Speed - the Modern Mercury
Liverpool is the last in our series on planning and architecture in the great cities of the North and it has been the most difficult to capture. Certainly Liverpool is the grandest of the Northern cities but it is also the most inscrutable and the most frustrating. Here the disparity between past glory and present reality, between its potential and the banality of the actual outcomes in the built environment, are at their most extreme.
A World City
In many ways Liverpool is less a Northern city than a World city. As Ian Nairn said, comparisons are always with overseas, like Hamburg or Boston. Liverpool used to see itself as the equal of New York and certainly the Liver Building is as thrilling as any of that city’s skyscrapers. But the great transatlantic liners left for Southampton 100 years ago and Liverpool has been in relative decline ever since, although this is belied by the confidence of much of the interwar architecture and, superficially, by its cocky regeneration swagger today.
Engineering and exploitation – a British history lesson
Liverpool’s ‘world city’ inheritance had a lot to do with injustice, not only slavery, which underwrote much of the city’s magnificence, but its economy and society was also based on the humiliating system of casual hiring at the dock gates. In the 1930s Priestley painted a dismal picture of the place: ‘all slums and docks, docks and slums’. But then he was from Yorkshire and admitted he did not understand the city. The relationship of Liverpool to the rest of England does tend to be one of mutual suspicion and hostility. Liverpool has greater affinity with the Celtic nations and is most like Glasgow, Belfast and Dublin. Also it is capital of North Wales. My Auntie Nellie, who rarely left Caernarfonshire, compared Cardiff very unfavourably with Liverpool.
Dock wall drinking fountain
I initially became aware of the city’s architectural greatness in the school library on discovering Quentin Hughes’ seminal ‘Seaport’, published in 1964. Its wonderful, evocative, black and white photographs captured the grandeur but also the decline of a city. That sense of decline was palpable when I first explored Liverpool in the 1970s, despite the gloss of the Beatles and Shankland and Bor’s radical planning surgery, the anticipation of which had excited Nairn. Pevsner however thought the planners and architects had done more harm than the Luftwaffe (Liverpool having been one of the most heavily bombed cities in England). Well Nairn did say it could all go wrong, and it mostly did.
Some things have got better since the 1980s – Albert Dock
Liverpool was viewed with fear and loathing by the Thatcherite government which talked about ‘managed decline’. In the event decline was not managed, just bloody, but Heseltine and Kinnock respectively did something to restore the prospects for the city. Today its centre at least is buzzing. And despite the Blitz and the planners a huge amount of the architecture of the city’s former glory remains to be admired. Which is why the insouciance of the elected Mayor about the quality of the city’s architecture, townscape and environment is so tragic and pitiful. The enterprise and scale of development in the city centre today is extremely impressive; it’s the quality that is the problem. Liverpool is squandering its greatest assets and selling itself cheap.
Some have got worse – Princes Dock; a taste of Liverpool Waters to come
I have to admit that these views are coloured by my experience as a member of the CABE design review for ‘Liverpool Waters’, the monstrous regeneration fantasy that threatens the city’s World Heritage status. It was blindingly obvious that Peel, the promoters, and the Council had no intention of listening to any advice about this hugely significant scheme. And the plans were waved through without an inquiry by Eric Pickles.
Liverpool Lime St – feels like a capital city already
One of the great railway stations
This is opposite Lime St Station - it really is!
Relegation material – St John's Precinct
But this extraordinary disjunction between sublime architecture and urban dross is now a well established feature of Liverpool. You see it immediately on arrival at Lime Street. The great train sheds have recently been nicely renovated and provide an exhilarating entry to the city. Opposite is the gob-smackingly magnificent St George’s Hall, designed in the 1840s in a free Grecian style by the young Harvey Lonsdale Elmes. Gavin Stamp points out the Roman precedent; SPQL – ‘The Senate and the People of Liverpool’ is cast on its great bronze and iron doors. St George’s Hall is world class in the true sense of the term, but immediately adjacent is the St John’s Precinct, completed in 1970. Joseph Sharples in the Pevsner City Guide describes it as ‘a bleak and brutal affair, monolithic, inward looking and awkwardly related to the different levels of surrounding streets. The side facing Lime St and St George’s Place is truly disastrous’. Subsequent alterations have made the complex even more of a dog’s dinner, like swathing the car park in jolly tarpaulin with cartoons of the city’s icons. The only element of any interest is the Beacon tower, like the Euromast in Rotterdam, which dominates much of the city centre.
