Stormy Waters

By Kenn Taylor

Liverpool is still one of the most deprived cities in the UK, but it does have an economy that is slowly improving. Only last week, it jumped to fifth place in the table of cities most-visited from overseas. The 1,000 new jobs at the Jaguar Land Rover plant in Halewood are another welcome boost. Yet the fact that some 35,000 people applied for those vacancies shows how it still has a long way to go.

This is why ambitious projects like Liverpool Waters, the controversial plan for new offices, homes and other facilities around decaying northern dockland, are important. The biggest planning application ever submitted in Britain, seems on a fantastically inhuman scale which naturally makes people uneasy, including The Observer‘s London-based Rowan Moore; but sometimes, especially when you’re at the bottom, you have to think big.

When Liverpool’s early leaders built the world’s first enclosed wet dock, which opened in 1715, they mortgaged their entire modestly sized town to build it. It was a big risk that paid off; so was Liverpool’s pioneering of the world’s first intercity railway, to Manchester, in the face of many who said that it would never work. Such risk-taking helped to build Liverpool, but it is something we seem to have lost over the last forty years.

There has also been a knee-jerk reaction against Liverpool Waters as a scheme of that instinctively mistrusted group, property developers, in this case Peel Holdings. This can be justified, as more often than not such organisations focus on profit above all else. Yet if property development for profit had never happened here, the historic docks that we now admire would have never been built.

The Grade 1-listed Albert Dock was not built to look nice. It was built to make money as a fireproof shed, that in 1846 was starkly modern and was criticised at the time by local historian J.A. Picton for its brutal mediocrity.

Neither would have the famous ‘Three Graces’ on the city’s Pier Head. Built on redundant dockland, the Graces were the Canary Wharf or Liverpool Waters of their day; early examples of corporate headquarters built in the latest trendy styles to aggrandise the businesses that constructed them. They were not universally popular with the critics at the time either. The Royal Liver Building was dismissed by Charles Reilly, professor of architecture at Liverpool University, thus:

“A mass of grey granite to the cornice, it rose to the sky in two quite unnecessary towers, which can symbolise nothing but the power of advertisement.”

Today’s aggressive heritage lobby and aesthete critics are fond of proclaiming Liverpool’s past innovations and achievements, with the hindsight which Reilly could not have. But they are as blinkered as he could be to the city’s need to continue to innovate and develop. The threatened loss of the UNESCO World Heritage status which covers part of the site, if the development goes ahead, would be a huge blow. However, the pluses and minuses of having the status are hard to quantify. Dresden in Germany also lost its World Heritage Site status when it built an important modern bridge, yet remains a tourist magnet.

Meanwhile such critics seem content to oppose Liverpool Waters without offering any realistic alternative plan for this huge area, not even a notional one. That would condemn the historic structures in the northern docks to continue to rot for want of money or a reason for being. Nearly all these old buildings would be restored as part of Liverpool Waters, alongside the new developments.

I believe that the Waters should be compared to Liverpool 1, the new shopping and leisure area developed by the Grosvenor Estate and opened four years ago. It too was heavily criticised during construction, but vox pop on its streets today and you would find few who would want to go back to the 1970s Moat House hotel, the wasteland car parks, concrete Paradise Street Bus station and the Argos Superstore that used to stand there.

Liverpool 1 created thousands of jobs and helped the city to leap from 14th to 5th in the UK’s retail rankings, while not, as many predicted, destroying the traditional shopping areas of Church Street and Bold Street. It has also attracted dozens of new shops to Liverpool at a time when town centres nationally are collapsing, the development creating the demand. I didn’t like Liverpool 1 while it was in gestation, but now I find it hard to argue now against its success in transforming Liverpool’s town centre for the better.

The northern docks, though, are an even bigger challenge. Yes Liverpool could do something smaller with them. Something mediocre like the call centres and car showrooms that line the former southern docks up to Otterspool, or the city could really think big, something equivalent to the scale of ambition Liverpool once had.

For all the genuine fears of ‘more Yuppy flats’ the Peel plan does have an economic basis. Their schemes for regenerating the Wirral docks with ‘Wirral Waters’ will be based on a new International Trade Centre in Birkenhead, the first of its kind in Europe, which has already attracted firm Chinese investment. The plans for Liverpool Waters meanwhile, are linked with the new ‘post-panamax’ shipping terminal that will be able to handle the world’s largest ships. These ‘concrete’ bits of economic development, unglamorous as they are, are going in before any of the proposed shiny towers.

Peel also has an enviable track record. They built the Trafford Centre, which employs 10,000 people and, contrary to what people said at the time, didn’t destroy Manchester city centre. They have also turned Liverpool Airport from a joke to the 10th biggest in the country and, their biggest coup of all, got the BBC to move north to MediaCity:UK in Salford, which has created thousands of those ‘good jobs’ in the north, with the prospects of thousands more to follow. There has been some criticism that many of these people have transferred from London, but that doesn’t account for the fact the BBC were hardly going to lay off their existing staff en-masse and ignores the prospects for future generations in the north once the BBC has settled in.

People are understandably also sceptical of the timescale proposed for the plans for Liverpool and Wirral Waters, 30 years. Yet when the re-development of the defunct Salford Docks began in 1983, if you had said then that, 30 years later, MediaCity:UK would be there, you’d be laughed out the room. Now though, we can all tune into BBC Breakfast News live from the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal.

