When the architectural historian, Joseph Sharples, first visited Liverpool as a student in the 1980s, the city made an indelible impression.
“It was the lowest point of Liverpool’s economic decline,” he says. “And there was an extraordinary feeling of visiting the ruins of an ancient city. You were surrounded by derelict warehouses on a colossal scale. It was as if you’d found yourself in some vanished civilisation.”
Walking along Liverpool’s waterfront today tells a different story. From the low-slung slab of the new exhibition centre to the graceful curves of the arena, from the sightseeing wheel to the Pier Head and the Albert Dock – now three decades into its career as a tourist attraction and home to galleries and museums – this stretch of Mersey-facing real estate is a showcase of architecture and regeneration.
Huge statement buildings from a variety of eras nuzzle up to each other, apparently comfortable with their differences: there are Victorian dock warehouses, Edwardian office blocks and 21st century cultural centres all seeking protection from the frequently biting winds blowing in off the Irish Sea.
And there’s more to Liverpool than the waterfront, of course. Turn inland and you see the two massive cathedrals peer down from their ridge up on Hope Street where they watch over the Everyman Theatre, the Philharmonic Hall, and street after street of glorious Georgian housing. String all these buildings along a timeline and they tell a story of empire and wealth, shifting fortunes and decline, resistance and the urge to rise again.
But behind and between each of these structures lie more stories, more possibilities, more visions of what could be, of what might have been. These are the narratives that Sharples, as co-curator, explores in the opening exhibition at a new gallery on Liverpool waterfront.
Called Liverpool(e): Mover, Shaker, Architectural Risk-Taker, the show can be seen at RIBA North, a new national architecture centre established by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). It consists of drawings, models and sketches culled from RIBA’s own collection, many shown for the first time, detailing some of the alternative visions and ideas for this architecturally fascinating city.
As the author of Liverpool’s Pevsner Architectural Guide, Sharples is an authority on the city’s built environment, but working on this exhibition has allowed him to indulge a passion for the unbuilt too, though this isn’t necessarily a term he warms to.
“‘Unbuilt Liverpool’ sounds a bit negative,” he says. “These aren’t just designs that failed to get off the drawing board. Some are visionary designs that were never intended to be built, exercises of the imagination and so on.”
Responding to the suggestion that the exhibited items shouldn’t be seen as a display of “what the city could have won”, but rather as simply part of the process that led Liverpool to where it is now, he nods in agreement.
“Yes,” he says. “It’s not about disappointed ambition. It’s about ambition.”
The exhibition is themed around the two cathedrals, housing, public buildings and commercial construction, and offers visitors the chance to prise apart the city’s existing fabric to peep at the alternative ideas and concepts that made it what it is.
For example, there are drawings from the original competition to design an Anglican cathedral, before its current site overlooking the city had been chosen. They reveal the Victorians were planning to place this immense place of worship just yards away from the vast edifice of St George’s Hall – an architectural clash that makes a mockery of our current kid-gloves reverence for the monuments of the past.
There are reminders too of Edwin Lutyens’ scheme for the Catholic cathedral, the architectural behemoth that would have been one of the wonders of the western world had it progressed to completion. However, equally fascinating are Denys Lasdun’s proposals drawn up in 1959, after the Lutyens plans had been abandoned due to the astronomical cost.
Lasdun, the architect of the National Theatre, planned a crouching, concertinaed cathedral reminiscent of an elaborate nun’s coif cross-fertilised with a trailblazing 1960s branch of Little Chef.
There is evidence, too, of the startling audacity of 1960s planners and architects, with the inclusion of a huge 1963 panorama by the Shankland Cox Partnership. In this vision, huge concrete bunkers and slabs occupy the space between St George’s Hall and the neo-classical splendours of William Brown Street, a proposal that must surely prompt all but the most iconoclastic of architectural adventurers to think in terms of narrow escapes.