Save the Futurist
Lime St - it is quintessentially Liverpudlian to sweep this away
Of course the quality of cities is not all about great architecture. As SAVE points out ‘Lime Street is quintessentially Liverpudlian in its great variety and charm’. However the City Council has just granted planning permission to knock down a whole section of the street next to the famous Vines Hotel, including Liverpool’s earliest cinema, the Futurist. This will be replaced by a preposterous monolith of student flats and a hotel above some token shop fronts. What is so depressing is that here planning has been reduced to an absolute charade by the Mayor’s regeneration machine. The Design and Access Statement from architects Broadway Maylan starts off with the ‘World Heritage Context’ and proceeds via mapping the bleeding obvious at great length to the ‘Design Concept Big Idea’, which is to ‘to replicate that sense of place experienced during the rail journey into the city’. Which apparently means evoking those amazing sandstone cuttings at Edge Hill, interpreted here as two overpowering rectangular blocks. The scale is allegedly alright because the horizontal blocks will be slightly lower than the elegant, soaring tower of the Vines. One block will be inscribed with the slogan 'NOT A NATION, A CITY'. They’re having a larf, aren't they? But the Head of Planning ‘ is satisfied that the loss of the (Lime Street) buildings will have no adverse impact on the setting of … listed buildings, conservation areas or the World Heritage site’. What can you say.
Absolute classic – St George's Hall
That leap in the dark – Disraeli's statue
The most imperial townscape outside of London
St George’s Hall and the public buildings on William Brown St, together with St John's Gardens, form one of Britain’s great civic assemblages. Perhaps surprisingly the relationship is not a formal one but rather an irregular space dominated by Wellington atop an impressively tall Doric column. This could be a wonderful space; it has all the components including lovely weathered York stone and setts but although traffic is largely removed the groundspace is still constricted by highway design and needs rethinking as a unified whole.
Uplifting – Central Library's Picton Reading Room
The neoclassical Walker Art Gallery, originally of 1875 but greatly extended, is one of the country’s foremost art galleries, overflowing with goodies. Next to this is the Picton Library of a similar date, with a circular plan based on the British Library, a beautiful space, its form excitingly expressed in the semi circular colonnaded elevation. The adjacent Central Library has been rebuilt behind a classical façade of 1857. The new structure, designed by Austin Smith Lord around an oval atrium, is handsome and functional. The new-build projects above the retained façade in a confident and appropriate way. What is a pity is that the great flight of steps to the former entrance of the library and museum is now redundant, like the National Museum of Scotland, only more of a let down because the steps here are so much grander. The new pavement level entrances for the Library and the Museum, branded the ‘World Museum’, are flagged in an elegant but overly discreet way.
A Concrete Society award winner
St John’s Gardens opposite the Museum and Library retains an amazing collection of statuary to Liverpool’s merchant princes and heroes. There is more of a feel of imperial pomp than you would find in any other provincial city - a wonderful survival. To the west, across a no man’s land of roads fancifully named Old Haymarket, you find the entrance to the original Mersey tunnel with very pretty deco features. Unfortunately the two road tunnels have resulted in a sprawl of feeder roads which entirely kill off this area. However the curving flyovers which wrap around the backs of the museum and library are striking and won the 1975 Concrete Society award. The pedways over Hunter St for once are actually convenient for pedestrians too. The proposals in the ‘City Centre Strategic Investment Framework’ to demolish these structures, supposedly to improve pedestrian links to John Moore’s main campus, are entirely misconceived; the viaducts deserve to be appreciated just as the railway viaducts at Castlefield, for example. The Friends of the Flyover imagine a new future for them as a variant on the High Line. The city should concentrate on taming the ground level mayhem of six lane highways.
