March, 2011 Archives

Pier Head, c1925

Pier Head, 1968

Pier Head, March 2011

I took a stroll down to Pierhead today to reassess the new Ferry terminal. In 2009, the building won the Carbuncle Cup for the worst designed British building of the year. The three judges for the Building Design (BD) magazine said the Merseytravel building was “a shining example of bad architecture and bad planning”. The judges added: “It is such an amazing site, directly in front of the Three Graces, but the architects seem barely to have noticed. It is like letting a bad second-year student build next to St Peter’s. The architect evidently once looked at a Zaha building in a magazine. It is essentially a horrible sectional idea that has been extruded like a stick of rock.”
I must admit, I don’t like the building – but I believe the unwanted award is more to do with not making the most of its situation rather than in the blandness of the architecture. Therein lies the problem. Every 30/40 years, a new plan emerges for a new Pier Head and each one fails for the same reason – the architects seem to be overwhelmed by the setting and rather than build boldly, build timidly. What the site cries out for is a visionary who is not cowered by the Three Graces. Of course, Liverpool has had its architects who could have built monumentally. What would Herbert Rowse have come up with, or Sir Edwin Lutyens? We shall never know but each bad attempt is an opportunity missed. In fact, and I cannot believe I am writing this, the 1960s building is by far the most interesting though hardly appropriate for such a key site.
My guess is that in 20 years we will have another new plan. It’s a pity we have to wait so long.

First of all, many thanks to all those who replied about the last post. Without any doubt, the church in the photograph is All Saints, Bentley Road (demolished in 1974).
Today’s photograph is of Coronation celebrations in Pitt Street. The scene is full of animation, in particular the group of children playing house in the foreground. They have made a kitchen out of a hole in the ground and borrowed a fireguard, table and teapot. The rest is all down to imagination. Behind the girl sitting on the right is a large builder’s mallet – so I guess the impromptu house was short-lived.
Will the next Coronation be celebrated so enthusiastically? That will be interesting.

I thought I knew most of Liverpool’s churches but this photograph has puzzled me for some time. It is a well-built church (it looks as if it is faced with stone) in a prosperous area (possibly Aigburth?) but there are few other clues. The photograph was one of a set owned by an organ repairer/cleaner. On the reverse he has written “organ cleaned – builder Foster & Andrews’. It was posted in Liverpool on 14th November 1904.
I am working on a new edition of David Lewis’s Churches of Liverpool, which I published in 2001. I thought it was due for an update after ten years (most of them out of print): and I have many new photographs (such as this one) I would like to include. Can anyone recognise the church and location?

Princes Dock 1976

Paradise Street 1978

Sea Brow/Strand Street 1975

Three more panoramas of central Liverpool in the 1970s. The photographs were taken by Stan Roberts, who, in each case, pieced together several images to extend the street view.
All three show how much Liverpool has changed in the past forty years. Virtually all the buildings in the photographs have been demolished – the last act being the removal of the Mersey Mission to Seamen (on the corner of James Street and Sea Brow/Strand Street: the white modern building on the far left) this February. The warehouse with the Golden Shred advert is on the corner of Redcross Street.
This is the Liverpool I remember well from my early years in the city with warehouse after warehouse dominating the streetscape.
Princes Dock retains its perimeter wall but all the sheds were lost in the 1990s. The dock had long since ceased as a working dock although the sheds were used to house Liverpool Museum’s Large Objects Collection for many years. The change of use to hotels and offices is logical but the architecture of the new buildings is mundane and not of a high enough standard to reflect the importance of its World Heritage setting. No doubt, within a relatively short time, they will be replaced, hopefully by better buildings.
The car park in Paradise Street is included as an example of the nadir of Liverpool’s fortunes. With virtually no inward investment and little incentive to spend on quality, this shocking bus station-cum-car park was hastily assembled just yards from the premier shopping area. How did they get away with it? A truly shocking example of disrespect for the fine architectural tradition of the city. Fortunately Grosvenor had better ideas for the site and I doubt any tears were shed as it was reduced to rubble.

Kent Gardens, 1975

St Oswald Street, 1979

Two more examples of how the face of Liverpool was so drastically altered in the 1970s. The bold housing projects of the 1930s led by Director of Housing, Sir Lancelot Keay, was one of the most concerted efforts to tackle slum housing. Whole areas of the city were transformed by Keay’s progressive approach. Much of his neo-Georgian styled housing (including very good examples on Queen’s Drive and Muirhead Avenue) remains but his tenement blocks, including the examples shown above, disappeared in the 1970s and 80s.
The high density blocks were considered a great advance at the time and were a vast improvement on the courts and run-down houses they replaced. With proper facilities – running water, toilet/bathroom and gas – they transformed the lives of thousands. St Andrew’s Gardens (the Bullring) and Myrtle Gardens have survived and, perhaps others could have served the community for longer. Sadly, the cost of building maintenance was considered a price not worth paying. Tastes had also changed and there was a desire from many tenants for a more private kind of housing. Most intensive housing schemes seem to have a limited life (perhaps 40 years) before they have outlived there usefulness – the high rise 50s/60s blocks being a prime example. Perhaps Keay’s smaller scale housing work which has successfully survived points to a less flawed model.

