Visiting the Reichstag: the ghosts of history

Visiting the Reichstag: the ghosts of history

Why does Berlin fascinate and thrill me more than any city I know? I think Alexandra Richie puts her finger on the answer in her monumental history of the city, Faust’s Metropolis:

Like Faust, Berlin can be said to have two spirits in the same breast; it is both a terrible and a wonderful city, a place which has created and destroyed and whose name is both acclaimed and blackened. […] Above all, it is a place where history could not and still cannot be hidden away.

Nowhere in Berlin can you escape the ghosts of history, and especially the terrors of 20th century politics when Europe, in Mark Mazower’s words, was ‘the dark continent’. There are many places in Berlin where any European – German or otherwise – might reflect upon words written by Joseph Roth in 1937:

Why do the European states claim for themselves the right to spread civilization and manners to different continents? Why not to Europe itself?

One such place is the Reichstag. I first visited the building on the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Wall, only six months after it had been re-established as the parliament of a united Germany following the completion of Norman Foster’s renovation. I was stunned by his re-imagining of the original glass dome that had surmounted the building as an architectural expression of democratic transparency.

Graffiti left by Soviet soldiers in 1945
Graffiti left by Soviet soldiers in 1945

Today, a visit to the Reichstag has become a major visitor attraction. More than 39 million people have visited the building since since the Bundestag’s transfer from Bonn to Berlin. Although we applied in advance, we could only get a late evening slot. One big difference between visiting in 1999 and now is the greater security: if my memory serves me right, in 1999 visitors entered by the main entrance, rather than going through airline-style security round the back. This meant that in 1999 you saw more of the building and gained a greater sense of its history by seeing, for example, the pock marks left by bullets and graffiti carved by Soviet soldiers during the final battle for Berlin in May 1945.

Inside the Reichstag: scars from the battle for Berlin, April-May 1945
Inside the Reichstag: scars from the battle for Berlin, April-May 1945

But, if you want history, there’s plenty of it when you arrive at the top of the spiral walkway: stretching  around the circular central core of the dome is an extensive display of the building’s story, illustrated with remarkable photographs. The tableau traces the story of the Reichstag from its inauguration as the home of the German parliament in 1894, through the First World War and the collapse of the German Empire, to the turbulent years of the Weimar Republic and the Nazi assumption of power in 1933. Notoriously burned in the fire of 1933 that cemented Hitler’s rule, the building stood empty until it was captured by the Red Army in 1945, before remaining an empty ruin during the years when Berlin – and Germany – was divided.

Inauguration of the Reichstag, 5 December 1894
Inauguration of the Reichstag, 5 December 1894

After German unification in 1871, the Kaiser reluctantly agreed that Berlin should have a new building to house the federal parliament. (He hated politicians so much that he once said that he would like to have all parliamentarian heads shrunk and displayed on poles.) The costs of the new Reichstag were stumped up by French tax-payers: a chunk of the war reparations paid by the French  at the end of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.

If the Reichstag’s story is presented today as a journey in which democracy ultimately triumphs, in reality it is one in which two steps forward invariably sent Germans back to the starting point. Europe’s first great working class party, the SPD (Social Democratic Party), was established in 1869, sent its first two deputies to the Reichstag in 1871, and in the 1880 election gained more votes than any other German party.

But by then, under the Anti-Socialist Laws, Bismark had banned the party as an enemy of the state: from 1878 to 1890, any grouping or meeting that aimed at spreading socialist principles was banned, while the Kaiser proclaimed:

Every Social Democrat is an enemy of the Empire and Fatherland. Such a gang of traitors are a breed of men who do not deserve the name of Germans. Their party must be rooted out to the very last stump.

However, the party continued to gain support in elections, and by 1890 it was Germany’s largest, with the heart of its support drawn from ‘Red Berlin’.

Scheidemann's proclamation on the Reichstag balcony, 9 November 1918
Scheidemann proclaims the Republic on the Reichstag balcony, 9 November 1918

So it was that when the Empire collapsed at the end of the First World War, it was the senior SPD politician Philipp Scheidemann who on 9 November 1918, from the balcony of the Reichstag library, proclaimed the first German Republic following the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

It was a rush job: in his memoirs Scheidemann recalled that, on his way to the Reichstag, someone had told him that the revolutionary Marxist leader Karl Liebknecht was about to declare Germany a Socialist Republic. From his Reichstag balcony Scheidemann announced:

The old and rotten, the monarchy has collapsed. The new may live. Long live the German Republic!

Two hours later, on the very same balcony of the German Chancellery from which the Kaiser had declared war in 1914, Liebknecht proclaimed the Spartacist republic. Two months later, the deadlock between the two republics was resolved when the Freikorps came to the SPD’s rescue, the Spartacist rising was crushed, and its leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg murdered.

Burning of the Reichstag 1933.
The burning of the Reichstag in 1933

The Weimar years followed, about which Georg Grosz memorably wrote;

The times were certainly out of joint. All moral restraints seemed to have melted away. A flood of vice, pornography  and prostitution swept the entire country…  Men in white shirts marched up and down, shouting in unison: ‘Up with Germany! Down with the Jews!’ They were followed by another group, also in disciplined ranks of four, bawling rhythmically in chorus: ‘Heil Moscow! Heil Moscow!’ Afterwards some of them would be left lying around, heads cracked, legs smashed and the odd bullet in the abdomen… The city was dark, cold and full of rumours. The streets were wild ravines haunted by murderers and cocaine peddlers, their emblem a metal bar or a murderous broken-off chair leg.

