Jazz Age Architecture

colours inside

Did you know that in Cork city you can visit a very fine example of Art Deco architecture? A building, moreover, that was designed by a pupil and former employee of Frank Loyd Wright? It’s the Catholic Church at Turner’s Cross, Christ the King: by good chance today – 20 November – is The Feast of Christ the King, so what better day to take you on a tour of this remarkable structure that is deserving of a wider audience? It was Pope Pius XI who instituted this feast day for the Roman Catholic Church in 1925; today it’s celebrated also by the Anglican and Lutheran community and many other Protestant churches.

Left – the architect, Francis Barry Byrne of Chicago, with his design model; right – an aerial photograph of the Christ the King Church, Turner’s Cross, Cork, 1933

St Finbarr’s South Church, Dunbar Street, the oldest Catholic church still in use in Cork City, was built in 1766 and enlarged in 1809 but by the early years of the twentieth century was inadequate to serve the increasing population. A new church building was planned in the mid 1920s to remedy this, and the brief was that it should have a seating capacity of 1200 with room for a further 700 standing. This was going to be a large building, and the design would have to address issues of acoustics, lighting and the engagement of all the congregation with the enactment of the sacrements. Perhaps it was for that reason that its commissioner – Rev Daniel Cohalan DD, Bishop of Cork – looked beyond Ireland’s shores for an architect who might have suitable experience in the field. The Bishop also eschewed architects in Ireland and the UK because he apparently felt the costs of their services and their buildings were too high: the available budget for this project was only £30,000, and only 20,000 of that was for the building itself. The American architect Francis Barry Byrne was his choice. Byrne (whose mother Mary Barry Delaney had family roots in Co Wexford) had worked for Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago before setting up his own practice in the same city. He had already completed a number of church projects and had written about modern church design.

Two of the architect’s drawings of 1928: entrance elevation (left) and floor plan (right)

Byrne put forward a plan which went against convention by creating a single wide space for church and sanctuary, bringing the altar closer to the larger part of the congregation. He also suggested brick and timber as suitable materials. The architect visited Ireland only once – to view the proposed site – and never saw the completed building, although he is said to have considered it the most successful of his church designs. A local supervising architect, James Rupert Boyd Barrett, was appointed to see the job through on site.

head of statue

profile silhouette

Upper pictures – the entrance, showing the statue of Christ the King: this was designed by Chicago sculptor John Storrs and executed locally by Cork sculptor John Maguire based on plaster models shipped to Cork. Lower –  the rugged profile of the church building

Like many another architectural project, costs began to escalate from day one. Poor ground conditions meant that the foundations had to be driven significantly deeper. Barrett suggested that costs could be recuperated if cast concrete could be used instead of brick for the main structure: conventional masonry is labour intensive and therefore carries relatively high costs. The suggestion was taken up and proved successful – the building was contained within its budget: in fact it came in slightly below. Byrne was impressed with the idea of using reinforced concrete (hitherto an engineering technique) and developed it through all his future church projects. Cork’s new church was, therefore, revolutionary in this aspect alone.

Left – the interior design, making use of Art Deco elements including chevrons: note the continuous central glazed rooflight. Right, a window detail

Building work commenced in 1928, shortly after the Pope had instituted the new Feast Day: it thus seemed very appropriate to dedicate the church to Christ the King.

looking to altar

The main body of the church – an inclusive space where the entire congregation is relatively close to the altars

Visually the church is startling. Its concrete walls are finished externally in hand thrown adobe style render: this, and the large red-pantiled roof, certainly call to mind an overgrown Spanish or Californian mission chapel – somewhat unexpected in the Cork suburbs. Naturally (like many another architectural project) it excited much criticism and – indeed – cynicism: it still does this to unwary passers-by, but the Parish has grown to accept and (largely) appreciate its very particular character.

west end

Detailing of the church fittings is integral to the overall design concept: the brass font is striking

Any connoisseur of building history will recognise that this church is very much of its time, particularly when regarding the detailing and the internal elements. It is a true, undiluted example of the Art Deco movement and has an integrity which has been carried through its shape, its spaces and its fittings. There is no compromise, and – in my opinion – it works well for that reason. The architect’s vision has been adhered to throughout, in every feature: the abstract coloured glass windows, the inlaid terrazzo floors, the marble work of altars and ritual furnishings, the brasswork of font, stoups and ironmongery. Apparently Byrne’s wife, Annette Cremin Byrne (who worked with him in his practice) was responsible for much of the interior artwork. 

all glassMore interior details in terrazzo, brass and timber, and a fuller view of a bank of windows

For me the building is successful and attractive. I want to spend time in it; I want to experience it in use. It’s not just that it’s unusual (for Cork – and Ireland – although there are other good examples of Art Deco here), but it works. It satisfied the client’s brief, it was built on budget, and it provided innovation in the way the building’s users related to each other. So good was it in this aspect that it set the scene for other modern Catholic churches in the US and Europe (but not in Ireland).

The careful detailing extends throughout the building. External finishes include stepped plinths, adobe rendered concrete walls, pantiled roof, worked downpipes and drainage outlets

Comprehensive information can be found on this excellent website. When you have the chance, do go and visit the Church of Christ the King, Turner’s Cross in the city of Cork. You’ve missed the Feast Day for this year but it’s always open – as a church should be. The building will welcome you in.

Poster from Cork Tourism Illustrations by Hurrah Hurrah

poster cropped

10 thoughts

  1. I’ve also seen it passing, but not been in. It reminded me of a well known church in Reykjavik, Hallgrímskirkja, which is a bit more OTT, and apparently is Expressionist. Hallgrímskirkja came along quite a lot later in 1986.

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  2. Oh my God! My much loved cousin Billy gave me the tour when he became curate there some years ago. I’d read about it & couldn’t believe my luck when he was sent there. The only incongruous note in my view was the presence of those very conventional & insipid statues one finds in every Church. I promised that I’d gift something more suitable- should I ever win the Lotto! Still hoping, especially as Billy recently became the PP.. Thank you so much for a marvellous refresher course.

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  3. Congratulations Robert on a wonderful presentation of this masterpiece. It is sad that so few of the churches commissioned and built in 20th century Ireland were other than mediocre. There seemed to be little appreciation of the role of art and architecture in churches. And where good art was commissioned, it was often in the face of opposition from the Bishops and the laity and sometimes even had to be financed personally by the local Parish Priest in the face of indifference. I am thinking of the Harry Clarke windows in the church in Newport, Co. Mayo.

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  4. I have driven past this church so many times and stopped in traffic outside it, wondering at its dramatic facade, so adventurous for its time, so uncharacteristic of its location. Next time I will stop the car and go in. Thank you once again for revealing another hidden gem in our extraordinary County Cork.

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    • Thank you, Katharine, for your comment. You are right about the sometimes unsung gems of Cork: two other examples from the city are St Finn Barre’s Cathedral – an extraordinarily unified vision realised by its architect, William Burges – and the Honan Chapel: perhaps Ireland’s best showcase of its artists and craftsmen in those revolutionary times.

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  5. I have to confess to having been one to those cynical passersby and wondered what on earth it was doing in the middle of Cork but having read your article and admired your photos I see I was totally wrong in my opinion and shall hot foot over there when I’m next in Cork. It reminds me of Coventry Cathedral different period in its sheer vision and detail and otherness. Your first photo is astonishing.

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    • Thank you, Amanda. We were very fortunate that the sun was shining in at just the right time to bring all the colours from the windows into the church – something that should always be planned when placing windows! Certainly in plan form there are similarities with Coventry Cathedral – that was a building which I much admired in my younger days: perhaps that’s why I became an architect!

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