Category: Pier Head

Last week I posted a photograph of Pierhead in the 1880s and commented on how the Liverpool waterfront had changed over the last 150+ years. The change in the twentieth century has been dramatic, starting with the filling in of George’s Dock to create the modern Pierhead through to the addition of skyscrapers, the redevelopment of Princes Dock and the dramatic changes to the immediate hinterland. Today’s photograph shows the city in the early 1960s. The Cotton Exchange is still there but the Overhead Railway has been dismantled. Key 1960s buildings including the John Moores Centre on Old Hall Street have not been started and the White Star Building on James Street is still standing in isolation. An Empress liner is berthed at Princes Dock – in the final days before the liner trade switched to Southampton and elsewhere.
Fifty years on and today’s waterfront is, again, significantly different, with the new Museum of Liverpool, Liverpool One and all the other recent developments significantly changing both the landscape and the height line. Originally, the JM Centre was planned to have several extra storeys but had to restrict its height so as to be in keeping with its surroundings. Clearly the rule no longer applies except in the thinking of the inspectors for Unesco in their threats over World Heritage Site status. What will the outcome be? One thing is certain – in 50 years time, the waterfront will be significantly different from today.

The Floating Landing Stage was a marvel of engineering. Originally constructed in 1874, it was consumed by fire before opening. Two years later, it had been rebuilt and, with additions, became the largest floating structure in the world, stretching for nearly half a mile. Sadly, in 1974, the structure was dismantled and replaced by a concrete pontoon – which sank, rather inevitably in January 1976 only to be rebuilt. I suppose neither the old or new structures are of any great aesthetic appeal – purely functional – but the top photograph shows the original in use in the late 1880s.
Back in the early 1990s, I met a young American, Zane Branson, who was trying to raise funding to bring a Mississippi paddle steamer over to Liverpool as a tourist attraction. The timing was completely wrong and the idea went back across the Atlantic with him but, as the photo shows, paddle steamers are not a new phenomenon to the Mersey. The nineteenth century ferries were nearly all driven by paddles. What a great shame none have survived.

The photograph shows Liverpool waterfront at the height of its economic prosperity. A radically different townscape to the one we are used to, although St Nicholas’s Church and the dome of the Town Hall (on the right above the ferry) are two surviving buildings. Everything else has long since disappeared, from the warehousing lining the dock road to the elegant, colonnaded public baths designed by John Foster and opened in 1828. The baths served their purpose for the best part of 80 years before being demolished to make way for the filling in of George’s Dock to create land for what we now call the Three Graces (the Royal Liver, Cunard and Port of Liverpool buildings). To the right of St Nicholas’s is the Tower Building, which was replaced by W. Aubrey Thomas’s white tile clad building in 1908. Thomas, the architect of the Liver Building created a building with crenelated turrets in an allusion to the original tower.
What is particularly noticeable about the photograph is the height line of the buildings. The scale is modest and in complete contrast to today’s approach of building high. It is interesting to speculate on how the skyline will change in the next century, especially with the potential impact of Peel Holdings’ Liverpool Waters development. It is only when you look at the photographic record that you really understand how much has changed in a relatively short period. After all, in 1785, the Liverpool skyline was unrecognisable from the photograph above.

This is a difficult subject to photograph: the strong shadows cast by the Overhead Railway competing with the bright sunshine bouncing off the cobbles with a tram emerging out of the darkness. The large exhibition print is titled “On the Seventh Day” and is a lovely evocation of a quiet day at Pier Head. Sad to think that, within two years, both the trams and the Overhead would be consigned to history.

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.

Pier Head 1911 (the Liver Building is minus its Liver Birds)

Pier Head 2000

Pier Head, May 2010

It is easy to cast oneself as yet another moaner who is always finding fault with any changes. I’d like to think I have a positive attitude to change and I have welcomed many of the recent developments that have transformed the city. I am a big fan of the new Museum of Liverpool and see it as a graceful addition to the waterfront along with the Arena. However, the destruction of one of the best cityscapes in the country makes my blood boil.

