While waiting to interview a city planner in Belfast a few months ago, I browsed through the office book collection and came across a book of Modernist architecture in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Flipping through, one building in particular caught my eye, The Church of Christ the King, located in Cork City, Ireland. While visiting friends in Ireland last week, I made it my top priority of sights to see and dragged a few friends along in my quest.
The church stands in stark contrast with a city of buildings primarily from the 19th century, but it's history is peculiar for another reason. The architect, Barry Byrne (1883-1967), was born in Chicago and trained under the iconic American modernist architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Byrne worked on the drawings of F.L. Wright's Unity Temple, in Oak Park, Illinois, which proved to be highly influential on his designs for Roman Catholic church architecture. After some time, Byrne opened his own practice and in 1921, designed his first solo ecclesiastical commission, the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle in Chicago. An acclaim in the Catholic journal, Commonweal, by the renown architectural critic, Lewis Mumford, caught the attention of the Bishop of Cork, Dr. Cohalan. Byrne was given the commission for a new church in 1927, and the church was consecrated in 1931.
Catholic architecture tended to be conservative, especially in Ireland, so this building was quite unusual for its time. Dr. Cohalan had visited Chicago before making the decision, but it is unclear if he would be getting such a radical design for Cork. Byrne was known to have worked under oppressively restricted budgets, so that may have been a factor in the choice. Butting the conventional Catholic Church forms, Byrne designed The Church of Christ the King with an octagonal floor plan, bringing the alter and congregation together in one great expansive space. Byrne applied an innovative suspended-ceiling design he had used before. The roof trusses span the width of the building, allowing the interior beams to run the length of the building, drawing the eye towards the alter for theatrical emphasis. The exterior was originally planned in red brick, but was changed to concrete for economic reasons. Standing at the center of the incrementally stepped-back facade is a 19 foot tall concrete statue of Christ by Chicago sculptor, John Storrs.
As I had mentioned in an earlier article, Byrne was not the only architect in Ireland and the United Kingdom to be working in the Modernist style under the commission of the Catholic Church; however, he preceded the others by a good 30 years. The architectural firm, Gillespie, Kidd and Coia, were perhaps the most prolific in this field and also created some of the most imaginative buildings. Cardross Seminary outside of Glasgow has now become infamous in its own right as one of the first modernist ruins. By the 1960s, the Catholic Church had lost great numbers of devotees and was looking for a way to revive its membership and market itself to a younger generation. Why Dr. Cohalan chose an architect known for such modern designs is not known, and peculiar since he reportedly gave only a "muted approval" upon its completion. Saddened by this response, Byrne reportedly never visited the church he considered to be his best work.
Caroline Engel for Danish Teak Classics