As good as anywhere in The City
Dale St leads from this fractured townscape towards Water St and Liverpool’s magnificent commercial office quarter. The scale and quality of the buildings is really impressive and despite considerable rebuilding it remains coherent. On Water St you find that Modernist icon Oriel Chambers, its cast iron structure designed by Peter Ellis in 1864 and ‘one of the most remarkable buildings of its date in Europe’ (Pevsner). Another of his buildings at 16 Cook St is similarly precocious with its extensive use of plate glass in the façade. The striking HSBC building on Dale St, designed in 1971 by Bradshaw, Rowse and Harker, with twenty eight identical faceted windows of reflective glass is ‘a Space Age descendant of Oriel Chambers’ (Pevsner City Guide).
The oldest of the grand Northern Town Halls
India Buildings, designed by Thornley and Rowse in 1923, is thoroughly American in concept and scale, including a public lobby and arcade through the building. Beside John Wood’s elegant Town Hall the vast stripped classical Exchange Buildings, designed in the 1930s but not completed until 1955, look clumsy. Castle St is a wonderful prospect including the old Bank of England and banks by Caröe and Norman Shaw; the vista is terminated by the Town Hall.
Water Street – one of the greatest streets in the country
The view down Water St is of the ever-fascinating, highly eclectic Royal Liver Building, a groundbreaking ferro-concrete skyscraper built in 1908-11. It exudes confidence and indeed hubris, as commercial fortunes were already turning against the city, the liners symbolically leaving at this very date. The other two ‘Graces’, the Cunard Building and the Docks and Harbour Board building are also very fine and dignified, but lack the theatrical excitement of the Liver Building.
The Three Graces
The Fourth grace – Rowse's ventilation tower
Err, excuse me, what are you two guys doing here? The Strand.
The Three Graces are quarantined from the commercial quarter by an eight lane highway, excessively wide even by Liverpool’s City Engineer’s standards. This is a pity as The Strand itself contains some excellent buildings especially Tower Building of 1910, steel framed, clad in white glazed terracotta and in a wonderfully eclectic mix of styles. At the other end of the block is Norman Shaw’s superb White Star Line building. Opposite is Rowse’s powerfully ascetic ventilation tower for the Queensway Tunnel. The ‘Strategic Investment Framework’ says that The Strand should be refashioned as a ‘Great Street’ and, given imaginative redesign, it clearly could be that if the dominance of the motor car were to be challenged, which seems unlikely to happen under present management.
Princes Dock; makes you weep
You find another of those amazing Liverpool disjunctions immediately next to the sublime Liver Building - the Princes Dock development. This is just about the shoddiest collection of new buildings you could imagine. The offices and hotels look like they were previously rejected for a Basingstoke business park. Here even Malmaison manages to be crap. Princes Dock is shamed by earlier buildings like the Atlantic Tower Hotel, which perhaps over obviously evokes the form of a liner, and the yellow concrete 1970s Royal and Sun Alliance building with its rugged outlines greatly contributing to the skyline. Behind this AHMM’s Unity Tower at least manages to create an quirky silhouette which makes you smile; other towers jostling the skyline are just cheap, witless and boring ‘bar code’ stuff.
Comparable with Cardiff Bay
Between Princes Dock basin, dead as a Dodo, and a utilitarian strip of landscaping (grass) a flag flutters proclaiming ’Liverpool Waters - A Waterfront for the World’. The images promise more of the same sort of development, only much bigger, on the redundant docks stretching some 2km north. This vast scheme, covering 60 hectares and with outline permission for 1.7million sq. metres of development, claims it will, over 30 years, provide a ‘world class waterfront’ comparable with Boston, Barcelona, Hamburg etc. etc. The difference is that this scheme is the creature of land owners’ speculation, the City’s role being not to shape the new quarter but just not get in the way. How very different from say Hafen City but how typical of public-asset-stripped Britain today.