I’m not Peel’s PR. They have some questionable business arrangements, tend to rely heavily on outside investment and often build dull architecture; but again I turn to the critics and ask: what else do you suggest? No one else has any workable plans for the northern docks. So do we go for it? Or do we forgo the risk, let Liverpool’s economy struggle along and allow a historic part of our city to rot indefinitely while wistfully hoping for something else?

Even as a supporter of the Liverpool Waters plans, I admit that I will believe it all when I see it. But I never would have believed the developments that have already happened in contemporary Liverpool were possible a few years ago. The city and the Government should take a leaf out of our history and go for it. Critics should meanwhile put pen to paper to show us they think could go in its place.

This is an extended version of a piece that appeared in The Guardian in May 2012.

Bust to Bust

By Dan Russell

When this article about the Liverpool International Garden Festival was conceived, I had a clear notion of how it would unfold: I’d describe the flash-in-the-pan Utopia created in 1984, something I presumed to be the last throw of the dice by a socialist council whose city had been decimated by a ruthless Conservative government. I’d then of course go on to bemoan the lack of a legacy, the wastefulness of letting the Festival site decay and the short-sightedness of the model of regeneration that never thought, “but what next?”. In the timespan it covers we have seen one complete cycle — bust to bust. The city’s regeneration boom, neatly bookended by two tourism-centred initiatives: the Garden Festival and 2008’s Capital of Culture. I was hoping to be cynical about this.

Unfortunately, I was wide of the mark. Thankfully, my lines of enquiry blew open my closed opinions.

Firstly, I spoke with my Scouse family. Like many Liverpudlians, they are vehemently anti-Tory. Had my Auntie Edna known she was to die in middle age, she would have gladly taken out Margaret Thatcher first and spent her last joyous days in prison. As such, it was with great surprise that I learned that they had a lot of respect for one of Thatcher’s ministers. Yes, it was in fact Michael Heseltine who decided something must be done to halt the decline on Merseyside when his own party wanted to simply cut it adrift.

Secondly, I talked to local writer and self-confessed “Liverpool anorak” Kenn Taylor. Both he and my relatives were as unanimous in their praise for the Festival as they were disparaging of the Derek Hatton-led Labour council of the day.

I’m aware that the 1980s aren’t famed for their modernism, but they are still a part of the Twentieth Century story. In my opinion the futuristic Buckminster Fuller-esque geodesic dome and huge, ARUP designed space-bullet of the Festival Hall just about scrape it into these pages by aesthetic virtue, and the philosophy of top-down Shangri-La creation by visionary outsiders gets it in on ideological merit.

Heseltine wanted to ease the memory of the Toxteth riots of 1981 and turn Boys from the Blackstuff-era Liverpool into a destination for visitors and investment. Alongside saving and developing the Albert Dock, cleaning the Mersey Basin and creating new technology parks at Wavertree and Brunswick, it was determined that a Garden Festival, based on the German Bundesgartenschau — a bi-annual regional development initiative originating in Hanover in 1951 — was to be organised.

The site, a sludgy former oil terminal, was dredged and infilled in the largest urban reclamation project ever executed in the country. Two hundred and fifty acres of parkland, sixty ornamental gardens, and numerous pavilions and artworks were created.

My granddad was bought a season ticket and went almost every day, such was local love for the Festival. Celebrities of the era, Acker Bilk, Worzel Gummidge, and SuperTed were all in attendance. For nine months Liverpool attracted over three million tourists, people who previously wouldn’t have dreamt of visiting. There was pride in the city again.

In time the Festival ended and then… nothing. A pamphlet had proclaimed that the Festival Hall was to become “the centrepiece of a planned housing, business and leisure development, for use as a multi-purpose sports and leisure centre”. Unfortunately the only sport and leisure that took place on site was quad-biking and dogging. Not forgetting the ill-fated Pleasure Beach amusement park that lasted from the late 80s to 1996.

Despite failing to use the land itself, all was not lost. Two vital things had come from the Garden Festival: the symbolic gesture that Liverpool wasn’t dead; and a model for leisure-led regeneration. Whilst the Festival site languished, other Garden Festival Cities such as Stoke and Glasgow implemented the next phases of their development, and places like Manchester and Birmingham Urban-Splashed their way to success by adopting the development template that in some ways was pioneered in Liverpool.

It wasn’t until it was gearing up for the Capital of Culture bid that Liverpool belatedly caught up with the style of cultural regeneration it had previously experimented with. A chain reaction had been catalysed that in turn has led to the events of 2008, alongside what Taylor calls “the single biggest thing to happen to the city in the last twenty years” – a shopping centre on a grand scale: Liverpool One. Although it pains me to admit it, cities are built on commerce, and in the absence of new industry the fact is that developing a huge shopping experience on privatised city centre land has helped Liverpool to draw level with its peers. At least it is reasonably architecturally interesting.

Far from merely framing the sequence of bust to bust, Liverpool, and in particular the Garden Festival, has arguably provided a direct model for the culture-led regeneration of the UK’s cities. It’s just that where the Garden Festival itself occurred was not where this happened. This boom of regeneration was the face of the supposedly limitless growth that certainly caused the recent bust, but we might now be in a position to ensure that the “what next” for the city — post Capital of Culture and Liverpool One — isn’t the same as what happened to the Festival site.

I was interviewed by Manchester-based artist and designer Dan Russell for this piece he wrote on Liverpool’s 1984 International Garden Festival for The Modernist magazine.