Midcentury British Catholic Church Architecture: Form, Function, and Context – By Victoria M. Young

Victoria M. Young on Robert Proctor’s Building the Modern Church

Robert Proctor, Building the Modern Church: Roman Catholic Church Architecture in Britain, 1955 to 1975, Ashgate, 2014, 412pp., $109.95
Robert Proctor, Building the Modern Church: Roman Catholic Church Architecture in Britain, 1955 to 1975, Ashgate, 2014, 412pp., $109.95

In the decades after World War II, communities worldwide returned to worship as a way to recover from the devastation of war. According to the December 26, 1960 issue of Time magazine, more than $1 billion was spent on the design of churches in America, a number equal to 13.2% of funds for all public buildings erected in the United States. In his seminal 1960 work Liturgy and Architecture, the Anglican priest and scholar Peter Hammond called this period the most active and experimental in ecclesiastical architecture since the sixteenth-century Reformation.

When these structures are considered within the history of modern architecture, the focus has been on formal and stylistic qualities, materials, and the redefinition of space and structure; elements such as the ritual function performed within or the building’s relationship to larger cultural and urbanistic trends have not received their required attention. Robert Proctor’s comprehensive Building the Modern Church: Roman Catholic Church Architecture in Britain, 1955 to 1975, corrects this trend and brings together a variety of significant reasons why Catholic churches were built as they were in mid twentieth-century Britain.

Churches, according to Proctor, are complex social spaces that respond to a variety of inputs from architects, church leaders, clients, and users. Foremost for many is the question of style and, at mid-century, the choices were traditional or modern. Many congregations wanted their building to recall the great structures of the Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic past, and architects interested in designing historical churches had an unlimited clientele. In addition to useful architectural analysis of buildings like the Church of St. Patrick in Leicester (1957-1959), Proctor provides a strong theological rationale for these works by reading the many documents of the church and Holy See, including the 1947 papal encyclical Mediator Dei, with an eye toward seeing these buildings as historically grounded in the architectural past, as opposed to the modern interpretation from which these documents are often understood. This discussion of tradition as an essential consideration of mid-century architecture provides a foundation for the rest of his book, on which rests his primary theme: the use of modernism as the style of choice.

The language of modernism entered British church design after World War I and influenced important buildings like the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool by Frederick Gibberd (1960-1967), a work Proctor identifies as the defining moment in which British architects accepted the style. His description of modernism is extensive, from its focus on the role of technology and materials and their assistance in exploiting form, to the application of Brutalism to sacred space. He even coins the term “municipal modernism” in respect of churches added to the postwar urban fabric.


The most important aspect of Proctor’s discussion of modernism is how he positions stylistic notions in socio-cultural discussions of architect and client intentions and interactions. Architects and clergy shared their ideas about modern design in writings published in Churchbuilding and the Architectural Review. They also understood modernism through the buildings they used in daily life, from schools to houses. The Church of St. Mary, Denton in Manchester by Walter Stirrup & Son (1961-1963) reveals this connectivity of building types within the landscape. St. Mary’s, a modern church featuring hyperbolic parabaloids, is placed within a neighborhood of Victorian terrace houses. Although their forms are disparate, the structures are united by scale and the use of brick as a primary architectural material. The two buildings showcase a most interesting interplay of tradition and modernity. Also important for designers’ and clients’ understanding of modernism was the 1951 Festival of Britain, an exhibition organized by the government and held throughout the United Kingdom to showcase the country’s achievements and contributions in fields such as architecture in the years after World War II. Proctor’s nuanced look at the profession of architecture also reveals how architects came to be known by certain members of the clergy, and how firms like Gillespie, Kidd & Coia supported young designers who wanted to create modern sacred space that was both functional and artistic.

St. Mary's Church, Denton. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
St. Mary’s Church, Denton. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Significant works of architecture are needed to provide recognition and support for certain styles and forms. These buildings engage the profession, the religious patrons, and the laity with their novel shapes and encourage potential clients to build in a certain way. Le Corbusier’s 1951 pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp, France, Notre Dame du Haut, changed the understanding of the mid-century church, moving away from rectilinear modernism to a modern idiom of flowing, curvilinear forms in concrete that were derived from sculpture and expressionistic essences. Saint John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville, Minnesota by Marcel Breuer and Associates (1953-1961) reveals this sculptural sensibility as it showcases modern building methods and materials such as reinforced concrete. Breuer is an important touchstone for Proctor’s own tectonic understanding of church design, as he explains that “Church architecture at its best is always identical with the structural logic of the enclosure.”

It is important to understand the fundamental reason for architectural inventiveness. In the case of the postwar Catholic Church, it was liturgical reform with its focus on full participation by the laity in the Mass, a centrally placed altar, engagement with the sacraments and the use of the vernacular. Proctor does an excellent job outlining how ritual and architecture came together in the mid-century and post-Vatican II (1962-1965) Catholic Church. He cites the importance of Peter Hammond’s writings, including the aforementioned 1960 Liturgy and Architecture, as crucial to understanding the new space. Although I get anxious when a scholar assigns too much importance to one text or source, Hammond’s book was being widely read and it was shared with building teams across the world, including Breuer and Associates who received the book from their Benedictine patrons during the design phase for Saint John’s Abbey church.