Basingstoke meets Liverpool
The real problem with Liverpool Waters is not its clusters of towers like novelty sticks of rock, nor the boasted 55 storey ‘Shanghai Tower’ – these are entirely conjectural. The images of the skyline and the impact on the Three Graces as currently promoted by Peel, and shockingly the City Council, are certainly horrific, but then how is this different from what is happening to the skyline of London? In any event this is largely a battle lost, given Princes Dock and other developments nearby which have already badly maimed the prospect of the Three Graces. The real issue is about the hopelessness of the Chapman Taylor masterplan. As CABE said, very diplomatically, ‘the project is hindered by a weakly expressed masterplan and the overarching guidelines are generic and vague’. For what is meant to be a world class destination, there is no convincing concept of the public realm. The connections don’t work as an extension of the existing city centre. There is no public transport provision. What is needed is some joined up town planning and convincing design concepts, not just development speculation. Hamburg built a new U Bahn line to Hafen City. If Liverpool were really ambitious about regeneration it should be recreating the famous Overhead Railway, destroyed in the 1950s, as a unifying element for its waterfront developments. The contrast between the cheapskate and gimcrack Liverpool Waters and Hamburg’s well considered approach to waterfront regeneration can’t help be very depressing. Once these cities were equals.
Waterloo Grain Warehouses
Regent Road and the Stanley Dock Tobacco Warehouse
Mersey Modernist – ventilator shafts of the Kingsway Tunnel
The walk up Regent Road alongside the great walls to the now redundant docks shows just how isolated ‘Liverpool Waters’ is. Apart from the landmark Victoria Tower few artefacts remain, other than Hartley’s magnificent dock basins themselves, and this is part of the problem – the ‘masterplan’ has too few constraints to create an interesting plan. The 1930s rolling Bascule lifting bridge and the 1854 hydraulic tower for the Stanley Dock provide great visual punctuation in the long street. Stanley Dock, at the end of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, is a wonderful ensemble largely enclosed by the grandest of warehouses. The vast Tobacco Warehouse of 1897, with steel and concrete floors and cast iron columns, is claimed to be the biggest brick structure in the world. Long vacant, the depth of its plan and low ceiling heights make reuse very difficult. However the earlier warehouses on the opposite quay, a simplified form of the famous Albert Dock warehouses, have recently been splendidly converted to the Titanic Hotel. Worth noting too are the ventilator shafts of the Kingsway Tunnel, like a rocket on its launch pad, opposite the massive Waterloo Grain Warehouses, now converted to apartments. Towards Sandhill the 1955 concrete parabolic Tate and Lyle Sugar Silo impresses.
Pier Head Terminal shite
No more Graces
A popular city of popular culture – The Museum of Liverpool
It might have been a good thing if Will Alsop’s infamous ‘cloud’ had materialized rather than the Museum of Liverpool, which was actually built, as Alsop better reflects Liverpool’s often facetious approach to regeneration. Liverpool sacked the architects of the Museum, 3XN and the design was dumbed down. It is disappointing, especially the internal spaces, but is nevertheless a serious building which sits reasonably comfortably between its illustrious neighbours. By contrast the Pier Head Terminal and Beatles Centre thumbs its nose at the stately Cunard Building opposite, just taking the piss, as Owen Hatherley says. It was a worthy winner of the Carbuncle Cup. Broadway Malyan’s abstract shiny black objects next to the Albert Dock, preposterously termed the ‘Fourth Grace’, were shortlisted for the Carbuncle Cup. Apparently the blocks are meant to be like rocks which have fallen from the sky. It is difficult to imagine how this could have been more deadening but bizarrely it has just won a RIBA regional award.
Visitors from all over the world – Albert Dock renewal
Despite his predilection for unelected quangos and business interests at the expense of local democracy, Lord Heseltine should be spared the Inferno because he saved Albert Dock. Pevsner wrote that ‘for sheer punch there is little in the early commercial architecture of Europe to emulate it’, but by the 1980s it was abandoned and threatened with demolition. Its successful restoration is one of the biggest conservation projects ever undertaken. As Joseph Sharples says ‘what solicits admiration, apart from its scale, is the monumental solemnity of the warehouses, the manner in which they have been pared down to a synthesis of austere classicism and technological functionalism’. The warehouses now provide space for the Tate Liverpool, converted by Stirling, the Merseyside Maritime Museum, designed by Brook Carmichael and the International Slavery Museum, as well as shops, hotel, apartments and offices. It has all been done admirably, although there is a tension between the severity of the architecture and the sometimes twee new tourism shops and ubiquitous café-restaurants – an inevitable price unfortunately.
