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Shifted tideway: Liverpool's changing fortunes

Brian Hatton considers the history of Liverpool’s changing fortunes

Originally published in AR January 2008, this piece was republished online in March 2011

Regarding Liverpool, all must commence with the Mersey. On the primacy of the river, all are agreed. So Henry James’ English Hours began in a smoky dawn of arrival at the Mersey bar, and so do all the best books on Liverpool. In 1907, Walter Dixon Scott’s summary of the city at its confident peak, LiverjJool, opened with ‘The River’: ’ … not merely because Liverpool owes her actual existence to the River, but also because the whole quality, the “virtue” of that existence has been determined by the completeness of the dependency’. I Likewise, Quentin Hughes in 1964 opened Seaport - still the best introduction to Liverpool’s architecture - with ‘The River and the Docks’ And Tony Lane began his 1997 social history, Liverpool City Of The Sea: ‘In Liverpool the sea cannot be avoided. All roads converge at the Pier Head. The main streets collect the prevailing westerlies. Standing outside the Town Hall and looking down Water Street at high tide, inward and outward bound ships move across the frame made by the Cunard and Liver Buildings’.

The Mersey launched the port and its shipping; as topography it is ubiquitous and transcendent. Its great width, huge skies, and broad slopes all incite to architectural gesture on a grand scale. Colin Rowe, who studied and taught there, echoed Dixon Scott in remarking their spur to Liverpool’s self-imagining: ‘Liverpool is, or used to be, grim but grand. It was dour, squalid, improbably Piranesian and, characteristically, was equipped with an apparently endless series of smokily stratified sunsets … which served, occasionally, to contribute to a highly poignant magnificence. Also, it was never a completely provincial or pragmatic city and, from the late 18thC origins of its prosperity, it had typically indulged itself in fantasies which were likely to involve an unmistakably local (and Enlightenment) combination of elegance, information, and megalomania’.

That provocative and ‘fierce beauty’, as Dixon Scott called the river’s influence, has exceeded its utility to the port. It is now attractor to those converters of warehouse lofts to ‘city-dwelling’ who may make shopping rather than shipping the key to the city’s future. Visitors will notice the towers rising north of the Pier Head, each angled westward to the view across the river, the Welsh mountains and the Irish Sea. They are the crest of a regeneration that began, very slowly, in 1957, by turning the Albert Dock to the Maritime Museum, Tate Gallery North, tourism, and apartments.

Removal of the port downriver, rebuilding the Pier Head for cruiseliners, and the new King’s Dock Arena, on the waterfront next to the Albert Dock, should now connect city and river in a way that was never possible when eight miles of docks monopolised the Mersey. Across the old dock road from the Arena is now the city’s biggest building site: 42 acres, with streets and 40 individually designed buildings on a masterplan worked out between the city and developer Grosvenor Estates. Opening during Liverpool’s year as EU Capital of Culture, and named ‘Liverpool 1’, this doubling of the city’s retail centre is the largest of over a hundred projects which only now, 35 years after the closure of the south docks, are beginning to transform the city. It is ironic yet characteristic that ‘Liverpool 1’ is now rising on the site of the first of those docks, originally the very ‘pool’ itself of Liverpool.

The ‘navel’ of Liverpool

From its incorporation in 1207 to 1700, Liverpool scarcely grew beyond a grid of six streets, a castle, and church. Exposed to wind and surging tides, the Mersey was a dangerous channel, and the only haven for ships lay in the muddy creek that was the pool of Liverpool. The port of today is an entirely artifical creation that began only with the replacement of that creek, in 1715, by the world’s first wet sea-dock, into which ships could sail at high water, and remain through all tides. Over the next two centuries, 50 more such basins would follow, enclosing 500 acres of water by 50 miles of quayside.

Most were built along the Liverpool shore out into the river, which became flanked by continuous granite walls from Dingle down to Seaforth at the mouth; but in the nineteenth century, docks were opened on the opposite side of the Mersey, along the great ‘Float’, which ran inland from the locks at Birkenhead. Initially owned by the Corporation, and from 1857, a Trust, the administration of this vast estate on both sides of the Mersey became in effect, a city within a city, planned and designed with a regulation unknown in English towns. This was a factor in Liverpool’s peculiarly dirigiste, even paternalist, Tory politics (which controlled the city up to 1956) but also in the formal rationalism that would recur in Liverpool architecture.

An example of this was the 1827 conversion of the first dock into Canning Place. Dominated by John Foster’s massive Custom House, whose dome and Ionic west portico surveyed the docks, Canning Place became, until the Edwardian monumentalisation of the Pier Head, the civic focus of the port, whose brokers’ axis ran from the Exchange behind John Wood’s Town Hall, along Castle Street past Cockerell’s Bank of England, and culminated in the shadow of the Custom House’s north portico and mercantile pantheon. Its looming bulk (bigger than St George’s Hall) reflected its national importance; for with the port’s ascendance, Liverpool Custom House became the Exchequer’s biggest single source of revenue, leading Liverpool, uniquely, to be accorded its own Whitehall office.

