Post-War Churches In Scotland
Breaking The Mould

John R Hume

An incredible boom in church construction took place between 1840 and 1914, fuelled by denominational fission, amalgamation, rivalry, and most potently by population rise and migration. After the First World War economic depression and a stable population meant that few new churches were built in the 1920s.

Most of these were ‘traditional’ in design, stone-faced, and only differentiated from their predecessors by lavish provision of halls. Economic depression became acute in the early 1930s, but when it began to lift in the mid 1930s a minor boom in church building took place, mainly in the new private and council house estates that spread rapidly round the larger towns and cities. These new churches (such as King’s Park, Croftfoot and Williamwood) were generally modest in scale, and brick-built, often with the Romanesque arches so easy to build in brick. Most were architecturally unadventurous, but there were some notable exceptions, especially those designed by Gillespie, Kidd and Coia for the Catholic Church in Glasgow, Greenock and Ardrossan (St Peter in Chains), all of which were strikingly different, original, and moving in the worship spaces they provided. Though less accomplished, the Art Deco Wilson Memorial United Free church in Portobello, by James Johnston, 1933 (Fig 1) was also a daring break with tradition.

The Second World War, like the First, effectively stopped church building, but the post-war conditions were strikingly different. With a Labour government in power, and a backlog of house construc-tion, new public housing was built on an unprecedented scale, as a priority. At first most of this new building was concentrated on the outskirts of larger towns and cities, but soon overspill agreements boosted the population of smaller towns, and the first New Towns, East Kilbride and Glenrothes, were being laid out. Many of those rehoused in these ways came from church backgrounds, and the major denominations speedily saw the need to plant churches in these new communities, some of which were of considerable size, such as Castlemilk and Drumchapel in Glasgow, each of which had a population the size of that of Perth.

The desire to build new churches was, however, not matched by the availability of building materials, either in enough quantity or quality, or of skilled workmanship. In the aftermath of war, too, the leading denominations expected the new congregations to grow quickly. Unlike the 19th century, except in a relatively small number of cases, permanent churches were built in very large numbers to meet a largely untested demand. As shortage of materials continued, for more than twenty years large buildings were constructed as cheaply as possible. This had the effect of encouraging rapid development of innovative design, a trend encouraged by the rejection by most architects of tradition in favour of what has been termed ‘international modernism’, a set of design principles characterised by simple outlines, uncluttered internal spaces, absence of colour, and – flat roofs. These external pressures were accompanied, especially in the major denominations, by a desire to simplify the character of worship spaces, especially in the case of the Church of Scotland, where European trends in Protestant church design proved notably influential. There was no time for gradual evolution of design: different architectural practices were all working flat out to design on the scale the post-war building boom demanded – not just churches, but schools, housing and more housing.

The effect of these pressures was remarkable. A stream of very varied designs materialised during the 1950s, and increased into a torrent in the 1960s. At no time since the post-Disruption construction of Free churches were so many churches built so quickly. But the public at large, and the bulk of the worshipping community, were not aware of what was going on, and have remained unaware, for most of the new buildings were in housing schemes, places where the generality of people had no reason to go, and in some cases had no wish to go. Even the people for whom they were designed have rarely seen more than a handful of them in the course of their whole lives.

Because so many churches were required so quickly, rapid constructional methods were generally employed, such as steel or reinforced-concrete framing, brick skins (often made of common brick and harled), and flat or concrete-tiled roofs. The interiors were generally plastered on the hard, or left as exposed brick. Timber was expensive, and generally minimally employed, though most churches had well-made wooden pews. Largely for reasons of economy, pulpits and ambos, altars and communion tables were often brick or stone-built. Because of the techniques of construction employed, the buildings usually had large unobstructed interiors, many of them deliberately so, as they were used as halls during the week.

