A Gothic cathedral is difficult to assess as contemporary architecture but the recent work by the Gothic Design Practice at St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds is important enough to demand attention. While it has some affinities with the better-known Classical architecture of our time, and with work in other styles using stone and load-bearing construction, these strands in the pluralistic weave of current architecture are seen at times as newsworthy but seldom as significant architecture. This is different.
The work at Bury St Edmunds forms part of an accretive building project extending across five centuries, beginning with the nave of St James' Church by John Wastell in 1503 - a parish church within the compound of the massive abbey destroyed at the Reformation, surviving only in fragments such as the Norman gate tower and belfry facing the neat Georgian town governed by a medieval street grid.
St James was designated a cathedral in 1914, and in 1943 Stephen Dykes Bower (1902-93) was appointed to design extensions. His work was constructed in three building campaigns, beginning with a north porch, continuing with the choir, and ending in 1970 with the crossing, carried only just above roof height. Internally, the roofs were brightly decorated with Puginian patterning and the floors laid with mellow pammets, a local largescale quarry tile.
Dykes Bower was anomalous in his time, not just because his designs were Gothic (and Classical, as in the baldacchino at St Paul's Cathedral). While the influence of Modernism on an architect such as Giles Gilbert Scott caused him to pare away the detail and achieve a sublime simplicity, Dykes Bower, like his most immediate predecessor, Ninian Comper, was guided by a belief in beauty as an end in itself, and as an aid to worship.
A deep love and understanding of the art of the Middle Ages and later periods formed the basis for creative invention. The fine detail of the interior and the avoidance of discordant elements were crucial to the complete effect.
An architecture of highly controlled richness is an unfamiliar mode, which is why the continuity of the Dykes Bower office as the Gothic Design Practice has been essential in producing the right result at Bury St Edmunds. Warwick Pethers worked with Dykes Bower in his later years, and when the latter died in 1993 his will offered the cathedral a sum of more than £3 million to continue the construction, recommending that Pethers should do the work.
Pethers later joined forces with Hugh Mathew, a former partner of Dykes Bower, who was intimately involved with the 1960s work on the crossing at Bury. With the Dykes Bower legacy as seed money, the cathedral was able to obtain funding from the Millennium Commission in 1998, supplemented by further private donations, to complete the tower and the other parts of the main cathedral space in a building campaign lasting from 1999 to 2005.
The tower has attracted most attention. It is a development from the designs left by Dykes Bower, replacing his controversial concave roof/spire with a more conventional set of pinnacles and crenellations. A tribute to Wastell's Bell Harry tower at Canterbury, it commands the skyline of Bury with a rare combination of strength and delicacy, and its fluency conceals many carefully considered design decisions and a complete familiarity with the design language.
Internally, it still awaits the painted timber vault to complete the rich roofscape but the shaft of light that it funnels downwards enriches the space and distance. While it might seem a useless extravagance to some, the tower fulfils a symbolic function of vertical emphasis fundamental to the performance of a religious building. In Dykes Bower's scheme, the main altar stands at the crossing, so the tower acts as its marker. People still stop in the streets to stare at it, and not the least of the effects of the scheme has been to alter the urban dynamics of the town and animate its public spaces from a distance. Floodlighting, inside or out, would only detract from its dignity and already luminous presence.
The north transept similarly acts to create atmospheric space within the cathedral. The expanded parish church is smaller than most medieval cathedrals, and Dykes Bower successfully expanded the apparent scale by creating distant masked vistas.
The transept, with its tempting internal stairway, was left incomplete in 1970 but now offers new vistas, with the chance to get close to details of window glazing and lime plaster that are impeccable in materials and finish. At the east end, the Apostles' Chapel is a completely new invention by the Gothic Design Practice, filling a gap between previous buildings that will create further mysterious depths of perspective.
The architect's achievement has not only been to interpret the earlier designs and fill in the gaps with its own respectful but personal approach. It has also succeeded in reversing the entropic decline of construction standards against which Dykes Bower stood out in stoic isolation. Since 1970, expertise in matters such as solid wall construction and lime mortar have increased but nothing quite like this has been done in a new building. What has been built at Bury since 1999 is actually more 'traditional' in these respects than what was intended in the 1960s, and is based on the principle of a working life of 1,000 years. That is real sustainability.
There is no new structural steel or concrete supporting the masonry, although both these materials are used in other ways.
The stone that bonds into the Baggeridge brick core is deep enough to feel completely real. The masonry contractor, Ketton Stone, has done the project proud but there is also much fine work that remains out of view. Pethers says that while the building methods are not actually medieval, they come as close as can be managed today. The argument that Gothic is necessarily fake in the modern era because it is not structurally honest will not stand up here. Through minute attention to the building process, this has been done at lower price than a reinforced frame structure.
Arising out of the authenticity of construction is a freedom to achieve fresh and unaffected decorative effects on the exterior. The flank walls of the north transept blend in with the roughly finished and weathered north wall of Wastell's nave by a similar roughness and spontaneity of craftsmanship in the diaper patterning of large black flints. As the lime mortar weathers, the pattern will emerge even more strongly. The flint flushwork cresting the tower and the transept is fresher in feeling than the work of the 1960s, as a result of an easier familiarity with historic techniques and materials.
The total effect of the combined phases of this building, from Wastell to Pethers, demands a reconsideration of the idea of anachronism. In the discussion about the tower design in the mid1990s, no significant voices were raised demanding a Modern solution, as there had been in the 1950s. This might merely suggest a 'horses for courses' approach, or an abdication by the Modernist establishment from a specialist and perhaps irrelevant building type. In religious terms, the needs of the Church of England are only dimly articulated here or in most other places of worship, but the attraction of this showpiece ought not to fade, based as it is on a deep understanding of the relationship of body and soul. Even to the disengaged majority, it offers the same sensuous consolation as, say, a fine performance of the music of Hildegard of Bingen.
At present it is not easy to see the sequel to this project, except in the completion of the two additional sides of the cloister with attractively simple and robust buildings, for which the Gothic Design Practice has a scheme. This reaching out into new territory is an even greater challenge for the cathedral to grasp than the work so far accomplished, and it is currently strictly neutral on the subject, although the space could more than pay for itself and provide valuable extra facilities.
The debate about 'Tradition versus Modernism' has gone very quiet lately, more probably as a symptom of the low levels of intellectual energy in current British architecture than because it has ceased to be relevant or was ever resolved. If we call Bury a pastiche, then the same term could be applied to the most apparently 'progressive' schemes of our time.
Modern architecture has largely lost its grounding in tectonic reality, the legacy that it originally drew from the Gothic, and so perhaps it is not surprising to find it challenged by this very substantial ghost from the past. As the moral high ground of Modernism has been levelled, a new landscape of pluralism has emerged in which we are only beginning to find our bearings.
Amid such relativism, the conviction and certainty of Bury, both in design and construction, look more significant than they did in the past, and its ideals of beauty and wholeness by no means trivial or marginal.