Schinkel in Liverpool

That Foster succeeded his father as Corporation Surveyor (also Dock Engineer from 1799 to 1825) aroused comment. The elder Foster oversaw a doubling of the docks and the building of fireproof warehouses such as the Goree arcades. In 1810, the younger Foster joined Cockerell in gaining the Aegina marbles, and on his return transfused Grecian style to Liverpool, where it persisted, as in Glasgow, over a century. Most of Foster’s austere works are now gone; but one remains. Pevsner called it ‘a stroke of genius’: the romantic quarry of St James’ Graveyard, now in the gothic shade of Scott’s Anglican Cathedral, into which Foster led down, from his Doric Oratory and Gambier Terrace, a Piranesian descent of ramps and tunnels to his domed Huskisson Mausoleum.

It was understandable, therefore, that when, in 1826, Friedrich Schinkel visited Liverpool on his research tour of Britain, he sought out Foster at his house in Mt Pleasant, opposite Edmund Aiken’s Wellington Rooms, whose Grecian refinement he noted in his journal. But Foster was already at his office, and when Schinkel caught up with him, had little time to talk with his distinguished Prussian visitor, who noted Foster’s income from the booming port around him.

If Schinkel hoped to discuss the culture of the city, he would have done better at the Athenaeum club with its illustrious founder William Roscoe, selftaught biographer of Lorenzo di Medici, founder of Liverpool’s art collections, and campaigner, as local MP, against slavery. Schinkel, like many nineteenth-century visitors, experienced in Liverpool a mix of exhilaration and alarm, finding efficient models to imitate, but social disorders to avoid. Many in the city felt the same. For instance, James Newlands pioneered a sewer system long before Bazalgette in London. Such reformers promoted the lS46 Liverpool Sanitary Act and appointed the country’s first Medical Office of Health, the celebrated Dr Duncan, for whom, like Roscoe, two Liverpool pubs are still named.

Visitors and visions

Liverpool’s fame grew with its trade. In 1824, Donizetti made it the setting of a fanciful opera: Emilia di Liverpool. It also featured in journals, such as those of de Tocqueville and Emerson. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a journal of his years there as US consul, and Herman Melville set his 1849 novel Redburn in the ‘grand caravansary’ of Princes Dock, after his stay there while visiting Hawthorne. Most decisive was Frederick Law Olmsted’s discovery, on his arrival, of Paxton’s new Birkenhead Park, where he found the picturesque landscape design which he had come to see, but adapted for the first time from aristocratic estate to a democratic park. Back in New York, Olmsted would translate Birkenhead, upscaled and Columbia-rugged, to Central Park.

In 1842, a German visitor, J.G. Kohl, recorded the city in meticulous and admiring detail, noting that since 1800, its population had trebled to 300 000, while the port received annually 16 000 ships, with 10 000 owned there. By 1900, a million people lived on Merseyside, and with growing steamship size, one seventh of the world’s tonnage was owned there. This fact, even more than the port itself, underlay Liverpool’s great fortunes. So although other ports overhauled it during the t’wentieth century, the final collapse in those fortunes came after 1970, with the near-extinction of the UK Merchant Navy.

The boldest engineer of the port that impressed Kohl and Melville was Jesse Hartley. In 30 years, he built as many docks; above all the Albert, which integrated wharf and warehouse with hydraulic lifts and cranes. Hartley disposed stone and iron with articulate gravity and functional grace; yet his powerful architecture padante also ran to maniacally fortified towers and gates of minatory grimness.

‘Granite was the material in which he delighted to work. His walls are built with rough cyclopean masses, the face dressed, but otherwise shapeless as from the quarry, cemented with a lime as hard as the granite itself’. As the century wore on, so extended and ramified the walls, locks and coulisses of the docks. In the fogs of the fin-de-siecle (praised by Oscar Wilde in a lecture at Birkenhead), the labyrinth of docks became a mysterious domain of symbols. In 1892, Atkinson Grimshaw painted the dock road as a rainy procession of masts and gaslamps in vaporous twilight.

Yet Grimshaw’s nocturnes were retrospects to a Georgian waterfront already overtaken by forces altogether more industrial and unknowable, sensed in the Piranesian images of Dixon Scott’s visionary impression of 1907: ‘It is a region, this seven-mile sequence of granite-lipped lagoons, which is invested … with some conspicuous properties of romance; and yet its romance is never of just that quality one might perhaps expect … Neither of the land nor of the sea, but possessing both the stability of the one and the constant flux of the other - too immense, too filled with the vastness of the outer, to carry any sense of human handicraft - this strange territory of the Docks seems, indeed, to form a kind of fifth element, a place charged with daemonic issues and daemonic silences, where men move like puzzled slaves, fretting under orders they cannot understand, fumbling with great forces that have long passed out of their control … ‘

The Overhead Railway

‘Out of control’ was what, by the year that Grimshaw painted it, the Dock Road had become - a continuous thoroughfare, parallel to the river, of all the port’s traffic. Liverpool had brought the world’s first public railway, in 1830, through tunnels down to the docks, and in 1886 opened an underground railway to the ‘Virral. Now it was decided to adopt from New York the solution of an elevated railway to run along the Dock Road, but to outdo New York’s ‘El’ by making it the world’s first electrified ‘Overhead Railway’. ‘The Dockers’ Umbrella’, as it became known, opened in 1893 and carried millions each year until its closure, to general dismay, in 1956.