Brunswick Square 1973

Southern General, Caryl Street 1975

Which post-War decade was the most damaging for Liverpool’s heritage. The 1950s and 60s are strong contenders but what about the 1970s? Looking through my photographs, I am struck by how much was demolished and how much the city changed over the decade. Perhaps only a small handful of key buildings were lost, the Sailors’ Home without doubt the single most important, but the general clearance of Georgian terraces, warehouses, churches and other features of the landscape was quite staggering. Here are two such examples taken by Stan Roberts. He took the panoramas in sections which, thanks to Photoshop, I have tidied up a bit.
The first is of Brunswick Square, which I was unaware of. It was directly off Westminster Road, close to the junction with Barlow Lane, and was an unadopted street as the sign indicates. A look at the 1927 Kelly’s Directory shows it to be a ‘respectable’ square with a doctor, police constable, farrier, engineer and mariner amongst the occupants. The 1970s photograph shows a more distressed street in its last throes.
The bottom photograph is the Southern General on the corner of Caryl Street and Hill Street. With opening of the new Royal Hospital both the Southern and Northern became superfluous and two key features disappeared from the skyline.
In my next blog, I will post two more 1970s panoramas.

Following on from my last post, here is another photograph of Church Street taken some 70 years later.
It takes a moment to work out the location, but the Bluecoat Chambers in the background is the giveaway. The whole area was badly bombed in the War and the empty site is where Russell’s, watch makers and jewellers, had their store. The building was well-known for a large ornamental clock attached to its corner with Church Alley (the corner of their building with part of the clock can just be seen on the far left of the previous 1880 photograph).
After the War, the site was acquired by the Littlewood empire and has since become Primark.
The street immediately behind the cleared site is Old Post Office Place, a dog-leg of a street, once a busy backstreet but since the post-War rebuilding little more than a service road for the shops fronting Church Street. The Bluecoat, too, was bombed but fortunately most of the shell survived. What a loss it would have been to have lost such a key, early building.

One of the greatest losses to Liverpool’s architectural heritage was to its city centre churches. In 1899, both St George’s Church (in Derby Square) and St John’s Church in Old Haymarket were demolished (the latter being fairly universally disliked for its rather crude Gothic design). The elegant church of St Thomas in Park Lane was pulled down in 1905 (with the tomb of Joseph Williamson, the “Mole of Edge Hill’ left in the cleared churchyard). St Peter’s was next in line, lasting until 1922. It’s demise was planned for some time. In 1880, Liverpool gained its first bishop, Rt Rev Ryle, and St Peter’s was made the Pro-Cathedral as an interim measure while decisions about a purpose-built cathedral could be made. In the photograph, the poster on the post states ‘Full Cathedral Service’.
Once the decision to build on St James’s Mount had been made, the diocese realised it could only fund the ambitious project by selling off its very valuable real estate in the city’s main retail street. St Peter’s had to go and there was no shortage of takers, including Harrods, who planned to build there only store outside of London on the site. In the end, it was the ambitious American chain, Woolworths, who won through and they maintained a high street presence for over half a century before Burtons/Topshop moved in.
I do find the removal of churches such as St Peter’s sad. Not from a religious standpoint but because city centres need spaces that are not dominated by commerce and retailing. We have too few and need to seriously think about what kind of city we want to live in. Is all our space up for the highest bidder, as always seems to be the case, or can we exert some control over its use for a greater communal benefit? After the disgraceful ‘Fourth Grace’ public involvement, I have my grave doubts although concerted action did help save the Lyceum.

Oriel Chambers, Water Street

16 Cook Street

Cook Street staircase

Peter Ellis is a great enigma. Little is known about him but he is regarded as one of the great architects of the modern movement, his Oriel Chambers accredited as being the blueprint for the skyscraper. Built in 1864, it outraged architectural critics at the time who compared it to a greenhouse. Ellis’s radical rejection of traditional styles and materials were an attempt to resolve the problem of lighting in offices. The prevailing Gothic style allowed for fairly meagre windows which resulted in dark and oppressive interiors. Even as late as 1931, Professor Charles Reilly was deriding the building as “a cellular habitation for the human insect”, although he hoped that it would survive as a humorous asset to Liverpool.
American architects took a different view. Quentin Hughes in Liverpool: City of Architecture describes it as the “most significant office building in Liverpool and one of the most important buildings in the world because, stylistically and structurally, it foreshadows by many years the work of the Modern Movement in architecture.”
16 Cook Street is a lesser building but no less interesting in its expansive use of glass and, particularly, the magnificent glazed cast-iron staircase in its courtyard, an idea successfully exported to Chicago and used in early skyscrapers.
I started to research Ellis because no other work by him is known to survive. It is said he was so hurt by the criticism of his two buildings that he never designed another and continued with his other job as a surveyor. I am not convinced the story ends there. I have discovered that a Peter Ellis of Liverpool had applied for patents for lift designs at about the same time. Perhaps he found a more elevated career with ever-upward prospects.

Castle Street

Victoria Street

First of all an apology. I have just realised that a few of my recent posts have had the right hand side of the image cropped off when viewed. This is due to me increasing the image width outside of the WordPress limits. In my browser, the images looked fine but I was shocked to see how they looked on another computer. So I have gone back and made the necessary adjustments – which will make sense of some of my references.

My last post about Victoria Street reminded me just how good Liverpool’s commercial buildings are. The 1930s photographs do not do justice to some of the finest Victorian streets in Britain. One of the great pleasures of walking through the city centre is to look above the ground floor, where too often the ubiquitous branding by national companies takes away all individuality. Look above their fascias and the detail is fascinating, from Classical to Gothic, from parapets to domes. Here above are two fine examples, of Castle Street and Victoria Street.