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Realising a dream

It’s not every day an architect wins a competition to design a cathedral. And when it’s one that’s been unfinished for more than 70 years, with detailed liturgical and heritage considerations, it can be a mixed blessing.

A lot of people will be looking over the shoulder of Peter Quinn during the next couple of years: fellow architects, church-goers, heritage advocates, and a considerable part of Perth’s population.

Quinn is the architect who won the competition to draw up concept plans to complete the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, commonly known as St Mary’s Cathedral, in WA. The cathedral is a landmark heritage building that’s still unfinished, even though it first opened in 1865.

It’s not the first time Quinn has designed a church. He’s been responsible for designing four suburban churches and a chapel in Western Australia. It’s a specialised form of architecture, with special considerations.

‘There’s all the liturgical basics that you have to know but somehow you’ve got to imbue the place with the transcendent, that’s the difficult bit,’ explains Quinn. ‘The cathedral is probably easier in some respects because of the extreme heights and the volumes that can go into it. The existing large volumes and heights already give you a sense of space and grandeur.

‘You’ve got to create that feeling somehow, that when you walk into it, you’re in a special place. I don’t think you can rely on liturgical furnishings and furniture to provide that. It’s got to be more than that. It’s about light, light and space and volume.’

And in this case, it’s all about completing a job begun more than 70 years ago. Unlike an unwieldy house extension that’s had bits cobbled on over the years, the cathedral has already been extended over the decades. As a result, it’s a mish-mash of styles long unsuited to being the main house of worship in the Archdiocese.

The challenge now is to finish the cathedral, and open it up to make it function as a working church, while preserving as much as possible of the heritage elements of the building.

What is now the present cathedral began in 1865 as a modest Italian-style structure suited to the needs of churchgoers in Queen Victoria’s era. Additions, including a porch and steeple for the bell tower, were made around 1909. And in the 1920s, the decision was made to completely replace it with a much larger, more imposing Gothic structure complete with flying buttresses.

But with the onset of the Great Depression, the money ran out and construction was halted mid-way. The result is two churches of completely differing styles, with one simply tacked onto the other.

‘There was no real attempt to design or marry the two together,’ says Quinn. ‘At the moment, visually it is two churches rammed into each other, with different ridge heights, different roof heights and different materials.’

Visitors to the cathedral still scratch their heads at the result. One end is a simple narrow structure with a cement render exterior, while the other is wide, ornate and built of limestone. And jutting iron bars and serrated stonework on the building’s exterior show where the next section of the cathedral was due to join up.

‘The present layout just doesn’t meet the liturgical requirements of Vatican II’, explains Quinn, ‘the most important being the active participation of the assembly in the liturgy. It’s too small. They couldn’t get the numbers into the church, the sight lines are poor, the acoustics are poor, and the quality of natural light is poor’.

In Quinn’s plan, the original nave would be removed and a new, much wider one inserted between the existing eastern and western ends of the cathedral. The roof would also be raised to match the 1930 extension. The altar will be placed in the centre of this much bigger space, and the pews arranged around it in semi-circular fashion. The result will mean a big increase in seating—from 800 to 1200 people—with the altar visible to all churchgoers, and more light and improved air circulation.

Peter Quinn’s design for the completion of St Mary’s was one of four commissioned by the Archdiocese. As well as being unanimously selected by the Archdiocesan building committee, it was also voted the most popular by churchgoers from around WA.

In announcing the winning design, the Archdiocese said Quinn’s plan completed the cathedral in an ‘extraordinarily simple and beautiful way’ by using a 21st-century building to link the two earlier eras. But it’s a job Quinn nearly refused.

‘When I was asked to compete in the design competition, I was very reluctant because I’m a one-man band and I wondered whether I could handle it,’ he says. ‘And then I’d be competing against national architectural firms, and all the resources they could bring to the project. I thought I’d get blown out of the water.’

Educated at Xavier College and Melbourne University, Quinn settled in Western Australia some 30 years ago. Most of his work involves educational, religious and domestic buildings. He says his underlying philosophy is to stay personally involved in projects so clients’ needs are understood and faithfully translated into the completed project. His approach is cooperative, rather than dogmatic or egocentric.

Originally, Quinn thought he’d have to demolish the original 1865 structure to meet the brief: ‘And my initial reaction—to achieve what they wanted to achieve—the Gothic end would stay and the rest would go. That was my starting point.’

But after an inordinate number of visits to the cathedral, a better alternative presented itself.

‘The more and more I drove up there, the more I became convinced the western façade should stay, and I should try to make every effort to retain the bell tower and the front of the church,’ he says. ‘It’s quite pleasant, I quite like it and you’re not going to reproduce that sort of detailed architecture again. Having come to that conclusion, it then became a matter of making the church working liturgically and seeing what sort of envelope would result.’

After many weeks ‘doodling and mucking around’ the final plan emerged. The key was moving the sanctuary and the altar to the centre of the cathedral, and opening up the narrow end of the cathedral and raising the roof.

‘Once you put the sanctuary where I put it in the middle of the transept, then the seating has to wrap around it,’ he says. ‘The whole thing started to fall into place.’

Quinn says he never considered a design which simply continued and completed the 1930 Gothic design—an expensive option which had been costed at some $50 million.

‘I don’t think any new work should be a copy of what’s there,’ says Quinn. ‘And with my solution, the new work will be instantly recognised as new work. I hope the building will be seen as a whole. I think the three main eras will hang together as a whole building, almost as if it could have been designed that way from the beginning.’

Quinn was also keen to maintain the amenity of the site. The cathedral has a permanent entry on the State’s Heritage Register, not just for the present building and its importance to the Catholic community, but also for its historic setting in a square which is part of the original colonial town plan.

‘I wanted the majority of the square to remain as is, and the vistas from three streets maintained and the whole place recognisable as it is now,’ he explains.

To retain the park setting, he’s included underground parking for 100 cars, as well as rooms that can serve as a parish centre.

Quinn has been given the go ahead to draw up the final plans for St Mary’s. With a total cost approximating $15 million, construction is expected to begin next year, with the cathedral due to be completed sometime in 2007.  



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