That dismay reflected its immense popularity, often from memories of the parade of ships and docks afforded to all who rode aboard it. That its appeal was immediate was evidenced in that, in 1896, it prompted Lumiere’s cameramen to film from it what may be the world’s first ‘tracking shot’, running from Canada to Albert Docks, past timberyards, sailing-ships and giant steamers. Far from Grimshaw’s nocturnes, this movie is a kinematic harbinger of a twentieth century that had not yet even begun.

Without montage, it presents a single continuous view; but that is its key: a one-to-one correlation of lens to motif, which translates space, through ‘real to reel’ motion, into time. This new technique of the visible would open Dixon Scott’s intractable dockworld to new eyes; and the tracking view from the Overhead would feature in every montage of modern Liverpool. Throughout Anson Dyer’s 1927 ‘city symphony’ film, A Day In Liverpool, shots from and of the Overhead recur as a motif of urban energy among streets, offices, exchanges, liners, cranes, brokers and dockers - the roaring scene that, surely also viev’ed from the Overhead, excited Karel Capek on his visit in 1924:

‘But Liverpool is the biggest port … there was something to see from Dingle up to Bootle, and as far again as Birkenhead on the other side. Yellow water, bellowing steam ferries, white trans-atlantic liners, towers, cranes, stevedores, skiffs, shipyards, trains, smoke, chaos, hooting, ringing, hammering, puffing, the ruptured bellies of the ships, the stench of horses, the sweat, urine, and waste from all the continents of the world … And if I heaped up words for another half an hour, I wouldn’t achieve the full number, confusion and expanse which is called Liverpool.’

Indeed, a half-hour was the Overhead ride from Dingle to Bootle, which unfolded not just a pageant of ships, but Liverpool’s masternarrative, which was recorded by countless eyes and amateur cameras following Dyer and Lumiere. In architecture, ‘narrative’ is a line, like a rope, which twists spatial and temporal events together into organized and self-evident form. We can say, then, that the era of the Overhead was when Liverpool attained a comprehensible form as, in effect, a linear city running parallel to the river, from the airport at Speke to the Formby dunes where Hawthorne and Melville strolled. This was the premise of a project which, in 1994, when Merseyside was designated ‘Objective l’ for massive EU funding, I exhibited in Milan with architects from the group NATO (Narrative Architecture Today) - to use the EU fund to build a new Overhead that would remagnetise the Mersey as a linear city.

Contenders at the Pier Head

The fulcrum of the Overhead was the Pier Head; yet, as Lumiere’s film shows, when the line opened, that climactic trio of giant buildings that became twentieth-century Liverpool’s world-image did not yet exist; the Pier Head was what it had always been - the pier for ferries to the Wirral, which drew to it the focus of the tram system. What transformed it was the liners, which began to moor there on the mile-long floating landing-stage, adjoining Princes Dock station with its awaiting Pullman trains.

Yet in 1900, this great threshold was still in effect an island, cut off by George’s Dock. It was the Dock Board’s decision to close that basin - which was big, but too small for the latest steamships - that created the site for the enormous monuments and plaza that ensued. Yet how much of it was planned? Adrian Jarvis has described the Dock Board’s bluff and opportunism in using the south end of the dock as site for a new headquarters to impress investors. This they completed by 1907, with no plan for what might fill the other sites; so that when, in 1911, the taller, American-scale Liver Building rose on the north site, they were put out, and were with those who thought that the Cunard Building in the middle, should be lowered.

Peter de Figueiredo has cast light on the Pier Head development; yet much remains obscure as to how this most monumental parade actually came about. Evident however, is that, as with Canning Place, the civic domain again benefited from translating the functional rationality of the dock estate into formal rationality in the city plan. As the Custom House had arisen on the Old Dock, flanked by quaysides that became Canning Place, so now George’s Dock was divided by extensions of Brunswick and Water Streets into the insular sites on which arose the three giants of the Pier Head.

On the Pier Head trio, much has been written about their variable elevations, but not enough about their site plan. The significance of the Pier Head is that only there are reconciled two contradictory pulses in Liverpool urbanism. One, modelled by the docks, and evident in the Georgian districts and Lancelot Keay’s housing and boulevards, is towards formal ensembles; but the other is to showy and extravagant one-offs -‘iconic’ solitaires: the Town Hall, Custom House, St George’s Hall, two totemic cathedrals, Rowse’s Mersey Tunnel towers, StJohn’s beacon and the fantasy of the ‘4th Grace’.

Whatever the merits of the various designs for the ‘4th’, none of them followed the logic of the prime trio. Which was: to maximise their power as freestanding monuments to themselves, but also to affirm the transcendent order of the civic domain. This they do by squarely measuring their sites (on rational commercial grounds) and conforming as blocks to streetlines in a disciplined rhythm of solid-void-solid-void-solid. The utopia of the block-as-single-monument grid is of course Manhattan, whose pragmatic ideology was celebrated in Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York. Yet, beyond the Pier Head, grids and planned layouts do not reappear in Liverpool until the Georgian districts and Princes Avenue.

