Liverpool Resurgent

Lewis’s department store, Modernism, destruction and restoration

By Kenn Taylor

Standing prominently on the corner of Ranelagh Street and Renshaw Street in Liverpool, the huge former Lewis’s department store is currently enveloped in plastic sheeting. Soon it will re-emerge as part of the Central Village development, but for now, what was formerly Liverpool’s grandest shop, and its unique Modernist features, remains covered up.

The store, no connection to the John Lewis Partnership, was founded in Liverpool by David Lewis in 1856 and expanded to Manchester in 1877. Lewis was known as a philanthropist and, after his death in 1885, his will paid for the David Lewis Theatre and Hostel on the edge of Toxteth in Liverpool and in Manchester, a centre for people with Epilepsy, whose successor still bears his name.

After David Lewis’s heirs, the Cohen family, took over, Lewis’s expanded rapidly, opening stores across the country in first half of the twentieth century. The Liverpool store was rebuilt and expanded in 1923 to a design by Gerald De Courcey Fraser, becoming one of the biggest in the UK. However, Lewis’s forward march was to be halted by the Second World War. On 3rd May 1941, during Liverpool’s infamous May Blitz, the store was almost entirely destroyed, part of the aerial assault that would see Liverpool become the most bombed city outside of London.

Post war, Lewis’s was keen to regain its position as the grandest store in Liverpool. De Courcey Fraser designed the replacement for his previous building, beginning in 1947. The store apparently began to trade again prior to construction being completed – there are stories of shop staff clambering over rickety scaffolding between sections in pre ‘health and safety’ days.

Only the furthest part of the building down Renshaw Street, the ‘Watson Building’, which at one point housed a car showroom, was retained from the older, more decorative 1920s building. The remainder was completely rebuilt of steel framed construction, clad in largely flat and imposing Portland stone; the Lewis’s name carved into the side and picked out in gold.

To mark the reconstruction, Lewis’s commissioned sculptor Jacob Epstein to create a new artwork for the prominent corner section of the building between Renshaw and Ranelagh Streets.  A pioneer of Modernism in sculpture, Epstein had once been a controversial figure, causing scandal in 1931 by exhibiting a statue of a pregnant woman called ‘Genesis’ in Liverpool’s Bluecoat Arts Centre. The curious, some 50,000 of them in four weeks, paid sixpence each to see it. By the 1950s though, Epstein was something of an elder statesman in the arts.

However, this didn’t mean he had lost the power to shock. On 20th November 1956, the statue commissioned by Lewis’s to symbolise “the struggle and determination of Liverpool to rehabilitate itself after the grim, destructive blitz years”. (Evening Express, 1956) and entitled ‘The Spirit of Liverpool Resurgent’ was unveiled. It was a large naked man standing up on the prow of a ship. Apparently the sudden sight of the naked statue caused some people to faint and a war of words for and against its artistic merits and morality began in the newspapers. Locally meanwhile, the statue quickly gained the nickname ‘Dickie Lewis’.

However, ‘Liverpool Resurgent’ wasn’t the only Modernist feature of the new Lewis’s and the company’s desire to embody the post war optimism. The interior of the store was filled with cutting edge design features, none more so than in its catering facilities situated on the upper floors of the huge building.

Lewis’s Liverpool store was a complex in itself, with around 1,300 staff at its height. It contained its own bank, pet store, hair salon and travel agency alongside the usual department store fare, and the scale of its catering facilities reflected this. There were several eateries, each aimed at different ‘classes’ of shopper and each containing striking Modernist features, the likes of which must have been a rare sight to the war-battered austerity Liverpool of the 1950s.

Perhaps most notable was the self-service cafeteria. This contained large tiled murals designed by Carter’s of Poole, which later became the famous Poole Pottery. The murals featured bold and abstract designs of food, crockery, cutlery and kitchen utensils. Added to this were geometric light fittings with hints of the atoms and space themes that were so popular in the 1950s, and vibrant colours throughout. These designs apparently all inspired by the restaurant at the 1951 Festival of Britain, an event which is credited by many with ushering Britain into the Modern age.

