Liverpool Metropolitan

and the Conservation of Postwar Places of Worship

Rebecca Burrows

  The Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King by Frederick Gibberd  
  The Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King by Frederick Gibberd and its interior below (Photo: Purcell)  

No century has left us a more varied set of conservation challenges than the 20th century. A vast array of new styles, alternative technologies and materials, plus diverse intellectual and creative forces have left behind a tremendous architectural legacy, of which some of our best examples are churches and cathedrals.

Agreeing the most appropriate way of caring for our postwar places of worship is a continuous intellectual and practical debate for professionals, PCCs and chapters alike, with consensus often hard to reach. These buildings can be of international significance and the decisions we make now are likely to have wide-reaching consequences in the future.

Taking an informed approach to change through what we call ‘conservation management planning’ can be the best way to identify a sustainable way forward, tackle a particular problem or plan for the future. The approach builds on an understanding of what makes your church special in order to recommend tools, methods and actions that will sustain its ‘significance’ in the longterm.

In this article, Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral will provide a case study which explores some of the problems inherent with postwar places of worship and how conservation management planning can provide a useful framework to manage change. The lessons learned from this example will be of interest to all those responsible for the care of churches, ancient and modern alike.


  The Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Interior  
  The Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Interior.(Photos: above, Greg Harding Photography; all others: Purcell)  

Liverpool’s Catholic cathedral, or to give it its full name, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, was designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd in 1960 and its construction was completed in 1967. Now listed at Grade II*, it is one of the most significant postwar buildings in the world and utterly unique in the UK. The building has long been an iconic structure on the skyline of Liverpool and is balanced against the contrasting gothic of Giles Gilbert Scott’s Anglican cathedral.

Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral is a building of international importance. It re-established Gibberd as something of a radical, whose early prominence as a pioneering modernist had been somewhat eclipsed by his later specialism in town planning. Expressive of the optimism in technology that typified British architecture in the decades following the devastation of the second world war, the building remains an impressive and divisive one. (A CNN poll in 2012 found it to be in the top ten ugliest buildings in the world.)

The structure represents a total synthesis of architecture, design and art, with the components designed as separate pieces of a larger whole. Sixteen immense concrete ribs make up the primary structure and are expressed both inside and out as they rise through the podium to the lantern. Like Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral, which was completed five years previously, Liverpool was handed down to us as a great vessel of postwar art and design. Both are colourful boxes of the primary artistic talents of the period. But where Coventry Cathedral wears its modernism politely and in places only skin deep, Gibberd’s cathedral proudly flaunts the bare bones of its modernity, although it was criticised at the time by the New Brutalists for not being honest enough.

Liturgically, the design at Liverpool was also innovative and experimental, an outstanding monument to the Second Vatican Council. The interior of the cathedral is dominated by the unbroken space of the large circular nave around which the chapels are arranged, and which is dominated by its crowning glory – the lantern. The lantern contains one of the largest stained glass windows in the world and is constructed in ‘dalle de verre’ glass (see glossary) by John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens. At Liverpool, the lantern is the crowning glory, with Gibberd carrying through the belief that cathedrals, metaphorically and symbolically are the crown of the cities they inhabit.

Unfortunately, there have been inherent problems with the structure since its construction in the 1960s, as many of the techniques and materials used were untested and have not performed well over time. Soon after opening, the cathedral began to exhibit architectural flaws, the most serious being substantial leaks through the aluminium roofs, failure of the mosaic cladding panels which encase the concrete frame externally, and water ingress through the lantern, which periodically splashed into the sanctuary below.

Problems continued throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, made worse by a lack of agreed approach to the defects, which remained poorly understood. Ad hoc and experimental repairs were trialled without adequate recording or monitoring, which prevented lessons being learned when attempted repairs subsequently failed. Unrecorded repair efforts to the lantern that have been identified include overpainted glass fibre strips to exterior joints, a silicone wash and aluminium flashings. All of these attempts have not only negatively impacted the functioning of the lantern, but have also had a substantial impact on its visual appearance.

A major survey was carried out in the 1980s and unsuccessful repairs were made in the 1990s and 2000s. By 2014, water ingress through the lantern has reached such intensity that all agreed a new, radical approach was needed.

Purcell architects began work with the cathedral to address the unique conservation challenge it presented. Before recommendations for repair could be made, it was vital to fully understand the lantern through an assessment of its construction techniques, its current condition, its environment, its significance and the original design intent. In 2016, Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral had been awarded research funding from the Getty Foundation as part of the Keeping it Modern initiative, and this now enabled the architects to prepare a detailed conservation management plan.