The most consistent grid indeed, is Birkenhead, laid out by shipbuilder Laird and his Scottish architect Gillespie Graham, running a mile from Hamilton Square to Birkenhead Park. But unlike Glasgow, Liverpool has tended to be a city of objects rather than streets; and for all the Greek influence, there was no local equivalent to Glasgow’s Thomson. This helps explain the confusions that blew up around the ‘4th Grace’. American writer Stanley Reynolds, who lived some years there, called Liverpool ‘a Contrary Mary of a city’. Contrary, surely, was to wish for an ‘icon’ which was imagined somehow both to complement yet outdo the ‘iconicity’ of the great trio.

Contrary too, was to object to a ‘4th’ because it would block a view of the trio from the south docks which, as nobody could enter there until recently, had never been intended; and which, in the Edwardian boom, was anticipated to be soon occluded by another massive business block. In fact, the last scheme that grasped the logic of the Pier Head was proposed in the 1940s by Alderman Alfred Shennan, a political and architectural conservative. His ambition to replace most of the city with giant Beaux-Arts blocks looks mad - the effusion of an architectural Walter Mitty.

Yet not all crazy was Shennan’s insight that the Pier Head trio are not quite aligned, but in fact tangents on a subtle curve that imply extrapolation. He thus proposed to extend the Pier Head with four more Liver Building-size edifices, so as to create an arc of seven monumental island-blocks centred on the Docks Headquarters. A case, in Rowe’s terms, of ‘local megalomania’? But it was also, and characteristically, a Liverpool myth of its unfulfilled conjectural identity as ‘some kind of place’, as ‘a contender’ - as Marlon Brando said he could be to Rod Steiger in On the Waterfront.

Paragon and paradigm

Whether or not Shennan’s plan was a contender, it was the last gasp of a grand formalism that had recurred in Liverpool since Foster’s time. Of this propensity, St George’s Hall remains the opulent paragon that confronts all who step out from Lime Street Station. It is entirely apposite then, that the Hall stands for the city on the cover of Joseph Sharples’ Pevsner Guide. By a typically local stroke of inspired opportunism, the Hall in fact combined two entirely different programmes. There were two competitions, one for concert halls, another for law courts.

When it was found that the same 22-year old, Lonsdale Elmes, had won both, the city decided to unite them in a single grandiose monument. To help Elmes in this vast undertaking, which included a pioneer air-conditioning system, C. R. Cockerell was appointed advisor, and after Elmes’ death in 1847, chief architect. The rich interiors of the concert halls are largely Cockerell’s. The exterior, however, is Elmes’ own synthesis of programme, formal composition, and sublime massing. Most remarkable is that its principal address is not the conventional portico at its south end, but the long colonnade which, flanking the plaza along Lime Street, overwhelms and astonishes the arriving visitor, who, on approaching its portals, finds them inscribed with the imperial capitals SPQL - ‘The Senate and People of Liverpool’.

And if, to a visitor, this unPalladian massif recalls the extended frontality of Berlin’s Altes Museum, then the square columns that articulate its wall may summon the name of Schinkel. Did Elmes, who visited Berlin only in 1842, draw from Schinkel? Certainly, Alexander Thomson, who not only drew, but developed on Schinkel, was in no doubt as to Elmes’ achievement. St George’s Hall, he declared, was one of what were ‘unquestionably the two finest buildings in the kingdom’.

Elmes completed a couple of other Liverpool buildings; but his early death denied him the range of Thomson’s urban work in Glasgow. So while he created a paragon, he produced no paradigm. A paragon is a star of excellence, but a paradigm sets a pattern for reiteration; it is an example to typology. Their difference may parallel Giedion’s distinction in Space, Time and Architecture between ‘constitutive’ and ‘transient’ phenomena in nineteenth-century architecture.

‘Transient’ were styles and fashions; ‘constitutive’ were those industrial and commercial programmes where efficient deployment of new techniques engendered model spaces for the future. ‘Constitutive’ then, and paradigmatic in Modernist eyes, were two office buildings erected but shortly after St George’s Hall by an obscure Liverpool builder Peter Ellis: Cook Street, and Oriel Chambers, which took the logic of commercial space to luminous conclusion by hanging continuously glazed walls across an iron frame. Glasgow also had ironframe pioneers, including Thomson; but as Francis Duffy noted, ‘What is remarkable about Oriel Chambers is that the architect … wanted neither the Georgian domestic-cum-college solution of the Inns of Court nor the normal sub-palazzo facade with its implication of one organization standing alone.

Oriel Chambers, in both plan and elevation, is almost programmatically modular - a neat aggregation of small undifferentiated units, which is exactly what it is. This is the novelty of Oriel Chambers - not only is the plan a succession of small office suites, which are highly adapted to the needs of small businesses, but the facade also carries the same message. Neither palace nor college, Oriel Chambers created a stylistic precedent for countless office buildings.

A precedent and a paradigm - but not one that was immediately appreciated. For Building News it was ‘a kind of greenhouse architecture gone mad’, and the local Porcupine called it ‘hard, liney, and meagre’. Looking back now on those radical cast-iron frames that, ahead of the Americans, Glasgow and Liverpool produced in the 1860s, and noting the absence in Britain of their further development, we might trace there, around 1870, the discrete inception of that slow falling-away from industrial innovation and that shifting back of wealth to London that not only led to the decline of the North, but British near-absence from the Modern Movement in twentieth-century architecture.