However, the cafeteria was not alone. For the middle classes there was The Mersey Room waitress service restaurant. This contained etched wooden panelling depicting the history of Liverpool created by the influential Design Research Unit, the outfit behind such design classics as the British Rail logo and a key player in the Festival of Britain. The grandest eatery of all though, was the Red Rose Restaurant, which was silver service and aimed very much at the wealthiest of Lewis’s patrons. This featured a striking bronze sculpted screen depicting the Wars of the Roses created by Mitzi Cunliffe, perhaps best known for her design for the BAFTA Award statuette.

With the opening of these eateries, Lewis’s was at its peak, in an era before internet shopping, supermarkets and out-of-town retail parks. Generations of Liverpudlians have strong memories of its huge range and good service. Perhaps most of all, many people remember the grand Christmas grotto and meeting future wives and husbands under Epstein’s ‘statue exceedingly bare’.

For employees, there are memories of a benevolent employer that provided ‘a job for life’, where whole families would work together, and that even paid for its own sports fields on the edge of town. By the 1960s Lewis’s even owned London’s Selfridges and opened a Modernist tile-fronted store on the Blackpool waterfront in its continued expansion.

By the 1970s though, the company’s fortunes began to wane. For all their investment in cutting edge design in the 1950s, Lewis’s subsequently failed to adapt to changing markets. One by one its branch stores closed and the floorspace began to be reduced at its flagship Liverpool site. When the Red Rose Restaurant was closed in 1986, its bronze screen was acquired by Cunliffe and reinstalled at her home in Seillans, France. However, the remaining Modernist features in the building were sealed up and forgotten, the disused floors being used for storage.

In 2008 photographer Stephen King entered the lift of the slowly dying department store and was greeted by the attendant (yes, in Lewis’s they still had lift attendants). They sparked up a conversation and King was told about the abandoned upper floors still containing their original 1950s interiors. King made it his mission to explore and photograph them, his project culminating in a book and exhibition entitled ‘Lewis’s Fifth Floor: A Department Story’.

As fate would have it, the opening of the exhibition in 2010 coincided with the final closure of Lewis’s after 150 years and the show became a focal point for former staff and customers to reminisce about what had been the greatest store in Liverpool, if not the UK. Luckily, during one of Lewis’s pervious crises in 2007, the building had been Grade II listed, meaning its historic features were protected.

The Lewis’s building is now being incorporated by developers Merepark into a huge scheme called Central Village, opening in 2013. This will see the creation of shops, offices, hotels, eateries and a cinema, as well as a rebuilt Central Station. The overall façade of the building is being retained, including the Epstein statue, and, though internally it will be largely unrecognisable as the old Lewis’s, its remaining Modernist features will be restored. Most prominently, the former cafeteria with its tiled murals and geometric lights will become the Breakfast Bar of the Adagio hotel, while the panelling from The Mersey Room will be refitted to one of the hotel’s corridors.

It’s ironic perhaps that it was the decline of both Lewis’s and the Liverpool economy that saw these features preserved. Elsewhere, the building would have long been completely stripped for a new use before listing would have even been considered. Lewis’s is sorely missed, but at least elements of its proud history are being retained in a development that symbolises Liverpool, if not resurgent, then at least looking again to the future.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to everyone who worked on ‘Lewis’s Fifth Floor: A Department Story’, especially Stephen King for the use of his images, and Merepark for the information on the current development.

This is an extended version of a piece that appeared in The Modernist magazine in December 2012. 

Stephen King Photography – Lewis’s Fifth Floor.

Railways, Red Barrel and Robin Hood

Interrogating the Modernist revival 

By Kenn Taylor

With the recent campaigns to save Preston’s Bus Station, Birmingham’s Central Library and Portsmouth’s Tricorn Shopping Centre. Not to mention the emergence of Manchester’s The Modernist magazine, books like Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism and critic Jonathan Glancey’s numerous broadsheet eulogies, it seems that we are now going through a period of revisionism in relationship to the Modernist architecture of the 1960s and 70s. That which was reviled by so many for so long is now being venerated.