The panorama is coupled with Colin St John Wilson’s civic centre proposal for this site: a model of a concrete ‘pinwheel’ that resembles nothing so much as a swastika in brutalist grey. Seen through the gauze of reality, it is difficult to imagine it could ever have been a success. And yet, considering the enormous digital ‘media screen’ that currently sits adjacent to St George’s Hall – and the 1960s shopping centre it attempts to mask – the world we could have had might not have been so different from the one we’ve got.
On the strength of this exhibition, it seems Sharples is right to imply that Liverpool has never lacked a taste for grandeur or architectural ambition – until recently, perhaps. So why does he think the city has historically played such a risk-taking role?
“I think there’s something about the geography of Liverpool that lends itself to dramatic architecture. The ground slopes up steeply from the river to the ridge where the cathedrals are, and it has this broad expanse of water in front of it which lays it out like a stage set. I think that’s encouraged architects to think in terms of grand statements and prominent buildings, with the hills giving prominence to even quite modestly scaled buildings. So, I think it’s geography actually which is at the root of this architectural ambition.”
Though surely the city’s immense wealth, particularly during the 19th and early 20th centuries, also played a part?
“That’s right,” he agrees. “That sense of its own importance was very significant, especially in the 19th century. You can’t build buildings without money, and Liverpool was a very wealthy place so it could afford to employ the best architects and build on a colossal scale.”
Given such a rich architectural heritage, how does the Liverpool of today shape up?
“It’s a difficult tradition to live up to,” says Sharples, “and I think when I look at the most successful buildings of recent years, they tend to be far more modest. For instance, the Everyman Theatre is a marvellous building in Hope Street, but it sits very quietly in this terrace of buildings of similar height. It’s got a very interesting skyline when you look at it, but it doesn’t assert itself in a dominating way.
“I think the most successful recent buildings have tended more towards that modest scale. At the same time, we’ve acquired a lot of high rise buildings which, despite their prominence, don’t make a particularly valuable contribution to the architectural character of the city.”
This is a debate that RIBA North is well placed to encourage, given that it is a natural venue for architects and the public to share opinions, consider ideas and form a greater understanding of architecture and the way it shapes our lives.
In addition to its two galleries, RIBA North also houses a ‘digital city model’ of Liverpool – a huge interactive 3D tool that both the public and professional architects can explore – along with office space for a variety of RIBA departments, plus a café and a shop.
According to Suzy Jones, director of RIBA North, the venue opens up a world of new possibilities for the organisation.
“We have a dual purpose in that we’re here for our profession so we’ll be running professional activities, but equally, we’ll have a lot of public-facing activity, and it’s that meeting point that’s really exciting for me.
“By coming into RIBA North, people will be able to learn more about what an architect is. A lot of people don’t understand what an architect does beyond drawing a picture of the building, but there’s a reason why architects go through seven years of training. It’s a very complex job. So we can provide a platform to really understand what the job is, and the benefits good design can have.”
“Buildings are about people, so the people using them should have a voice to help determine what they are like. But it should be an informed voice, and what we can do is inform people, have debates and discussions, and be part of the future of the profession. I really want the public to be part of that.”
The black wedge buildings that form the Mann Island complex – where RIBA North is based – have faced their own share of controversy, and since their completion there has been a feeling that their public areas have seemed forbidding and unfinished.
With the arrival of RIBA North, however, the atmosphere in this interesting corner of the Liverpool waterfront has suddenly changed. The glass atrium that the venue shares with the Open Eye gallery seems transformed. What was a bleak and empty-looking walkway is now filled with a huge installation by KHBT Architects, and with their coming and going, their stopping and chatting, visitors are already helping the space feel alive.
It is evidence that, as Jones says, buildings really are about people, and by opening its doors to the public, RIBA North seems ready to draw us all in.
By Damon Fairclough, Liverpool Correspondent
RIBA North is at Mann Island on Liverpool waterfront. It is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-5pm. Entry is free.