When, in the 1930s, wondering what became of early British Modernism, Pevsner wrote ‘Nine Swallows, No Summer’, Oriel was surely one of the ‘swallows’ in mind. But perhaps Oriel displeased locals because it abstracted from a Gothic model in a city that remained mostly Classical - as on the ‘acropolis’ opposite St George’s Hall, ‘that superb stretch of smutted greek’, as Dixon Scott called it, of the Art Gallery, Museum, and Library. And indeed, to eyes now less Modern than Post-Modern, what may strike from the Oriel is less a paradigm of rationality than something both more abstract and more wilful. So that when, in the 1960s, James Stirling drew from Oriel in his Leicester Engineering Laboratory, his model was neither its chamfered details nor even its functionalism, but the geometric glass cascade of its atrium walls.

Giedion’s Modernist antinomy between ‘constitutive’ and ‘transient’ might now be disputed. In St George’s, was not the ‘sublimation’ of programmes, literally into the ‘hybrid sublime’, of abstract massing incipient of another kind of modern, that ‘great lobotomy’ which Koolhaas found between floors of dissociated programmes contained within the ecstatic figure of the skyscraper? With its perverse programme of trial-concert-trial-concert, St George’s Hall may be seen as a horizontal skyscraper quite as ‘delirious’ as any New York tower; or, viewed as a landlocked liner, a Foucauldian ‘heterotopia’ as odd as a floating asylum.

Such imaginings, Aldo Rossi might have described as ‘analogical’. The ‘permanences’ which constituted, for Rossi, ‘The Architecture Of The City’, are typologies and monuments, beneath or among which drifts or haunts an ‘Analogical City’: a psychic double more metaphysically ‘true’ than the actual. In this oneiric museum, St George’s ‘acropolis’ and Oriel Chambers are joined by objects, places, zones, tunnels, holes that are architecturally neither paragon nor paradigm. As George Melly, locally-born blues singer and surrealist ‘agent’ observed to me, Liverpool is strewn with such analogical traps, few of which correspond to any usual sense of architectural ‘quality’.

The Liverpool School

Quality, nevertheless, was the ideal of those patrician philanthropists - ‘Liverpool Gentlemen, not Manchester Men’ - who in 1883 founded the Roscoe Professorship of Art, and in 1895, the first university school of architecture. They aspired to raise the standard not just of design in Liverpool, but of civic culture altogether. Indeed, in its first decade the school ran a remarkable integrated course which, inspired by the Arts & Crafts movement, taught art, design, and trades within a single, municipally funded ‘School of Architecture and Applied Arts’. Quentin Hughes described this bold experiment, which saw artists and tradesmen from the school collaborate on the splendid interiors of the Philharmonic Hotel, as forerunner to the integral ideal of the ‘Basic Course’ at the Bauhaus. The 1902 Education Act, however, sundered the universities from local funding. The art school went off to a new building where later the Beatles fermented, and in 1904 the university appointed as Professor of Architecture Charles Reilly, who took the school in a new direction, and through personality and publicity over the following decades made it known across the world.

That direction was westwards. Reilly was a typical Edwardian in that, while he was in reaction against the Gothic Revival and Victorian stricture (Lytton Strachey was living nearby in Rodney Street), he evinced little interest in advanced European developments. Aware, nevertheless, of the unstemmable tide of big business, and funded by William Lever (Lord Leverhulme, who also endowed the university school of civic design, while building by his Wirral soapworks the garden suburb of Port Sunlight), he sailed in 1909 to America, in search of a model to adapt to the new city, to teach, to promote, and thereby to promote the Liverpool school.

Chris Crouch has shown how Liverpool was already long open to US models and contacts; but on Reilly the American way of amplifying Beaux-Arts composition to steel construction and huge commercial projects now exercised an overwhelming persuasion. As Colin Rowe put it, Reilly ‘believed that the message had been delivered by McKim, Mead, & White’. Thus, US trips and internships became a feature of the Liverpool curriculum, which then began to bear influence on the city itself. In consequence, Liverpool and Glasgow (with Burnet’s work) were the only British cities to retain to 1939, some architectural independence of the kind that had flourished in provincial centres in the nineteenth century.

Finest and most conspicuous example of ‘Liverpool neo-grec’ was Willink & Thicknesse’s Cunard Building. Completed in 1918, it was the third of the Pier Head trio, and quite the most refined - a very grand palazzo which housed not only Cunard’s headquarters building but a lounge and restaurant for first class passengers awaiting embarkation at the landing-stage, its site matching Cunard’s New York office on Battery Park, No 1 Broadway. While Willink went on, with Harold Dod, to design the new Athenaeum club, the most successful architect of the Liverpool School, with the greatest impact on the city between the wars, was Herbert Rowse. For Holt’s Blue Funnel Line he built India Buildings and for Martin’s Bank its headquarters, two of the huge blocks which endow Water Street with its epic New York ‘canyon’ prospect down to the Mersey. Not least New York about Water Street was that architects put their offices on the top floors of their own buildings - Rowse over Martin’s Bank, Willink aboard the Cunard, and Aubrey Thomas atop the Liver Building.