Hammond’s work was essential. In 1957 he co-founded the New Churches Research Group (NCRG), a group of architects, both Catholic and Anglican, who shared their ideas for a modern and unifying worship space. Proctor’s discussion of the group at the onset of chapter six outlines their ecumenical nature and reveals the importance of both church leaders and church documents in shaping sacred space, as liturgical reform was promoted by the NCRG through publications like The Tablet and Architects’ Journal. The group preferred the circular plan church and its fresh, new architectural flexibility. Proctor’s study of the planning of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Clifton, Bristol, from 1965 to 1973, is a fascinating account of how architects responded to new geometrical possibilities, and Proctor helpfully includes numerous architect study drawings. Useful and compelling as this is, it would be interesting to follow this design process even further and consider the role of models, drawings, and documents as tools for architects attempting to win over clients with new ideas.

The variety of architectural concepts for churches was facilitated by reforms of the Second Vatican Council that, according to Proctor, “revised the very concept of a rule-based church architecture” in Great Britain. But a building’s form could not support the liturgy by itself. Liturgical art was essential for the rituals performed within, and Proctor’s discussion of modern church art is an indispensible addition to the history of modern design. Scholarship on modern Catholic church art is limited, with the exception of the work of the great patron of modern artists in France, Dominican priest Father Pierre Marie-Alain Couturier. Couturier’s contribution was to commission and support great artists who were not necessarily Catholic or even religious, such as Le Corbusier and Henri Matisse, to complete work in churches and chapels at sites including Vence, Assy, and Audincourt.


Proctor’s discussion of sacred art provides insight into the British role in advancing modern design. Like architecture, liturgical art often negotiates the line between tradition and modernism. At Coventry Cathedral in the 1950s, architect Basil Spence eagerly incorporated modern art, including a tapestry by Graham Sutherland and stained glass in the baptistery by John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens, into the building. The furnishing of Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral was another story. Here the local clergy declined to consult with architect Gibberd and included figural forms of the Madonna and Child by Robert Brumby without his knowledge. These two buildings acted as source models for parish churches. One could furnish their building with modern art that eschewed the representational or one could find tradition and the figural to be appropriate even within the modern forms of a building. By focusing on different types of devotional practices within Catholic spaces, Proctor analyzes how designers created Blessed Sacrament tabernacles, Marian shrines, Stations of the Cross, and pilgrimage elements. These more personal devotional features could either integrate or contrast with their new modern architectural surroundings.

But how were ideas about modern art spread to congregations and building committees? Publications like L’Art sacré in France and Liturgical Arts in the United States were a means of disseminating information. Liturgical Arts, the monthly publication of the Liturgical Arts Society, demanded that art be liturgically significant, rather than just aesthetically pleasing and decorative. They also advised that modern forms, through their materiality and simplicity, most honestly expressed proper liturgical notions. Proctor briefly touches on the English Guild of Catholic Artists and Craftsmen, later the Society of Catholic Artists, and their role in creating a “unified Catholic artistic culture” in Great Britain. Their means of sharing information was through exhibitions; Proctor notes in particular the 1960 London show “Church Building and Art” as “tempting to see … as another catalyst for the acceptance of modern art in Catholic churches in the 1960s.” But he does not outline what made this exhibition so important. I would be interested to learn more about this topic and the role exhibitions played in promoting modern sacred space. Were there traveling art shows featuring modern church design? Were they heavily attended? What types of groups promoted and supported these exhibits? What was the role of journals, magazines and fund raising brochures in disseminating the new sacred modernism?

In his convincing discussion of the role of ritual in relation to creating and nurturing communities, Proctor uses a performative lens to understand the identity-forming rituals of immigrant Catholic groups from Poland to Ireland. As the author points out, many postwar Catholics were perceived as foreigners, seen as un-British even though they shared a Roman Catholic identity. Through their architectural performances across landscapes and built environments, they tried to create a British identity. The construction of new pilgrimage churches, dedicated to Mary or saints, provided a direct link to the historical past, as seen in Basil Spence’s 1955 design for the Church of St. Martin and St. Ninian in Whithorn, Scotland. It was also an attempt at British nationalism, and Proctor’s application of this approach is refreshing given that scholarship typically treats nationalism as a nineteenth-century construct.

Building the Modern Church is a powerful contribution to the field of architectural history and religious studies. It is well-written, engaging, and filled with details that reveal an extraordinary amount of primary source research, as well as a thorough analysis of secondary sources. Robert Proctor’s work reminds us that scholars need to ask many interdisciplinary questions of sacred spaces. We should consider why different congregations chose one aesthetic form over the other. Was it specific to particular faiths? Did it relate to local context? Was it necessary in order to obtain the support of the local or overarching religious hierarchy? And how did it respond to church documents and ideas of the time? Answers to these questions will continue to fuel studies of mid-century church architecture and continue to reveal how modernism could be an appropriate setting for the Catholic Church and its rituals.