Looking at Buildings

, printed from the Looking at Buildings website on Saturday 20th August 2022

Clifton Cathedral

Bristol, Clifton Cathedral

CLIFTON R.C. CATHEDRAL. Pembroke Road, Clifton.

Clifton was one of thirteen RomanGlossary Term [1] Catholic sees, or bishoprics, established in England in 1850. The present structure is the newest of the 20th century English Cathedrals, replacing the now derelict 19th century Cathedral of the Apostles on Park Place, Clifton.

Set amidst expansive Victorian villas west of Pembroke Road, the Cathedral's scale and visual impact have a surprising piquancy, yet it does no violence to its neighbours. Commissioned in 1965 from R. Weeks, F.S. Jennett and A. Poremba of Percy Thomas Partnership, it was the first cathedral designed in response to the Second Vatican Council's emphasis on liturgical essentials: the primary requirement was for a congregation of 900 grouped as closely as possible around the altar during Mass. The major elements were established in three months and were executed essentially unchanged. Construction took place 1970-73 by John Laing & Son Ltd, also the main contractor at Coventry Cathedral.

Car parking and ancillary accommodation is provided underneath the main building, with a presbyteryGlossary Term [2] to the north. The two main entrances are the portal of St. Paul from Clifton Park and the portal of St. Peter from Pembroke Road, both reached via stepped bridges, with an additional processional entrance at the liturgical west end. Exterior claddingGlossary Term [3] is pre-castGlossary Term [4] concreteGlossary Term [5] panels of pink Aberdeen granite aggregateGlossary Term [6], with contrasting white concreteGlossary Term [7] piers marking the angles and portals. Concentric stages of walling rise to a steep double pyramid roof. A crowning cross sits within the slim tripartite spireGlossary Term [8] of bevelled fins, rising to 167' and visible from afar because of the high plateau setting.
In plan the church is an irregular hexagon subdivided internally into varied polygons. The controlling moduleGlossary Term [9] for all angles and dimensions is an eighteen inch equilateral triangle; a classicalGlossary Term [10] approach partly responsible for the building's apparent unity. The exposed white concreteGlossary Term [11] interior is dramatically successful because of its exceptional finish. It was cast in-situ using Russian redwood formworkGlossary Term [12], the crisp texture emphasised by concealed natural lighting.

A low ambulatoryGlossary Term [13] under galleries leads into a BLESSED SACRAMENT CHAPEL to the east, a BAPTISTERYGlossary Term [14] defined by a low wall, then a small LADY CHAPELGlossary Term [15] at the north-west angle. There is a palpable sense of emergence as one enters the NAVEGlossary Term [16] - broad, low and simple beneath complex roof structures with timber acoustic cones. The flexible seating is grouped in fan form so that no one is over 50ft from the sanctuaryGlossary Term [17] steps - a more succinct plan than Liverpool, where seating 'in the roundGlossary Term [18]' places some of the congregation behind the celebrant at Mass. The structure is based on three concentric hexagons of reinforcedGlossary Term [19] concreteGlossary Term [20]: the outer walls, then the ring beam on piers forming the naveGlossary Term [21] walls; and an inner ring suspended over the sanctuaryGlossary Term [22]. They are tied together with star-like radiating beams, converging to support a funnel-like lanternGlossary Term [23] which floods the sanctuaryGlossary Term [24] with concealed lightGlossary Term [25] and gives an impression of ever-increasing height.


The original DOORS of fibreglassGlossary Term [26] and metallic filler by William Mitchell were replaced in glass 1995. NarthexGlossary Term [27] WINDOWS by Henry Haig, the larger depicting 'Pentecost' and the smaller 'Jubilation'. Stained glass set in epoxy resin. STATIONS OF THE CROSS around the ambulatoryGlossary Term [28], in low relief cast concreteGlossary Term [29] by William Mitchell, each worked in an hour and a half. Their raw brutality jars with the setting. Mitchell also made the LECTERN to Ronald Weeks' design. ALTAR designed by Ronald Weeks in Portland stoneGlossary Term [30]. The FONTGlossary Term [31] by Simon Verity has a Portland stoneGlossary Term [32] baseGlossary Term [33] sculpted with doves and fish supporting a massive PurbeckGlossary Term [34] stone bowl. It is top-lit from a lightGlossary Term [35] well piercing the galleryGlossary Term [36] and stands in a shallow pool lined with black stone - typical of the delight the designers took in their subject, and the intensely spiritual symbolism they achieved. SCREENGlossary Term [37] to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and votive CANDLESTAND by Brother Patrick of Prinknash Abbey. Bronze MADONNA in the Lady ChapelGlossary Term [38] by Terry Jones. ORGAN with ash case and tin pipes, by Rieger of Austria. In the spireGlossary Term [39] hang two bells, the only fittings taken from the former Pro-Cathedral.

Clifton Cathedral was beset with constraints: a small four acre site; an unpromising suburban context; and a small budget (c. £600,000 - the result was called the "ecclesiastical bargain of the 1970s"). Despite or because of these, and in less than eight years from commissioning to consecration, the architects and craftsmen produced a church of superlative quality. Paradoxically the structure is of considerable three-dimensional complexity, and yet the simple spatial arrangement is understandable the moment one enters the building. It attains a mystic simplicity through careful use of humble materials and masterly manipulation of lightGlossary Term [40]. Mary Haddock described it as

a heart-lifting Christian temple, inspiring reverence but not awe. A sermon in concreteGlossary Term [41].

Last updated: Monday, 26th January 2009