Rowse displayed an evolution from Beaux-Arts, through Art Deco, to the brink of Modernism in his last big job, the Dudok-influenced new Philharmonic Hall, which opened in 1939. His most haunting endowments to the city, however, are not in Liverpool but in Birkenhead. They are the enigmatic towers which, from the far embankment, echo those on the Pier Head and kindle, by their spectral correspondence, an idea of the city’s transmarine extension to its metro-colony on the Wirral (or New Jersey). Abstract and pharaonic, with sleek Art-Deco detail, they are in fact flues of the Mersey Tunnel, engineered by Mott & Brodie, and opened in 1934. Rowse also designed the tunnel’s hieratic portals, but streamlined its three-mile carriageway so rationally that when Maxwell Fry brought Walter Gropius to lecture at the university, he took Gropius through the tunnel.

Doubtless, Fry (a 1924 Liverpool graduate) also showed to Gropius Frederick Etchells’ recent translation of Corbusier’s Vers Une Architecture, which was illustrated with Liverpool works - notably Cunard’s Aquitania and a striking whole-page photo of a Gladstone Dock lockgate, anticipating the skyscraper profile of Milan’s Pirelli tower, entitled simply ‘Liverpool’.

By Reilly’s retirement in 1933, Modernism was reaching Liverpool. Indeed, Reilly brokered the Modernist design of his recent graduate William Crabtree for the Peter Jones store on London’s Sloane Square, modelled on works of Erich Mendelsohn who, while in Britain, lectured twice at Liverpool. Meanwhile, Fry, a partner with Gropius, tried to get him a post at the university. But would Gropius have fitted at Liverpool? The expressionistically supercharged Arts and Crafts ideal that launched the Bauhaus had turned to industrial design, but Gropius still spoke for a social functionalism likely to be misunderstood in a liberal academy which, in Rowe’s account, was disposed by degreees towards Modernism, but, as in the America of ‘The International Style’, in essentially formalistic terms.

Yet Liverpool’s largest Modernist initiative was one of Britain’s most extensive programmes of social housing, under the city architect Lancelot Keay. Characteristic was the deck-accessed inner-city Siedlung of St Andrews Gardens, designed by local graduate John Hughes after a trip to Germany. Characteristically ‘contrary’, too; for this housing was, as George Orwell noted, commissioned by Liverpool’s Tory council: ‘Here therefore you have what is in effect Socialist legislation … done by a local authority. But the Corponttion of Liverpool is almost entirely Conservative … On the other side … you have Port Sunlight, a city within a city, all built and owned by the Leverhulme soapworks … Looking at the Corporation buildings … and Lord Leverhulme’s … you would find it hard to say which was which’.

Liverpool interrupted

By the time of Orwell’s Dimy, Leverhulme was dead, and his company Unilever had built a big headquarters building at Blackfriars in London. Up the Thames at Millbank, the ICI, another huge combine of northern chemical companies, had built a still bigger headquarters. The deal that created ICI was conceived in 1926 aboard Corbusier’s favourite, Aquitania, and its largest element was the United Alkali Company which was based in the Cunard Building. Neither ICI nor Unilever had history or interests in London; but its monopoly of national government led both to erect massive Beaux-Arts headquarters there that would have been better designed in Liverpool, had they remained in the city where they had grown, and which now needed their new dynamism. For within a few years of their move, Liverpool was suffering the aftermath of the Wall Street crash.

Where did decline really begin? ‘The onset of the end is always discrete’ wrote Hans Magnus Enzensburger in The Sinking Of The Titanic. Was it that moment in 1876 when, overhearing his snobbish slights against her husband, Mrs Frederick Leyland confronted James McNeill Whistler amid the gilt and turquoise panels of the Peacock Room? A Liverpool shipowner of some cultivation, Leyland invited the American artistdandy to his home at sixteenth-century Speke Hall, which Whistler drew. Leyland also acquired a rich art collection, yet kept it not in Liverpool, but in Kensington’s Princes Gate, where, as signal to high society, he commissioned Whistler to decorate a salon. Had Princes Gate been in Liverpool, this keywork of the Aesthetic Movement, characteristic of Liverpool’s role in Henry James’ ‘Gilded Age’, might have set off a local Jugendstil like those of Glasgow and Vienna. Moreover, Leyland could have kept an eye on Whistler. For, left unsupervised at Princes Gate, Whistler was profligate not only with his talent, but with Leyland’s money, painting over antique Spanish leathers and then, as much a parvenu as his patrons, demanding 2000 guineas for unspecified work.

The Peacock episode was a significant straw in the wind; for it indicated the weakness of new provincial cities in relation to the old money, advantage and privilege of London. Initially pieds à terres, then main homes, then entire corporate headquarters, shifted in the early twentieth century from the North to London. When Sir Henry Tate, Liverpool sugar magnate, endowed a national gallery of modern art, he did so in London. When Dr Ludwig Mond made the greatest-ever bequest of old masters, acquired from wealth in the Merseyside chemical industry, it was not to Liverpool or Manchester, but to the National Gallery in London. When Sir Thomas Beecham founded an orchestra with money from his family’s drug company in St Helens, he did so in London. Against this trend, some Liverpool firms held out. As late as 1970, the only clearing bank not London-based was Liverpool’s Martin’s Bank, a distinguished architectural patron. When the Smithsons’ Economist Building opened, it housed a branch of Martin’s. But in 1971 Martin’s merged with (was swallowed up by) Barclays.

