on of course I realised the wrong person won the competition. Basil Spence was an architect whose career, I would say, was based on interpreting the work of others. He built Sussex University in the manner of Le Corbusier. He then went on to build the home office building in London, one of the most regrettable additions to our skyline in the last 30 years. And while of course this complex Cathedral has vast significance in terms of the city, in terms of the hope of rebuilding and that powerful contextualisation of the ruins, if one is looking at 20th-century cathedrals in Britain, I would start with Gilbert Scott in Liverpool and the Anglican Cathedral there.
So you disagree with Will Gompertz on this? At the time of course it was, like St Paul's Cathedral, actually breaking the mould with this innovative, modern, bold design. From your point of view Duncan, how does the building look? How does it feel? And do you agree?
I'm not going to take issue with Deyan about its artistic integrity. Iconic is an overused word, but it is an iconic building and in terms of Coventry, the regeneration message is really important. It's part of the post-war redevelopment of Coventry, which was done in a way which was designed to be, not just throwing it up quickly and fixing it, but actually thought through by Gibson, the Master Planner Architect. And I think the Cathedral is the most emblematic part of that rebuilding.
Yes it is absolutely the symbol to regeneration and reconciliation. As Will said when he chose it, it is the sublime answer to the brutality of war. But actually it's interesting in terms of the reactions we've had here because of course, at the time it had mixed reviews as well, didn't it?
Let's not forget that in the 1960s Britain had only just stopped rationing building materials. So very little was being built anywhere and we had almost lost the skills of doing ambitious buildings. There is no question that Coventry is an ambitious building and it's got huge historical significance. I just wish it was slightly more convincing architecture.
Do you think it should be in the top 10?
Personally, I would, although I could actually think of a hundred others that should also be in the top 10, so I'm cheating, really. I think it was the right decision to leave the shell of the mediaeval cathedral next door. That's a very powerful statement. It reminds me of the fact that there's a lot of mediaeval Coventry still there too. So we mustn't just view Coventry as a creation of the post-war period. There are a lot of great mediaeval buildings there. It is a great Midlands city and I think the Cathedral contributes to the development of that city.
There we have it. Two outstanding Cathedrals which were both groundbreaking in their time, which have provoked controversial reactions through the ages, but which also continue to inspire people today.
That's it for this episode but do join us next time as we uncover two more important locations in England's Art, Architecture, & Sculpture story.
And don't forget you can get in touch with us on Twitter, just use the hashtag 100 places, to join in the conversation about England's Irreplaceable locations.
Thank you to my guests, Deyan Sudjic, and Duncan Wilson and of course our Judge Will Gompertz.
Don't forget to hit subscribe so you get every episode and follow the story as it unfolds.
I'm Suzannah Lipscomb. Thank you for listening and I hope you'll join me next time.
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group. When it feels irreplaceable, trust Ecclesiastical.