It many respects this is inevitable. In the cycles of something changing from ‘old fashioned’ to ‘classic’ in the public consciousness, 30 or 40 years usually about does it. It’s also about time. This period of architecture produced many fine buildings of international importance in Britain’s towns and cities, and too many of these have already been lost to indifference. We must protect the best examples of buildings from whatever era from the mere whims of fashion. How much great Art Deco architecture was destroyed, like the Firestone factory in West London, before we realised its value?

Yet, despite the need to acknowledge the importance and value of such buildings, I don’t think we can truly celebrate the best architecture and design of the post-war Modern era without simultaneously acknowledging the failures.

This was starkly highlighted to me when I visited an exhibition held at the Liverpool School of Art in 2011 – Design Research Unit 1942-72. You may never have heard of the Design Research Unit (DRU) but you will know its work. Their 1965 British Rail logo is still used on every station in Britain, now no longer the brand of the long defunct British Railways Board, instead a generic symbol for railways, and probably DRU’s most prominent legacy.

Their other work was as many and varied as it was influential, as the exhibition displayed. Ranging from the interior of the P&O ocean liner Oriana and sections of the 1951 Festival of Britain, to the ICI logo and the 1968 City of Westminster street signs, which have become as an integral part of London’s streetscape as red buses and black taxis.

The DRU was formed in 1943 by the poet and art critic Herbert Read, architect Misha Black and the graphic designer Milner Gray. It was arguably the first multidisciplinary design agency in the UK, working across architecture, products and graphic design. The DRU was a product of the Modernist belief in the power of the new and optimism for the possibilities of the post-war era. Founded to help build a new Britain after the horrors of war and depression, when everyone, designers included, was desperate to break with the past.

For me though, the most telling part of the exhibition was that which looked at Milner Gray’s work for London’s Watney Mann brewery in the 1950s and 60s. Watneys commissioned DRU to provide a coherent look for its huge range of premises. In response, Gray developed a new identity with five different types of lettering and decoration to be used, depending on the architectural style of each public house. Watneys new signage used a ‘slab serif’ font made in pressure-formed plastic, a style which soon became a high-street craze.

Yet, despite its pioneering nature, to me the Watneys project highlights the negative aspect of not only DRU’s work, but the wider failures of Modernist design. After it, many other breweries adopted similar makeover schemes in a period which saw many pubs have their individual characteristics, developed over decades, ripped out in favour of a plasticised standardisation. Designs imposed from on high that reflected little of the culture or history of where they were being dropped in. Looking only modern and fresh for a brief time, before ageing poorly due to changes in fashion and the low quality of the materials they were made of.

Watneys thrusting attitude towards modernisation even spread to their beer, with the revulsion against the mass-produced blandness of its Red Barrel ‘modern’ keg beer helping to spark the foundation of the Campaign for Real Ale and its fight for traditional, quality, regional brews.

Even looking at the simple brilliance of DRU’s British Rail logo, the over-arching brand identity they developed for the railway often took no account of the great diversity of historic architecture that it was being pasted on. It also reflected the wider ‘modernisation’ of Britain’s railways that saw the destruction in the 1960s of many historic stations, including London Euston, which was replaced with the Modernist mediocrity that greets me on every trip to the capital. Euston’s uninspiring shopping arcade descending into dank concrete platforms stands in negative contrast to the still stunning Victorian glass barrel roofs of Liverpool Lime Street which I meet at the other end of the line.

As well as being its strength, Modernist architecture and design’s ubiquity, utopianism, universalism and uniformity were also its undoing. In trying to re-make everything and escape the horrors of recent history, it destroyed not only what was bad of the past, but what was good as well. With a missionary zeal that also saw a huge chunk of Britain’s Victorian and Georgian architecture demolished, one of the reasons that 60s Modernism is still so despised by so many today.