Maxwell Fry, who grew up amid Liverpool’s patrician Unitarian shipping culture, described its decline after 1920: ‘Once … everyone lived in the towns they worked in … thus everyone was involved according to their interest with the life and fortune of the city; for good or ill, but involved. [But time would] disperse our leaders and set about the disintegration of the city. As surely as B’s machine-baked loaf superseded our homemade bread, as inevitably then were B’s absorbed into greater enterprises … So degraded what had been particular and special, individual and unique … The destruction when it finally came was hydra-headed. If the motor-car dispersed the vital essence, leaving the great houses around the park to be converted into flats, it was but one of many agents that severed the links that had joined us for so long … This tiny community was of consequence for the greater unit that enclosed it because it was representative of an attitude to life that, if not destroyed, now lies quiescent until better times, if ever, call it forth’.

And Mario Praz in Liverpool about 1930, admiring the ‘black and green’ of Speke Hall and then the waning Georgian streets, caught the same melancholy: ‘Some day, perhaps, it will be possible to walk through these streets as among the ruins of another Pompeii; and here a pillar, there an ornamental architrave, there a balcony of Grecian design, will recall the history of a great emporium of the North, which lived and prospered beneath the thousand small Vesuvii of its factories, and then decayed when the focus of traffic moved away to the west’.

Ten years later, the ‘air and silence’ of Praz’s ‘provincial Bloomsbury’ was shattered by the Blitz. Typically of aerial bombs, their main victim was not their target, the port, but the Georgian quarter. The great dock-gates remained intact; but South Castle Street and the Custom House copped it. Its dome was burned off and its rotunda opened to the sky until, in 1947, it was, as Rowe put it, ‘senselessly and expensively demolished’; for its great stone hulk withstood, and could have been retained.

Indeed, worse than the Blitz, the result of civic self-hatred and flight of leadership lamented by Fry, were the ‘clearances’ after 1945. South Castle Street and Canning Place were not just flattened; they were erased from the map. Sailmakers’ Row, the Sailors’ Home, and the Piranesian Duke’s Warehouse went to be replaced by car parks; while an act of civic vandalism replaced the Cotton Exchange’s grandiloquent hall and Neo-Baroque front by the coarsest grade of commercial block. Yet such demolitions were trivial compared with the calamitous concept of ‘overspill’, which compounded a falling population by the idiotic policy of ‘New Towns’. Overspill made sense for London’s eight million people and 36-mile diameter. In contrast, it should have been evident that the provincial cities’ problem was not that they were oversize but that they were too small to compete with London.

Yet Liverpool got three New Towns - Winsford, Skelmersdale, and Runcorn - whose effect, just as its economy capsized, was like trying to cure anaemia by bleeding. ‘Change and Challenge’ - the city’s slogan of that time - would have been more aptly ‘Drain and Damage’. For Liverpool, the ’60s were a delusive decade, whose two great symbols ought now to be acknowledged disappointments. First was the Catholic Cathedral. Lutyens’ original vision, abandoned in the ’50s by a spiritless hierarchy, was sublimely greater than its substitute wigwam - cheap, crude, and corny - which looked better as building site than finished. Second was the Beatles. Had they emerged in Hamburg, they could have recorded locally with Polydor. But in Britain, despite Brian Epstein’s brilliant enterprise, they had to go to London to get a contract. The consequence was that, for all the famed associations, the economic benefits to Liverpool of ‘Merseybeat’ were nearly nil.

James Stirling, or Liverpool dispersed

There was grey irony in Stirling’s engagement - ultimately ruined - at Runcorn. For if New Towns drained investment that the city never got, then Stirling was doubtless the best architect that Liverpool never had. Son of a marine engineer, and conceived, it seems, aboard a ship in New York, and born in Glasgow, Stirling grew up in Liverpool. Colin Rowe was percipient when, introducing a book on his student and friend, he devoted 3500 words to, ‘an absorbing and lavish mosaic of the Liverpool … that he and Stirling inhabited’. Rowe sifted the local tessarae which, mixed with those of wider provenance, would emerge, transformed, throughout Stirling’s work. They included, as well as such a ‘local deity’ as Cockerell, the presence there, ‘absolutely different’, of the exiled Polish School of Architecture, with ‘their flamboyance … half Corbu, half … Beaux-Arts’. But also Rowe himself, relating Corbusier to the Villa Capra and Modernism to mannerism; about whom gathered a gifted circle of students such as Thomas Stevens and Robert Maxwell, whose work, when shown at the Architectural Association was dubbed Maniera Liverpudliana.

‘Northern’ references were evident in Stirling’s earlier work - Preston housing, Oriel Chambers at Leicester but for those knowing Liverpool and alert to his ways of adapting and transposing forms, displaced traces of the city recur throughout. So, while the flue vane in the yard of the Florey Building is the kind of marine toy easily found in Stirling, the building itself is both ship and graving dock: a ship from outside, propped up by struts the way a ship is in drydock, with hanging gangways; while within, the battered courtyard walls are like those of the graving dock. Likewise the Venice Biennale Bookshop, which Stirling cartooned as a barge, while its entrance end is a crane-gable like a port warehouse. Indeed, Stirling’s similar long U-plan for housing on a Rotterdam pier was illustrated by Rowe and Arnell beside one of Hartley’s Albert Dock warehouses which Stirling later adapted for the Liverpool Tate.