The waterfront has always been restricted to the people of Liverpool and the first view taken in 1911 shows a scene that would have been enclosed by storage sheds along the Dock Road. However, the opening up of the vista, particularly from 1984 with the landscaping around Albert Dock, created a magnificent view that lifted the spirits as you walked or drove past. The view through the arch became a favourite photo opportunity – framing the Pier Head in all its glory. My view taken in 2000 captures a scene that must have impressed any visitor to the city. (I used a similar shot for the cover of Quentin Hughes’ Liverpool City of Architecture to highlight the best view in the city). So what have they done? Taken away an iconic view that sold the city for three blocks of black glass-faced speculation that have changed the waterfront for generations (or at least until they pull them down). Why there? Why black when virtually every building in Liverpool is either brick or white stone? We talk about listing buildings. The space around Mann Island should have been declared public open space and landscaped accordingly. Shame on all those who voted for the development (which only got through on a casting vote).

The public are treated with derision by decision-makers. Remember the Fourth Grace fiasco when the public were asked for an opinion and then completely ignored. The obsession with filling every space with commercial buildings is wrong-minded and damages the city’s heritage. We need more open space not less. We have been palmed off with a little patch of green in Liverpool One when what we should have are swathes of green across the city centre. Whoops – I have turned into a typical moaner in three paragraphs.

There can be no area of Liverpool that has been changed as many times as Pier Head. Almost every decade, a new plan is implemented guaranteeing a ‘world-class’ environment. Never has such an expression been so widely misused. (I can remember only recently the City Council describing the new Williamson Square as ‘world class’ – a particularly inappropriate description for the collection of tin sheds masquerading as shops on one end and a soulless empty area in front). Pier Head traditionally was the only area of the river giving free access to the population, the rest falling under the control of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. It was a place to watch the river, get a ferry ‘over the water’ and understand the source of Liverpool’s greatness.
Today’s photograph of the Landing Stage was taken around 1966 just before yet another restructuring (the Chinese restaurant phase). In the following years, the bus terminus was removed, grass areas were brought in and then taken away and, but probably not finally, a canal cut through the area. Each change is heralded as ‘world class’ and therefore unlikely to last more than another generation. The new ferry terminal is yet another attempt to stamp a contemporary vision on the waterfront but I find it bland and dated.

I have written extensively about the lost buildings of Liverpool but today’s blog is about another lost institution – that of good journalism. If we are to judge a period in history by its newspapers then today’s sad offerings would be an interesting pointer. Both Liverpool Echo and Daily Post seem to have finally abandoned the kind of reporting that was once the hallmark of the best provincial papers. The old adage about today’s paper being tomorrow’s fish and chips wrapper could not be more apt (even if they no longer use newpapers for that purpose). Looking back at a golden age of jounalism, I was taken by an 1889 article in the Liverpool Review captioned Eight Hours on the Landing Stage.

During the summer months, the Landing Stage is seen at its best from midday until 7 or 8 o’clock at night. Through the intervening hours, the bridges and approaches are thronged with continuous streams of people on pleasure bent. The greater number of this day-by-day procession are trippers from inland towns, to whom a look at the Mersey and the ships is next to a peep at heaven, and our own Liverpudlian mammas who, when father, dear old struggle, is toiling over his desk, or dodging six months’ bills, take upon themselves the pleasurable duty of giving the children an airing.
Arrived on the Landing Stage, the half-dozen streams of health-hunting holiday seekers converge towards the ferry boats, those plying to Egremont and New Brighton getting the bulk of the passengers. Going down the gangway on to the boats there is, as a matter of course, a good deal of clinging to mamma’s jacket or dress, and a chorus of maternal voices, while a score of maternal eyes anxiously look round, call out, “Now, Charlie, mind where you are going!” “Are you behind me, Cissie?” and a dozen other directions besides.
… Of the boatsmen and hangers-on who dawdle about the Landing Stage from early morn to dewy eve, I can tell you nothing that is not well known; the boatsmen dawdle about for jobs, the hangers-on dawdle, dawdle, dawdle for anything gratis from a copper to a quid of tobacco. The hangers-on who really contrive to enjoy themselves are the hatless, bare-footed, ragged urchins, whose sole ambition in life appears to be to live with dirty, crust hands and face and dodge around policemen. They are remarkably expert at the latter amusement, and on the Landing Stage live in an Elysium of laughter, horse-play and dodgery. PC No. _ and a few others know this to their cost. I must admit that I like these young ragamuffins ‘baiting’ and so do the bystanders.

If only today’s Echo or Daily Post could rustle up such meaningful accounts – but that would be running against the grain of contemporary editorial requirements.