Many of the arguments around supporting such Modernist architecture seem to hang on the idealism and optimism that surrounded such buildings. In contrast to the cynical vapidness and blandness of so much contemporary ‘lassiez-faire’ architecture that is in many cases replacing Brutalist post-war structures.

Yet such bland homogenisation is just as resplendent in much of the worst of mediocre Modernism as it is in any contemporary neo-liberal urban development. Neither does such thinking acknowledge the dark arrogance that underpinned the philosophies of Modernist design; that educated elites could engineer the world into a utopia through planning and design. The idea that an internationalist aesthetic could be imposed on a specific culture and that it would ‘improve’ the people living amongst it.

Interestingly, this resurgence in the support for Modernist architecture is almost the same as in the 1960s, when civic worthies first really began to fight to save Georgian and Victorian heritage from redevelopment. This was inevitably led by middle class outsiders, whilst many living in such areas were glad to see the back of such buildings, even if they disliked being moved from old neighbourhoods to new estates. So now, while many are now striving to protect Modernist buildings, they are rarely are the ones who have to shop in Portsmouth, get a bus in Preston or borrow a library book in Birmingham. It is precisely this placing of aesthetics and ideas over people and function that caused so much Modernist architecture to fail.

I saw this illustrated glaringly in a Guardian article by curator and writer Stephen Bayley, about the attempt to preserve from demolition the Brutalist concrete housing complex, Robin Hood Gardens, in a deprived part of East London: “the unintelligent housing policies of Tower Hamlets populated Robin Hood Gardens with the tenants least likely to be able to make sensible use of the accommodation. We have to whisper it, but the Unité d’Habitation [Famous Modernist housing block in Marseilles] works because it is populated by teachers, psychologists, doctors, graphic designers, not by single mothers struggling with buggies.” This is a striking example of an aesthete criticising a deprived population for not being appreciative of what they have been ‘given’. Whilst forgetting the very reason such buildings were constructed was to improve living conditions for poor families, something which they have so often resolutely failed to do.

Meanwhile, fellow Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins pointed out that nearly 80% of Robin Hood’s residents wanted the estate demolished and rebuilt so they could stay in the neighbourhood and, even more tellingly, that no one on the preservation campaign actually lives there. Its brash, Brutalist structures may look impressive, yet apparently remain not great to live in.

We should acknowledge the positives of the Modern era. It pioneered techniques and materials we now take for granted and saw many important buildings and designs produced in what was a high point of British construction and production. Yet we cannot view it through rose-tinted spectacles.

The people behind such designs may have truly believed they were making places better for ordinary people, but their bold visions were in many ways also arrogant, and have so often failed. You cannot celebrate the visual power and utopianism of post-war Modernist design without acknowledging how quickly all that decayed and how much that negatively affected many people’s lives. Just as preservationists of the Victorian era who emphasise its pioneering, graceful designs should also acknowledge the poverty, repression and exploitation that marked that era also.

Looking back at that Design Research Unit exhibition, its final section was about how the DRU’s headquarters, a standard-looking brick office building in London’s Aybrook Street, were given a radical, brightly coloured, rooftop extension by the then young architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers in 1972. Piano and Rogers of course went on to design the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, one of the most influential buildings of the late 20th century and a pioneer of Post-Modern architecture.

Today, that dramatic extension of Aybrook Street has been re-covered in something bland and grey, more in keeping with the style of the older building, its Modernist zeal hidden as if in embarrassment. This is a shame, we should not just cover up or destroy this era of architecture, if it is still of use, but when we look at it, not only remember the power and vision of its designs, but also the danger, as ever, of rapid, destructive change, of putting ideas above people, or of believing in grand solutions, imposed from on high, to any problem. We should preserve these buildings to remind us of our past, not just the good, but the bad as well.

This piece appeared on cities@manchester, a blog of the University of Manchester, in May 2012.