As hinted above, there was an enormous variety of architectural expression employed. The tail end of the Gothic Revival is to be seen clearly expressed in Catholic churches in Knights-wood (Fig 2) and Priesthill, and more vestigially in some of the Catholic churches designed by Alexander McAnally as at St Mark’s, Burnside (Fig 3), and Thomas Cordiner (St John, Barrhead), though Cordiner neither in his only Church of Scotland church, St Paul’s Provanmill, Glasgow (1948-51), nor in his Catholic church of the Immaculate Conception, Maryhill, Glasgow (1957, now demolished) used any vestige of the traditional. The whitewashed churches of Caithness inspired Ian G Lindsay and Partners, and Charles Gray and Partners, to build Colinton Mains, Oxgangs, Edinburgh (Fig 4) and The Holy Name, Oakley. Another church in the same spirit is Drylaw parish, Edinburgh (Fig 5), by William Kininmonth.

The mould was broken most effectively by the Glasgow practice of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia, whose economical designs of around 1950, though not of the quality of their 1930s churches externally, have a refreshing simplicity and modernity of approach. Their truly revolutionary period, however, began when two young designers, Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein, joined the practice. Thoroughly imbued with the modernist views of Le Corbusier, the practice took a fresh look at church design, and came up with St Paul’s Catholic Church, Glenrothes, where they used rooflights to emphasise the importance of the altar, and created a sanctuary of great dignity and simplicity. The firm went on to design some extraordinary buildings for the Catholic Church, like St Benedict’s, Drumchapel (demolished); St Bride’s, East Kilbride; St Martin’s, Castlemilk, Glasgow (Fig 6), and St Patrick’s Kilsyth. Of almost equal importance, however, was the effect St Paul’s had in freeing up what was acceptable in church design. Within a year or two, aesthetically innovative design became almost the norm for new churches, and for more than ten years challenging new designs flooded out of architects’ offices. There was considerable interest in unorthodox plans – squares, polygons and circles, like Lochwood, Glasgow, by WNW Ramsay (Fig 7, now demolished), and in a sculptural approach to building exteriors, sometimes achieved at the expense of weather resistance! Among the conceptually outstanding churches of this period are the centrally-planned St Columba’s parish, Glenrothes, by Wheeler and Sproson and St Mungo’s parish, Cumbernauld, by Alan Reiach, Eric Hall and Partners, and aesthetically remarkable churches include Craigsbank parish, Corstorphine, by Rowand Anderson, Kininmonth and Paul; two circular Catholic churches in Prestonpans and Livingston, by Alison and Hutchison and Partners, and St Mary Magdalene Catholic church, Portobello (Fig 8). Even architectural practices that had been somewhat traditional in their approach were caught up in this visual ferment, like McAnally who broke away from his generally orthodox approach in his later churches, like St James the Great, Crook-ston, Glasgow (Fig 9).

By 1975, however, this wildly experi-mental period was over. New housing areas were not being constructed, and all the denominations were finding it difficult enough to keep churches going without commissioning new buildings. Not that new construction stopped altogether. Small, modest buildings were what was needed, and these were provided by a number of building firms who used laminated timber beams, exposed brickwork and pyramidal roofs to make buildings of undoubted utility, but often of limited aesthetic or intellectual appeal. Some of these were new, others replacements for older buildings. In the late 1980s, however, some fine designs were pro-duced that can stand comparison with earlier work. St Mary’s Scottish Episcopal Church in Port Glasgow (Fig 10), by Frank Burnet, Bell and Partners, St Anthony’s Catholic church in Kirriemuir (Fig 11), by James F Stephen Architects, and the replacement for St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Faifley by Jacobsen and French are all fine buildings with no obvious precursors. In Ayrshire, Girdle Toll parish in Irvine, set in a former farm-steading (Fig 12), and the new Manse-field Trinity in Kilwinning, are worthy of note.

If, as seems likely, we will not recapture the heady innovative 1960s approach to church design, we should be able, within more limited means, to build places of worship, suitable for all denominations, which embody the same care for the God-given creativity and visual sensitivity of human beings which has inspired church builders since the beginning of institutional Christianity. At the same time we should seek to retain and cherish the best of what the second half of the twentieth century has passed on to us. Heroic building does not come often: it can, if read aright, still powerfully inspire us with the influence of the Holy Spirit on its creators. Let us not write all these churches off as ‘housing scheme’ churches, mere ephemera to be thoughtlessly discarded.

Originally published in Churches to visit in Scotland 2004