The Arena, right place, wrong design
South of Albert Dock on the site of King’s Dock is the vast new Arena and Exhibition complex, an engine of the service and leisure economy. The very prominent and exposed location calls for something exciting and dramatic which could provide a modern counterpoint to Albert Dock’s scale and precociousness, the sort of thing Rogers and Grimshaw excel at. But what we get is just dull sheds, a poor comparison with Leeds’ new Arena. Worse are the new apartment blocks facing Wapping Dock, which set a new standard for tacky and are an insult to the fine warehouses across the basin.
A Matter of Life and Death - stylish Liverpool One
But from this angle it just looks like any other shopping centre
Albert Dock and the Waterfront are certainly a big draw, thronged with tourists and sightseers on a sunny day. But they are divorced from the city centre by the very wide and unpleasant highway, the continuation of Strand Street. If you manage to cross this barrier you find Liverpool One. This roofless (well almost) shopping centre with real streets was meant to set the template for future retail developments but as with much else things have regressed since it opened in 2008. Undoubtedly Grosvenor’s Liverpool One largely works well in the way it integrates with the older streets, like Church St, and retains some older buildings, wrapping around the C18th Bluecoat Chambers, now converted to an arts venue. The use of different architects for individual blocks is also successful although to some extent the very standardised shop fitting and the line up of usual suspect stores make it all feel rather more samey and homogenized than you had hoped. But Paradise St is a real street and even if the scale of the buildings can be overbearing, details like FAT’s kiosks provide interest. The three levels of South John Street however, partly covered and with exciting, soaring multi level sub-Fritz Lang bridges, is a close relative of internal malls. The John Lewis anchor store provides very little visual interest with blank windows even to Paradise Street. The raw rear edges of the leviathan are pretty damn poor too, but then JLP can call all the shots.
A touch of effort
The leisure and chain restaurant complex at the upper levels is accessed by impressive zig-zag stairs at the top of which, beyond the heaving cafés, is Chavasse Park, small but a real park whose quiet, attractive herbaceous fringes provide a respite from the cacophony. Between the park and the Waterfront is César Pelli’s Park One West apartments: big, horizontal and not very interesting although restrained compared to the array of gaudy pantomime ugly sisters nearby. However the link between Liverpool One and the Waterfront at Albert Dock is one of the most disappointing aspects of the scheme. It just doesn’t seem to have been thought through at all and what could have been a great visual sequence has emerged as a non-place. Despite these reservations, Liverpool One is clearly very successful. It actually achieves what all those artists’ impressions of regeneration schemes promise but usually dismally fail to deliver. It is certainly better than any shopping complex we have visited, except Exeter’s smaller Princess Hay.
The tension between independent success and big business
Liverpool One shot the city up the shopping centre league table but as well as the usual chains and glitzy stuff Liverpool does have an enviable collection of specialist shops, bars, restaurants, music venues and clubs, especially in the Ropewalks. This is the sort of area where independent shops and bars set up and establish a particular identity, but then the chain restaurants and bars move in and it becomes much more ordinary – not gentrification in the London sense exactly, but the same loss of authenticity. Beyond the Ropewalks the Baltic Triangle is now emerging as a somewhat unlikely Boho area of designers and artists where studios, bars and apartments are found alongside industrial workshops and car mechanics.
Do you know where the creative quarter is?
Again, Liverpool is very popular
Toxteth, scene of the riots 30 years ago, which changed the Government’s inner urban policy, comes as a surprise. Superficially at least much of it, like Princes Avenue, looks extremely pleasant, the sort of housing young Londoners would give their eye teeth for. Which is why the infamous Pathfinder clearances here were so perverse. The ‘Welsh Streets’, still all tinned up, were never slums in a conventional sense, but substantial bay window terraces clearly capable of renovation and surely would have been if the Council had not stuck so doggedly to its misguided policy of rebuilding the inner city in the image of Brookside suburbia, a policy begun by Militant in the 1980s. The city’s intransigence can be summed up in Macbeth’s line ‘I am in blood steeped so far that … returning were as tedious as go o’er’. Eric Pickles’s reprieve of the Welsh Streets was no doubt mischievous but, along with Leadenhall Market, about the only sensible decision he ever made as Secretary of State.