  Inherent flaws in the matrix of the stained glass lantern caused water ingress inside the cathedral  
  Inherent flaws in the matrix of the stained glass lantern caused water ingress inside the cathedral.  


Conservation management planning is a vital instrument in any toolkit for managing change in an informed way, and can be broken down into three steps:
Step 1 Gain an understanding of significance through an assessment and articulation of what makes a place special
Step 2 Identify ways in which this significance is vulnerable but also where it might be enhanced
Step 3 Transform these issues and opportunities into repair principles and practical policies which inform and manage change.

Step 1: Understanding significance

 At Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral the conservation management plan supported the architectural team to make appropriate decisions and avoid the mistakes of the past by giving them a better understanding of significance and the underlying causes of deterioration. Detailed historic research was carried out in the cathedral and Gibberd archives to understand how the concept design had developed into the constructed building and how early repair issues had been addressed.

The cathedral was also placed within its international and national architectural context, from the medieval gothic tradition to the modern ideals of the postwar church. Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia Cathedral (1958–1960) in Brazil and Auguste Perret’s Notre Dame du Raincy church in Paris, were both early influences on British architects.

The assessment of significance for the cathedral was grounded in national and international best practice, but was further developed in reference to the way Gibberd himself approached the building when he wrote his book Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool in 1968. Within this, Gibberd set out his design intent for the scheme and broke the structure down into three core components; structure, architecture and art. As a piece of total art, every part of this building contributed to each of the three components to some degree. As an example, the lantern holds structural significance for its innovative concrete frame and rare structural glazing, illustrating the postwar development of these materials. Architecturally, the lantern forms a silhouette on the Liverpool skyline, complements the Anglican cathedral and acts as a beacon for the spiritual life of the cathedral, as any church tower might. Artistically, the lantern holds one of largest stained glass windows in the world, which shines light into the sanctuary. It represents the Holy Trinity in its abstract tricolour of light.

Assessing the significance of the lantern in this way reflects a site specific approach which focuses on the primary attributes of the place as perceived by the architect and by those who regularly engage with the building – the congregation and the wider community in particular. However, the significance of the cathedral and its components also had to be assessed from the perspective of national and international value systems, such as ‘special architectural or historic interest’ (UK legislation) and ‘outstanding universal values’ (UNESCO’s world heritage guidance). The relative significance of each component may then be broken down into different levels such as exceptional, high, medium, low, neutral and detrimental.

Both the tangible and intangible values of the cathedral were drawn out in the assessment of significance, and an assessment of the relative levels of significance was applied to each component. This assessment was referred to throughout the conservation project to ensure that harm to significance was avoided, and where possible, significance was enhanced.

  Interior view of the glass slabs showing resin from earlier repairs smeared across the face  
  Interior view of the glass slabs showing resin from earlier repairs smeared across the face (All photos: Purcell)  
  A crack in an area of the concrete frame which had been repaired with resin in the past and dusted with powdered slate to reduce its visibility  
  A crack in an area of the concrete frame which had been repaired with resin in the past and dusted with powdered slate to reduce its visibility  

Step 2: Vulnerabilities and opportunities

It is important for any conservation management plan to provide an explanation of what is happening to the significance of the building, how it might be vulnerable, where there are conflicts with other values and what the potential threats are to its longterm survival. The climate crisis, for instance, is resulting in greater volumes of rainfall which the lantern at Liverpool is already having to cope with.

Harm could be caused by a major change such as a roof replacement, but it could also be affected by incremental and cumulative changes. For example, the ‘waterproof’ silicone coating painted on the outside of the lantern affected its reflective qualities externally and reduced light internally. Other issues might relate to management and use, repair and maintenance, accessibility, visitors and how the building is explained to them, art or collections.

Inherent defects identified in 20th century buildings have long been used to justify well-intentioned but inappropriate or excessive change. Without understanding the need or underlying cause, this can have a highly detrimental impact on significant features.

Historically, it had been assumed that the epoxy resin holding the dalle de verre glazing in place at Liverpool had failed entirely. When investigations were carried out, it was found that gaps between the glass and the resin matrix had been there since construction. Some deterioration had occurred as a result of adverse environmental conditions but overall, the lantern was structurally stable. The research found that water penetrated through these fissures into the lantern, which then ran down the internal surfaces and pooled on the ring beam at its base before overflowing onto the high altar. Monitoring was carried out to understand how much was water penetration, and how much was from internal condensation. The research concluded that as these gaps occurred from construction onwards, the solution would be to manage the internal water rather than trying to close the cracks.


Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral overarching conservation management plan policies:

POLICY 1 All change will be grounded in a robust understanding of significance of the building

POLICY 2 The impact of proposed change should be assessed to understand the benefits or harm to significance

POLICY 3 Cyclical maintenance and periodic renewal will be undertaken proactively

POLICY 4 All change should respond to a clear understanding of the issues and lessons learned from previous repairs

POLICY 5 Changes to built fabric will be carried out using the methodology of repair, improve or reform

POLICY 6 All changes will be recorded, and any new techniques monitored to inform future conservation works


Step 3: Policies to manage change

Conservation management planning is not about stifling change but about making informed decisions in the interest of the building and the people who worship in it. Principles and practical policies should be used to guide future development and given a priority level or timescale. An articulation of the building’s capacity to accept change can be useful, as can a room-by-room assessment to articulate specific actions.

At Liverpool, a high-level repair methodology was developed to frame debate. It included three sequential stages of increasing intervention: repair, improve, reform:1

Repair – the lowest level of intervention, this solution implies that the tangible fabric is inherently significant, and functional. This requires physical failures to be untangled from the underlying causes. Often traditional conservation principles and techniques can be applied.

Improve – improvements may be necessary if the design, material or technique of a component was flawed and does not perform adequately. Improvement will depend on an assessment of the tangible or intangible significance values.

Reform – this is when components have inherently failed and have never been fit for purpose, and the intangible values of that element, or what it embodies, are more significant than the fabric or form itself. There is an opportunity here to use new technologies or bold designs to reshape the solution, often in line with the original vision. There should be a high threshold for intervention at this level.

Applying this methodology to the water ingress into the lantern at Liverpool Metropolitan, we found that the solution was a simple one. Intervention at the lowest level, repair, was discounted as the resin was inherently defective, could not be repaired like-for-like and its replacement would result in a major, harmful change. However, as the lantern in its current form was highly significant and the resin was inherently flawed, but had not failed, it was decided that intervention at the second level was appropriate; improvement. The new design solution aimed to control the flow of water, directing it away from the fabric (and heads of the parishioners) with a series of unobtrusive gutters directing the water back outside the building. The environmental conditions continued to be monitored and results recorded for future analysis.

  Rather than preventing water ingress, the decision was taken to collect and disperse it using a system of internal gutters and rainwater pipes  
  Rather than preventing water ingress, the decision was taken to collect and disperse it using a system of internal gutters and rainwater pipes.  


The project at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral emphasises that while postwar places of worship can have very unique challenges caused by novel techniques or materials, the tried and tested approaches of traditional conservation management are often the most appropriate ways of caring for these buildings. To mend modernism, and avoid the mistakes of the past, we must first understand the place of worship, and step beyond reductive tendencies to ask the fundamentals. What is important? Why is it the way it is? What has driven this particular design? What conservation actions will cause the least harm? The policies and principles that arise from this interrogation must be pragmatic and adaptable if a sustainable future is to be found for our most significant buildings.

It is important not to enthusiastically try to ‘fix’ defects before they are fully understood. An inappropriate repair, particularly one that is not recorded or subsequently monitored, can worsen the problem in the longterm and have a damaging aesthetic impact. Often, the simpler the solution the better; with management of a defect being a perfectly acceptable solution until you fully understand the cause and effect – not just the symptoms of an issue. 

Further information

Guidance on conservation management plans:

Getty Foundation, Keeping it Modern initiative,

Historic England guidance on assessing significance,

ICOMOS Madrid New Delhi document on 20th century conservation,


Significance – the values or traits of a place that make it special to current and future generations, also known as special interest.

Conservation management planning – an approach that carefully considers what makes your building special, how it is vulnerable and what can be done to preserve or enhance this significance.

Dalle de verre glass – French for ‘slab of glass’. This is a type of stained glass with thick, coloured glass set in a concrete or epoxy matrix; an innovative technique sometimes used in the postwar period. Survivals are very rare.


BCD Special Report On Historic Churches 27th Annual Edition, 2020


REBECCA BURROWS (Rebecca.Burrows@
) is an Associate at Purcell. A heritage consultant with over 10 years’ experience, she has worked for both Historic England and the Diocese of Lincoln. Current projects include leading the heritage advice for the Manchester Town Hall refurbishment and producing the conservation management plan for Coventry Cathedral.

Further information



Conservation principles

Church conservation

Damp and decay treatment




Ecclesiastical work

Concrete repairs

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