Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Piazza - or Forecourt?

The space in front of the Cathedral was opened up in 1975, following the demolition of the buildings that used to run across the frontage along Victoria Street. Further hindering access was a roadway which ran directly across the front door (as seen on the left). Originally, the Cathedral could be seen only close up, and from a sharp angle. Now for the first time it was possible to see the Cathedral from afar, and the new area was christened 'The Piazza'. The fanciful and the romantic (among whom I numbered myself) entertained visions of Italian style piazzas, fountains and coffee shops, violin music and colourful processions.

In truth, the space created is a difficult area to categorize; spatial compromises with the premises either side mean it is an awkward shape, and the fashion of the times decreed modern grey granite office blocks (shown in the photo below) having no architectural or visual connexion with the Cathedral. Lacking atmosphere, it has been deserted by day, and at night a haunt of drunks and drug users - so much so that I heard Cardinal Hume refer to the Piazza as 'a great improvement, but also a great weight upon our shoulders.'

For over five years, working together with local residents, I have been trying to get Westminster City Council to redevelop the space and make it more attractive for the right sort of users. My first thought had been to make it a place of vibrant activity, filled with entertainments and coffee shops. Indeed, the architect used by the City Council suggested a redevelopment that would emphasize the Piazza as a civic space in which such activity could be encouraged. To that end, we encouraged the use of the Piazza for events such as the parish summer fair (as seen below).

However, over the last month news has broken of the radical redevelopment of the entire Victoria area by Land Securities, with an enormous projected increase in local population, new shopping areas, and a suggestion that Victoria Street will rival Oxford Street (the busiest shopping street in the country). Faced with such an overwhelming and intense development, I feel that the Piazza must become a threshold, and a sanctuary, protecting the sacred atmosphere of the Cathedral and the residential areas alongside it.

A meeting with Sir Roy Strong (a well known cultural historian, and a neighbour) and Colin Amery (British head of the World Monuments Fund, and a parishioner) helped focus my views. They explained that the space in front of the Cathedral is not a Piazza - it is far too small - but a forecourt. Our Piazza already exists across the road, in the cafeterias and restuarants of newly built Cardinal Place (left). Our 'forecourt' is much more like the area in front of a mosque, anticipating the sacred space within, and providing a boundary and threshold or, if you like, a buffer to the outside world. You can see the idea in thhe photo below, showing the forecourt to the Sultan Suleyman Mosue in Instanbul.

At a meeting with the ecclesiastical architect Richard Griffiths, the suggestion was made of a boundary, or some way of marking entry to the forecourt (without, of course, hindering access). This would accord with another of my concerns, that externally the Cathedral is not obviously a Christian building (from across the road, an unknowing passer-by might not realise it is a church, and increasing numbers of visitors believe its exotic architecture denotes a Mosque!). Proclaiming the identity of the forecourt with a cross, or even Stations of the Cross, would give it a character, and proclaim its identity. Many regular visitors will remember the Millennium Cross that stood in front of the Cathedral in the year 2000 (in the photo above left), and which gave a strong character and focus to the space. Further, the use of materials in repaving or other landscaping might reflect the materials used in the Cathedral, and visually link the space to the building.

At a long meeting last evening, the residents and I put this vision to the City Council officers, who were receptive. Many further meetings have to be held, but it is hoped that a draft proposal mught be prepared for consultation by the end of the year. It is a step forward - but don't hold your breath! So, as Cardinal Hume hinted, the 'Piazza' (forecourt?) remains both a blessing and a problem to the Cathedral.


Anonymous said...

I read on the Internet that King Henry V of England's beatification is underway. If this is true, it would be wonderful to have such a heroic King to be the first English monarch to be a saint since St. Edward the Confessor.

Mark Langham said...

I think you probably mean King Henry VI, the saintly monarch whose cause has been underway intermitently since the late 15th century. I'm not sure how the French would react to the canonisation of his father, the warrior Henry V!

I did once receive a missive from a deluded Spanish 'antipope' which announced (in the most elevated language) the canonisation of Queen Catherine of Aragon and Mary Queen of Scots - and (if I rmemeber rightly) the latter is also canonised by the fictional Pope Hadrian VII in the eponymous book by Frederick Rolfe!

Anonymous said...

"...buildings that used to run across the frontage...the Cathedral could be seen only close up..."

This reminds me of St Peter's in Rome. Until Mussolini tore down thousands of tenements that surrounded the neighborhood, one would not suspect that the great building even existed until one reached the piazza. In his wonderful book about St Peter's, James Lees-Milne has the complete story along with paintings about the way it used to be.

Anonymous said...

Let's all pray that the final plans for the 'forecourt' matches with yours.

When I read your blog, look at your photographs and listen to your - quite excellent - singing, I become supremely confident in your aesthetic and sacred sensibilities. So, whatever you propose I would more than happy that they dispose.

Mark Langham said...

St Columba
Canon Reginald Fuller (b 1908, ordained 1931, and still going strong), a priest of this diocese, actually remembers as a student the buildings in front of St Peter's. He maintains that the Via della Conciliazione is a less than effective development, since there used to be an extraordinary sense of surprize when one 'stumbled' from the narrow tenement streets into the Piazza San Pietro.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how the French would react to the canonisation of his father, the warrior Henry V!

How did the English react to the canonization of Joan of Arc?

Mark Langham said...

Well, we did have a bit of trouble with her at the time, but now we have a mosaic of her in the Cathedral - so clearly one can get over these things!