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Preview of Trans Mittere, Cathedral Culture by Alan Powers

Building Design April 2004

As all psychogeographers know, the most appealing features of urban landscape – the industrial wastelands, the unconscious anachronisms, the unreconstructed local distinctiveness – are the victims of regeneration and the heritage industry.

Let in the light, and the picture fades before your eyes. The epistemological problem is that as soon as you know too much about a place to see it “as it is”, there is no return to innocence.
The way to sidestep the deadening impact of “heritage” on culture is to redefine the terms and raise the game. This is what Ewan Forster and Chris Heighes do in their theatrical pieces created for buildings. Their last production, Middle English, took the architecture of Giles Gilbert Scott at Whitelands College, Putney, as its subject, becoming an elegy to a “principled building” that was on the point of losing its mission in a conversion to housing.

Amid much poignancy and hilarity, Middle English explored the “in-between” character of Scott’s architecture as both traditional and modern which makes it one of the unsolved mysteries of English culture. The show took the form of an exam including an exercise in timed road building (a reference to Ruskin) and full sized indoor rowing.





Their latest production, Trans Mittere, moves on to Scott’s Liverpool Cathedral tower and explores the theme of sending and receiveing information by radio waves. A transmitter placed in the tower will broadcast locally, and visitors will experience a variety of spoken texts on their way to the top, including the voice of the architect from a 1944 BBC transmission.

Here too the in-betweenness of Scott’s work will be explored in the belfry, which Forster and Heighes imagine as a wrestling ring for the ‘’violent and pointless” contest between tradition and modernism. “For one night only, Sir Edwyn Lutyens bare knuckle fighting with the Mighty Smithsons; the Terror of Tblisi Berthoild Lubetkin takes on the New Towns Commission; the brownfield Barbarian John Prescott versus the Town and Country Planning Association for your entertainment.”

Although Scott made many changes in a project that began when he was 22, and was unfinished at his death two world wars later in 1960, the conflict between tradition and modernism, of which he was well aware, is internalised in the architecture rather than in the intrusion of another hand.

Scott’s cathedral is both strong and sweet, and unavoidable if you are in Liverpool. It was often revised by its architect until, in Quentin Hughes’s words, it became “tightened to the taughtness of a fiddle string”, and, therefore, an instrument of architectural transmission in its own right.

So while those historians who like to categorise their architecture may tick the gothic box for Scott, the reality is that his cathedral embodies conflict. The tick box approach to styles of architecture which will be lampooned by Forster and Heighes also fails to explain the confidence with which one city built two cathedrals in a century, before nearly expiring in the ruin of its own economy? Trans Mittere will not provide the answer, for Forster and Heighes are too subtle to do anything other than amplify the question.

Alan Powers

www.bdonline.co.uk