TOP OF THEIR GAME
The construction of a cathedral is often a long process.Work on Cologne Cathedral began in 1248 and was only completed, with interruptions, in 1880. Construction began on Perth’s St Mary’s Cathedral (more correctly the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary) in 1865 and was not completed, again because of interruptions and the fluctuation of the economic cycle, until December 2009.
The original, relatively modest cathedral was designed in the Victorian Free Gothic style by Brother Joseph Ascione and constructed by Benedictine monks in locally-made red bricks and roofed with shingles.
In the mid-1920s it was decided to greatly extend the cathedral in an Academic Gothic style designed by Michael Cavanagh.The original building was largely retained as the nave (congregation area) of the expanded church.The link between the two very different architectural styles, let alone their different heights and proportions, was less than successful. Before the work was completed the Great Depression hit and completion of the building languished for the next seven decades.
Fast forward to 1999 and a bequest of $2 million kickstarted a program to not only complete the cathedral but redevelop it into a facility more suited to 21st century liturgical requirements. Perth architect Peter Quinn, a solo practitioner assisted only by a drafter,Trevor Osborne, won an invited design competition and began the defining project of his career.
“To have two church buildings not designed to link together and then to cut a slice out of the two and to join them, I don’t think you could get anything harder,” he told Channel 10 News before the opening.
Quinn arrived in Perth in the mid-1970s, en route to Melbourne after working overseas. “The sky was blue and the beach was empty so I ended up staying here.”Although he initially worked on more conventional projects, Peter has specialised in churches and schools in his later career.
He decided to retain as much of the 1865 building as possible: the entry porch, two typical bays and the defining spire.“I thought anything less would be just tokenism.”
An important part of the brief was to increase the seating capacity and improve sightlines. The solution was to insert a new semi-circular section between the 1865 and the 1930 structures, thus creating a sensitive transition between the two buildings and providing a much enlarged nave with uninterrupted views of the altar from three sides.
“I couldn’t copy what was there because it’s two different styles for a start,” he says.“And I didn’t want the new work to compete with the old, a ‘look at me’ statement, but I wanted it to respect the existing fabric and be a harmonious link between the two.”The precast concrete structure is glazed behind the colonnades, contrasting with the solidity of the older sections.
The cathedral also functions as a local parish church but had very limited administration or ancillary-use facilities. Quinn was anxious to retain the square’s openness and chose to underground the meeting rooms, social areas, music practice rooms, offices and conference rooms.
The 1930 section, originally tiled, was reroofed in a Marseille-pattern terracotta tile from Bristile Roofing which also removed the old tiles and installed the new roofing system.
Supervising the project for Bristile was John Rawlins, who as a 15 year old apprentice, worked on the cathedral’s reroofing in 1961. He was a “wire boy” tying off copper wires attached to a lug on the underside of each tile, a process superseded by nailing.
The building was fully scaffolded and the old tiles stripped. Both Rawlins and Quinn were surprised at state of the roof timbers.“The timber was in beautiful condition,” recalls Rawlins who has since retired.“It was impractical to reuse the old tiles although they were still in excellent condition.”The end trusses were tied back to the gables to improve rigidity, a concession to the code introduced after the disastrous 1967 Meckering earthquake.
Water penetration had been a problem with the old roof, partly because of its 50 degree pitch but mainly because the roof was not sarked and the adjacent Royal Perth Hospital complex creates a wind corridor that blew rain under the tiles.The solution was to place a double layer of sarking by half overlapping. New hardwood battens were fastened and the tiles, all 20,000 of them, laid and nail-fixed by a team of ten.
The colour chosen was Copper Blaze, a dark brown terracotta tile with subtle shadings of lighter browns, a non-standard colour custom-made for the project.
The 1865 section was reroofed in slates, an acknowledgement of its heritage.The cathedral entry was paved in porphyry granite cobblestones.A new spire in stainless steel sits alongside the old slate-clad spire.
Despite original concerns from the Heritage Council of Western Australia – including that the new spire not “shamelessly mimic” the old – the project was a finalist in the council’s 2011 Western Australian Heritage Awards.
St Mary’s Cathedral also won WA’s top architectural award in 2010, the George Temple Poole Award.“The finished building tells its own story through the superb detailing and sensitive relationship of the old to the new” said the jury which also described it as “a delightful master work of public architecture.” It was also awarded the Jeffrey Howlett Award for Public Architecture (WA) and the Australian Institute of Architects Award for Heritage (WA).
Not surprisingly, Peter Quinn considers St Mary’s Cathedral to be the pinnacle of his career and “a very hard mountain to climb.” For John Rawlins, it could be said that he began his working life at the pinnacle, scaling the roof of one of Perth’s defining buildings as a youth and returned to it at the zenith of his career.
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