This was the view across Canning Dock to Mann Island and the Port of Liverpool Building, with the towers of the Liver Building rising behind as I photographed it in 2007. Visiting the Picasso exhibition at the Tate yesterday, I took these photos of how it looks now.
Developers Neptune say: “The development proposes a subtle but striking architectural response to this extremely important connecting site. The development respects the scale height and setting of the neighbouring buildings and proposes simple elegant forms.”
How could this happen – so close to the World Heritage site? It’s a catastrophe – and particularly unfortunate when so many other developments in Liverpool over the past few years have been tasteful, avoiding the disasters of the 1960s and 1970s.
The building, a development by Neptune Developments and Countryside Properties, will contain office space, residential accommodation and leisure facilities. Wayne Colquhoun of Liverpool Preservation Trust said on Radio Merseyside when the proposals were unveiled: “This is the biggest risk to Liverpool’s skyline since Goering sent the Luftwaffe over in 1943. We’ve got to really wise up to the fact that this is a World Heritage site and it has to be treated accordingly.”
The Mann Island development is part of a wider regeneration of the area that includes the extension to the Leeds-Liverpool canal, the new ferry terminal and the Museum of Liverpool. All of these are excellent examples of modern architecture that contrasts with, but sympatheitically complements the Three Graces. The ferry terminal and the new Museum building are striking, low elevation structures, clad in complementary white stone.
The debate over whether the buildings represented an asset to the city or an eyesore was heated. The plans were drawn up by architects Broadway Malyan, and examined by bodies ranging from English Heritage, the Commission for the Built Environment (CABE) and Ludcap, the Liverpool Urban Design and Conservation Advisory Panel. They all gave the plans their approval before they were sent to Liverpool city planners in late 2006.
Gavin Stamp, architect, historian and trustee of the 20th Century Society put the case against:
“They should not be built. Not only is this a World Heritage Site, but there needs to be a break between the great 20th century group of the Pier Head’s Three Graces and the 19th-century group of the Albert Dock. It was fine as it was with low-level buildings between the landmark groups, acting as a buffer zone so that neither of those groups are overwhelmed.”
Alistair Sunderland, architect and a member of the Ludcap panel defended the development:
“The polished granite cladding is …[a] contrast with the brilliant white of the neighbouring Port of Liverpool Building and the new Museum of Liverpool…As a neighbour, it’s a complementary contrast to the new Museum of Liverpool. “One’s black and shiny, the other’s white and matt. They both use building shapes which are not familiar in our vocabulary and I think they make a very positive contribution to making the waterfront seem vibrant.”
Ptolemy Dean, architect and presenter of BBC 2’s Restoration programme was critical:
“The whole group of original buildings is brilliant. Until recently, by sheer good fortune, the clarity of Liverpool’s greatness as a port and 20th- century commercial centre was preserved. It’s the spaces between the buildings that matter and that’s being taken away, with the wonderful sense of the skyline, so we are losing a vital part of the story. The three new granite block buildings are like sitting in an opera and hearing a mobile phone go off. The illusion is shattered by something interrupting it”.
On April 26, the Daily Post reported:
The original Mann Island planning brief – seen by the Daily Post – sets out six “key views” in the city centre, as well as two others, which were to be protected. Two of the city views no longer exist, while another can only be seen from a specific stretch of pavement. A city leader last night said he was “deeply disappointed” at the loss of the views.
But one of the Mann Island developers said the site, which now contains three jet-black blocks, is “already adding to the quality and diversity” of the waterfront’s architectural character.
The brief for Mann Island was drawn up by Liverpool Vision, the Northwest Development Agency and National Museums Liverpool. In a preamble to setting out the vistas, it says: “In discussion with English Heritage and the Local Planning Authority a series of key views have been identified, which are considered essential to protect and enhance the character of the two Conservation Areas and the World Heritage Site. “These views inform the location, scale and massing of development on the site.”
But that brief appears to have been abandoned as the development – currently being built by Countryside Neptune – gathered momentum.
The two “key views” were both looking from the south of the Three Graces. The first was of the buildings from the road between Salthouse and Canning Docks, from where, the development brief says, “the principal roofscape features of the Pier Head group of buildings will be visible. The other is from the arch of the former Transit Shed, farther along The Strand.”
So, there was a brief concerning vistas that should be protected, and the development is right next to the World Heritage site. What happened? How did all these regulatory bodies allow the brief to be tossed aside? The Daily Post again:
A Liverpool city council spokesman stated: “The development brief set the framework for schemes on this site. It was intended as guidance and was not prescriptive. Planning applications are considered in the light of this guidance and when this scheme was determined it was considered that it followed the principles of the brief in that developments should provide ‘glimpse’ views of the Three Graces. This view was endorsed by ICOMOS, who visited the site on behalf of the World Heritage Committee.”
In a recent book, Liverpool: Shaping The City, published by the Royal Institute of British Architects and Liverpool city council, the authors state that what is now left are ‘glimpses’ of Liverpool’s famed Three Graces. They say:
“The view of the Pier Head group of buildings from the south has been changed as the Mann Island scheme takes shape, and the composition of the buildings across the site provides for glimpses of the towers and domes rather than unobstructed views. In this respect, the scheme reflects pre-war views, with large brick warehouses on the Mann Island site that also provided glimpsed views rather than wide vistas to the Pier Head.”
Finally, reaching further back in time, this was Mann Island looking towards Pier Head in 1911 (the Liver Birds have yet to be added to the Liver Building). The photo is from Colin Wilkinson’s excellent blog, Streets of Liverpool: A Pictorial History of Liverpool.
Update, July 14:
Yesterday, Merseytravel chiefs gathered at their new glitzy headquarters at Mann Island, along with developers Neptune and the German pension fund Commerz Real Investmentgessellschaft (CRI) that has bought the building, to celebrate the topping-out of the third building in the development. Merseytravel’s new base, off The Strand, is due to be complete in July, next year.
The scheme, recognisable for its striking black granite and glass facades, also includes two residential blocks which will be finished by the end of 2011. It has been one of the most contentious developments on Liverpool’s waterfront, due to its proximity to the Three Graces and the loss of views of the historic buildings. But developers Neptune hope the city will learn to love the striking buildings which have been designed to reflect images of nearby docks and the Port of Liverpool building. Managing director Steve Parry says they are of “exceptional quality” and that such high specification buildings are unlikely to be repeated in future.