Those infamous Pathfinder clearances
But hope on Granby Street
Nearby, the community renovation project around Granby St, facilitated by the young team of Assemble Architects, is truly heartening and has been nominated for the Turner Prize. As local resident Erika Rushton explained to Olly Wainwright in the Guardian, ‘Toxteth suffered from decades of ‘managed decline’, with life inexorably drained from its streets. An invisible red line was drawn around the area with an unspoken policy of no maintenance and no investment. Once houses start to be boarded up, it sends a signal. Bins weren’t collected, streets weren’t swept and Granby became a no-go area. Labour’s Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders was only one of the most recent of such schemes that have systematically eviscerated the communities here to make way for promised visions that never arrive. Everyone just offered a total solution: every house would be done, with no recognition of what people had crafted into their individual homes, or the value that people had invested in the street with planting and building furniture. Regeneration is always this blunt, abstract, over-professionalised, but Assemble have shown how it can be done differently, by making things that people can see, touch, understand and put together for themselves.’
Not the most impressive campus
What Manchester doesn't have – a huge Georgian inheritance
Toxteth is just a short walk from Liverpool’s Georgian Quarter. It is probably the most extensive and impressive concentration of Georgian terraces outside London, Bath or Edinburgh. This gives the city an important added dimension, lacking in say Manchester. Percy St and Gambier Terrace are probably the finest of the Georgian streets. The expansion of Liverpool University campus unfortunately resulted in much demolition of Georgian terraces and the quality of most of the new university buildings is not that great, the most notable being the Sports Centre where Denis Lasdun deliberately stuck two fingers up to everyone, even managing to annoy Pevsner. Nevertheless the University campus is a pleasant and lively part of the city centre.
I don't think the car park does it justice
Elizabeth Frink and twentieth century Gothic
Hope St is a great street. It forms the axis between Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral and the Metropolitan Cathedral. Giles Gilbert Scott’s immense Gothic enterprise was begun in 1904 when, as Joseph Sharples points out, the city was at the height of its prosperity, but it was not completed until 1978, at the city’s nadir. The cathedral sits on a ridge and dominates the view from the river. However it is fairly inaccessible from both the Waterfront and the city centre, and seems almost deliberately set apart from the life of the city. Its interior spaces are awe inspiring and have immense power. Goodhart-Rendel wrote ‘it stands aloof from architectural reality ….. it is a great engine of emotion or nothing’.
Like nothing else in the country
Fibreglass doors by William Mitchell
Impressive but not intriguing
Frederick Gibberd’s Metropolitan Cathedral, built in the 1960s, was the most important Roman Catholic commission of the post war era and ground-breaking in its circular plan and in being constructed in concrete. Its cylindrical tower with pinnacles responds to the Anglican cathedral’s tower and is the most striking aspect of the building. The interior however lacks subtlety, and the abstract windows and artworks feel too overpowering. The great flight of steps up to the entrance was added relatively recently.
Herbert James Rowse: one of the best British architects of the interwar period?
Everyman - file under metropolitan world class etc
Hope St contains other great buildings too. The Philharmonic PH is the most lavish of those lavish pubs from the turn of the C20th, especially notable for its urinals. The cubic Philharmonic Hall, designed by Rowse in 1936, draws heavily on Dudok. The foyers and concert hall are purely delightful, with lovely etched glass, incised Art Deco reliefs and other works of the period. The Hall is currently being refurbished and upgraded by Caruso St John. At the top of the street is the rebuilt Everyman Theatre, designed by Haworth Tomkins and Stirling Prize winner in 2014. The RIBA citation says ‘this is a building that breathes quality in its choice of materials, in its lighting and its signage. …. The tour de force is the first floor bar, a piano nobile stretching across the front of the building’. This is a really attractive and democratic building where the care taken in every aspect of design is a joy.