Many more such links might be drawn, from those Stirling made himself to uncanny parallels which only a local might spot, as in his drawing of the Columbia U. Chemistry Building, where a giant truss, swerving into Chandler Hall, summons an apparition of the Dingle truss where the Overhead Railway swerved into a sandstone cliff to suddenly become a tunnel. Moreover, when you see his later drawing of it as a wreck, uncannily like the Overhead’s ruined viaduct in the Blitz, you sense a working-through of some interior daemon.

This daemon drove the perverse capriccio of his own works which, for Roma Intenotta in 1978, he scattered across the Tiber on Nolli’s Map, ‘to achieve a density … similar to that evolved by history’. Calling it a ‘Piranesian’ work of an MFA - ‘Megalomaniac Frustrated Architect’, he railed against New Towns which ‘have a debilitating effect upon old towns which they were intended to enhance by relieving pressure … At another level is the destruction by planners of magnificent nineteenthcentury cities, eg Liverpool, Glasgow, Newcastle, all in the name of “progress”, which means demolition of so-called “out of date” buildings and replacement with a lethal combination of urban motorways and commercial architecture, here termed “block modern” (cf blockhouse, blockhead, blockbuster, blocked) … Thus cities have lost their identity, and townspeople are numbed with problems of memory.’

The MFA is also a displaced and dispersed architect. The dense collage which Stirling wanted would not be realised in his home city, but only by analogy elsewhere. At the Stuttgart Gallery, Stirling built, inter alia, an abstract analogy of Liverpool. There is a local sandstone (which he used also in Berlin) like that of Woolton Quarry; the ramps like StJames quarry graveyard and ‘Splendid Terraces’ advocated by Rowe in Collage Ciry, references to Schinkel, and Neo-Classic statues amid motifs mechanic and marine. For Konrad Adenauer Strasse, read the Dock Road. Most of all, there is the path across and through the ivy-eaved circular courtyard, like that across wartime Canning Place and through the sky-exposed rotunda of Foster’s fire-bombed Custom House.

Like the Custom House, the Stuttgart museum had been bombed, as Anthony Vidler remarks on its courtyard: ‘This rotunda, without dome and open to the sky .,. is no more than the “shell” of the Pantheon, blasted open and left to stand as an absent presence, a space returned to the city by an act of violence to a monument … The message seems to be one of indeterminacy, of discomfort with the monumental face of past institutions, revealing the elements of architecture in order … to facilitate their dispersion into the city fabric’. Vidler is examining here Rowe’s question as to the ‘absent face’ of the Stuttgart elevation. He suggests that the ‘face’ is absent because the museum is - as Rowe himself appreciated - not an isolated object. With its climbing path across a sloping site amid neighbours, it identifies completely with the city. Yet, for all its contrapposto and distracted face, to a viewer across the Adenauer Strasse, the Stuttgart museum presents definite frontality, fulfilling Rowe’s provocative dialectic.

In cities, one condition alone can offer this simultaneous address and reserve: that is where a port not merely flanks but fronts the water with not one but multiple ‘faces’. A city which can present this countenance to the sea, no matter how compromised or distracted the landward body behind the face, will always inspire ideas of adventitious arrival. Again, the River is the key (the quay!) to that recurrent provocation which Liverpool makes, and which makes Liverpool.

Liverpool located

In 1957, Stirling wrote ‘Regionalism and Modern Architecture’, observing that while architects had taken, in the wake of Wittkower, a ‘neopalladian’ turn, there was renewed interest in vernacular and early modern models which evidenced a return to regional resources. Indeed, Stirling himself was doing so. Yet, if he refrained from a simple call for ‘the regional’, it was because he was also engaged with the unlocal valencies of both technology and high Modernism - he cited Eliot’s Waste Land.

This ambivalence corresponds to the case of a city like Liverpool, which went from negligible to all-but global without a midway of provincial; yet now finds itself strangely declasse, surrounded with monumental evidence of a distinctly local identity which, paradoxically, entrained a global scope that seems now beyond its reach.

Architectural ‘regionalism’ has a problem with cities, and particularly with ‘provincial’ cities, which today means nearly all those not in the magic circle of six or seven ‘global cities’.

Even Kenneth Frampton’s elaborated idea of ‘critical regionalism’ as resistance to corporate forces, relies mostly upon maintenance of historically local - usually preindustrial - tectonic practices. This leaves at a loss cities such as Liverpool and Glasgow, whose architecture was developed by a capitalism which then forsook them as executive locations, leaving them to branch-plant and back-office roles. They are not, in the old sense ‘provincial’; yet nor can they be said, at present, to compare with the likes of those German and European cities that successfully compete with the magic ‘global’ centres. Current revamps of the northern cities are attempts to re-attract executive powers, so that they can, actually, be cities once again, with the real vocation of cities. Whether that can happen in a UK where executive functions are so completely monopolised by London, remains doubtful.

We can be certain, however, that mere ‘branding’ of location with facile citations of former character won’t conjure the reality anew. Wherever tradition was, and whatever character could be, can come only through what Adorno called ‘a comprehensive substantial force’. Which is to say that the real task now is to renew location through new vocation.

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