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Building of the Month - July 2012
Catholic Church of Christ the King, Evergreen Road, Turner's Cross, Cork, County Cork
Figure 1: A view of the Catholic Church of Christ the King, an Art Deco masterpiece that dominates the new suburb of Turner's Cross, Cork. Designed by F. [Francis] Barry Byrne (1883-1967) of Chicago, the church was a radical departure in Irish ecclesiastical architecture. The centrepiece of the South Front, the nineteen foot-high figure of Christ, was designed by John H. Storrs (1885-1956) of Chicago and was executed by John Maguire of Cork based on plaster casts sent over from America. The church was restored and rededicated in 2002 © Tom Spalding 2010
The Catholic Church of Christ the King in Cork is a building which seems to gather legends and stories around it. Some say that its architect never visited Cork; others that he committed suicide; more that the church is unique as it is wider than it is deep; that the church has a reinforced concrete roof; and that it was the first church in Ireland with terrazzo floors. Myths all, although it is true the architect came to Cork only once to see the selected site and never saw, in person, the completed church.
What is also true is that Christ the King is an exceptional building, not just in the context of Cork or Ireland, but also in the history of international modern church architecture. Why then is the church virtually unknown outside the "southern capital"?
Design work on the church began in 1928 under the direction of the Chicagoan F. [Francis] Barry Byrne (1883-1967), a pupil of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), the internationally-renowned American architect. Although the term is often overused, Christ the King is truly an Art Deco masterpiece, but Art Deco in the way of the Chrysler Building or The Golden Gate Bridge, with a dash of Hollywood (fig. 1). The church and its fittings are a complete design work, detailed by Byrne and his wife Annette Cremin Byrne (d. 1990). Chevrons are ever present, from the crest of Christ's crown on the exterior to the decoration below each window. The use of reinforced concrete for the walls and tower as an alternative to his preferred brick was probably the suggestion of Byrne's representative on site, JR [James Rupert] Boyd Barrett (c.1904-76). It was more economical and was selected by Byrne for all his subsequent churches. Along with the red tiles, the hand finished render lends the warmth of a Spanish mission to the structure.
Figure 2: Writing to his client in 1927 Barry Byrne pre-empted, by almost half a century, the liturgical reforms brought about by the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) and stated one objective of the design was 'the dominance of the high altar [and] the closeness of the high altar to the congregation'. He further elaborated: 'The high altar is planned to set well forward in the church and should, with its reredos, be of grand proportions, as it is meant to be the center of the decorative scheme of the interior and to dominate it. The sanctuary is spacious and projects into the body of the church… The high altar and sanctuary are shown well elevated and close to the people, so that the ceremonies at the altar may be seen in every detail. Our idea in this is to bring the people into as close relation as possible with the sacrifice of the Mass'
Inside, the sensation of great width is an illusion created by the lack of internal pillars, the broad sloped ceiling and the careful use of lighting (fig. 2). The raised sanctuary has a theatrical presence which the reredos and canopy over the altar accentuate and there's a foretaste of the sets for Flash Gordon (1980) in details such as the winged covers of the font.
After a difficult start the church was completed in 1931, coming in on budget of £20,000. The building, façade sculpture and interior design were executed by hands other than those that conceived them and it is a miracle that the design team all expressed their satisfaction with the final result.
So, given its merits why do I say that the church is unknown? This is not strictly true. It is one of the few modern Cork buildings mentioned in literature and was praised by contemporary sources such as The Irish Builder. However, in a way the church is like the Concorde airliner: lauded for its audacity but not emulated. The attitude of the client, Bishop Daniel Cohalan, did not bode well: upon completion of the church he gave Byrne a guarded and equivocal recommendation. Judging by his palace, a stolid Georgian Revival pile, he was a man of conservative taste. The lack of the study in, and promotion of Cork's architecture until recent years, or the simple lack of interest by her citizens, may also be factors.
Whatever effect Christ the King has had on the course of Irish architecture, it was certainly beneficial for one Irish architect. Boyd Barrett, twenty-four when the project was on the drawing board, went on to establish a hugely successful practice which worked on hospitals, public transport and schools as well as many churches. The most significant of these are the so-called "Rosary Churches" ringing Cork. His practice was eventually taken on by Brian Murphy-O'Connor. It is apt that the present parish priest in Christ the King, Fr. Kenny Murphy-O'Connor, is his brother.
Figure 2 photographed by Shannon Images for the NIAH publication An Introduction to the Architectural Heritage of Cork City now available
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