If you are driving along the A14 coming west towards Cambridge, the tower of Bury St Edmunds cathedral suddenly pops up on the skyline at a bend in the road. I saw it this way in March, when the pinnacles, battlements and ogee windows first emerged from plastic sheeting and scaffolding. By June, the whole thing was stripped down to the golden stone.
If you didn’t know, you might imagine that this was an over-thorough conservation job on a late mediaeval building, rather than something constructed in the past six years. The new work at the cathedral, which includes much besides the tower, looks so natural and right that, once it has weathered, it will probably be mistaken for something 500 years older. This is the effect intended by the designer of the recent ‘Millennium Tower Project’, Warwick Pethers of the Gothic Design Practice, and by the designer of the post-1943 extensions to the late Gothic church of St James, Stephen Dykes Bower, whose substantial bequest enabled building work to resume after a 30-year gap (he died in 1994).
This has been one of the strangest building projects of our time, and many factors were stacked against its success. The result is a triumph of tenacity, for not only is the design impeccable, but the method of construction also represents a quiet conservative revolution, involving large masses of solid brick and stone high in the air, without the steel or reinforced concrete bracing that modern convention expects. All this is held together with lime mortars, which have rapidly been coming back into use but have not previously been asked to perform on so prominent a stage.
For a few people, the cathedral completion may simply pile one anachronism on top of another — Church of England, Gothic architecture, retro construction methods.