File under provincial, lowest common denominator etc
Liverpool has other interesting theatres too, like the Playhouse with its futuristic extensions at Williamson Square and the Royal Court nearby at Queens Square, which is really a dreadful bus station. Both are in the shadow of the execrable St John’s Centre. The huge challenge for Liverpool is how to reimagine and reshape this area to create a fitting entrance to the city. Given the Lime St story it is difficult to be optimistic that this will ever happen.
Princes Dock - a has-been before it has even begun
It is hard to understand or justify many of the planning and regeneration decisions made by Liverpool in recent decades. The official rationale is always that it is about ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ and it is the case that the city, neglected and distrusted by an absurdly London-centric Government and economic establishment, has had some success in strengthening its economy. But a ‘World city’ has too often been willing to accept the lowest common denominator in its regeneration schemes and so has degraded its unique assets in the process. Why would you want Liverpool Waters to repeat all the mistakes of Princes Dock on a grand scale? Gavin Stamp in ‘Lost Cities’ says ‘the sad conclusion of an architectural history of the city since the second world war can only be that Liverpool is its own worst enemy’. Well with apologies to Ernest Bevin on Aneurin Bevan, ‘not while Whitehall is around it ain’t’.
Liverpool’s assets are enormous – the river front, Albert Dock, Stanley Dock, the magnificent commercial buildings, the city centre shops and buzz, its theatres and music venues, its fantastic museums and galleries, St George’s Hall, the cathedrals, the Georgian architecture, universities, parks, football clubs. This is a great city. But, unlike arch-rival Manchester, Liverpool doesn’t have a holistic vision of its future. The Mayor sees shiny new development as an end in itself. Liverpool Vision, the Urban Development quango does have some vision beyond counting tower cranes, but it is not very well articulated and its plans are effectively sidelined.
Erm, where's the tram, cycle lane, tree-lined boulevard etc?
What Liverpool desperately needs is not more cheap ‘icons’ but a strategy for creating a high quality public realm and an efficient and effective public transport system. It needs a long term green strategy, like its erstwhile peer Hamburg. The quality of Liverpool’s public realm in most key areas is lamentable. Strand St is unbelievable, Lime St a shambles and about to get worse. By contrast George Ferguson, the elected mayor in Liverpool’s old rival Bristol, is taking a real lead in raising an environmental vision, as is Peter Soulsby in Leicester. His ‘Connecting Leicester’ strategy serves as a model for what Liverpool should be doing.
This is not world class public transport
But then Liverpool, with actually low car ownership, is dominated by the culture of the car, like its sister city Glasgow. This is a difficult psychosis to change because it is all about the aspirations of decision makers. Like all provincial cities deregulation and Whitehall micro-control of capital investment means that public transport is uncoordinated and fragmented. Merseytravel, the ‘Integrated Transport Authority’ is piss poor. There are no maps or timetables at bus stops; even the bus numbers aren’t displayed at stops. Buses are a complicated mystery but I solved one - there are no buses to ‘Liverpool Waters’. Liverpool dismantled its Overhead Railway but it does have two railway lines across the city centre, the Wirral line and the Northern line with four underground stations. But compared with Newcastle’s Metro stations these are mean and cramped, hidden beneath commercial redevelopments, except for Lime St. Trains only run every 15 minutes. In Marseille, the Liverpool of France, super efficient metros run every couple of minutes, and of course are co-ordinated with buses as well as cool new tram lines. This really adds to the quality of your urban experience and the ability to navigate a big city. But Merseyside’s tram project was vetoed by the government in 2009, somewhat ironically by Labour’s present candidate for London Mayor. Divisions between the Merseyside authorities didn’t help.
Think about it
A big part of the problem of Liverpool's failure of vision is the failure to create a Greater Liverpool, leaving Merseyside politically fractured and fractious, a persistent source of political and economic weakness. Bootle would rather be joined with Southport 20 miles away than with Liverpool, which is on its doorstep. New York, with which Liverpool used to compare itself, was consolidated as a powerful political entity in 1898. Imagine if it had remained a disunited ‘Hudsonside’. Liverpool meanwhile cannot give its name to its conurbation.