As the geo-politicians stepped into the shoes of the humanists, the enlightened age that had begun with the Renaissance ground to a halt, and the age of a blind, ironclad ant, completely indifferent to the fate of individuals, the age of numbers without names and of robots without brains, came into being.

In 1933, only a month after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, on the night of 27 February, the Reichstag building was almost totally destroyed in a fire of mysterious origin. The day after the fire the Reichstag Fire Decrees suspended civil liberties in Germany and granted Hitler supreme power. On 23 March the Reichstag, meeting in the nearby Kroll Opera Building, its entrances patrolled by the black-shirted SS. The Communist deputies were in prison, as were 21 SDP representatives. All parties, with the exception of the few remaining Social Democrats, voted for the Enabling Act – putting themselves out of business and handing over dictatorial power to Hitler. All 84 dissenting votes were Social Democrats. Not one member of the Catholic Centre party voted against.

The Reichstag in 1946

The fire of 1933 left the Reichstag an empty shell: the plenary hall was completely destroyed and the dome left in such an unstable state that it was necessary to demolish it in 1954.  But by then the building was an utter ruin, battered and bullet-scarred in the battle for Berlin, as Soviet troops fought for every street and building.

Reichstag Red Army 1945
The Soviet flag raised over the Reichstag, May 1945

The Soviet commander, General Zhukov was determined to carry out Stalin’s order to raise the Soviet flag on the Reichstag. The struggle for the Reichstag was gruesome, consuming the lives of 2,200 Soviet soldiers and 2,500 Germans.  The Soviet victory was immortalised in the iconic image by TASS photographer Yevgeny Khaldei of a Red Army soldier heroically hoisting the hammer-and-sickle flag on the collapsing Reichstag parapet.

Reichstag ruin 1945
The Reichstag ruin in May 1945

Following World War II, the Reichstag was a ruin, badly damaged both by Allied bombs and the Soviet onslaught in the last days of the war. In divided Berlin, it now stood in the British zone, next to the border with the Soviet zone.

The Reichstag in postwar occupied Berlin, 3 June 1945
The Reichstag in postwar occupied Berlin, 3 June 1945

After 1961 the Berlin Wall ran along the back of the building. Since the capital of West Germany was now in Bonn, the Reichstag could not be used as a seat of government.

Reichstag and Berlin Wall November 1961
The Reichstag and the construction of the Berlin Wall in November 1961

In 1955 the Bundestag in Bonn agreed that the Reichstag building should be preserved – a decision that turned out to be a fortuitously far-sighted one. After the sudden opening of the Berlin Wall on the night of 9 November 1989, events moved swiftly towards German reunification.  Then, on 20 June 1991, the Bundestag in Bonn voted to move the German capital back to Berlin. The Reichstag building would be needed once more.

The Reichstag and the Berlin Wall, November 1989
The Reichstag and the Berlin Wall, November 1989
The same view twenty years later
The same view twenty years later

In 1992, the British architect Norman Foster won the architectural contest for the reconstruction of the building. During the reconstruction, the building was almost completely gutted, taking out everything except the outer walls, including renovations made in the 1960s.

Respect for the history of the building was one of the conditions stipulated to the architects, so traces of historical events were retained, among them the graffiti left by Soviet soldiers after the final battle for Berlin in May 1945.

The reconstruction was completed in 1999, with the Bundestag convening there officially for the first time on 19 April of that year.  On the practice’s website, Foster and Partners set out the thinking behind Norman Foster’s renovation:

The transformation of the Reichstag is rooted in four related issues: the Bundestag’s significance as a democratic forum, an understanding of history, a commitment to accessibility and a vigorous environmental agenda. As found, the Reichstag was mutilated by war and insensitive rebuilding. The reconstruction takes cues from the original fabric; the layers of history were peeled away to reveal striking imprints of the past – stonemason’s marks and Russian graffiti scars that have been preserved as a ‘living museum’.

But in other respects it is a radical departure; within its heavy shell it is light and transparent, its activities on view. Public and politicians enter the building together and the public realm continues on the roof in the terrace restaurant and in the cupola, where ramps lead to an observation platform, allowing people to ascend symbolically above the heads of their representatives in the chamber.

The cupola is now an established Berlin landmark. Symbolic of rebirth, it also drives the building’s natural lighting and ventilation strategies. At its core is a ‘light sculptor’ that reflects horizon light down into the chamber, while a sun-shield tracks the path of the sun to block solar gain and glare. As night falls, this process is reversed – the cupola becomes a beacon on the skyline, signalling the vigour of the German democratic process.

The Reichstag is now the second most visited attraction in Germany (and, apparently, the most-visited parliament building in the world), not least because of that huge glass dome. The views it affords in all directions across the city are stupendous.

Gallery: visiting the Reichstag

It’s disappointing that a typical visit to the Reichstag is now restricted to the dome: the rest of the building is very interesting – not least because there it houses an important collection of German contemporary art. To mark the inauguration of the Reichstag in 1999, nineteen artists were commissioned to create new works that directly refer to the building and its history.

Katharina Sieverding, Memorial
Katharina Sieverding, Memorial

For example, in one of the lobbies, Katharina Sieverding chose to install a memorial to the Reichstag MPs of the Weimar Republic who were murdered or persecuted by the Nazis. The photo-painting incorporates a human spinal x-ray, medical representations of a tumour and explosions on the surface of the sun, recalling the Reichstag fire and the conflagration unleashed by the Nazis. On tables beneath the artwork, commem­orative books bear witness to the fate of the MPs who became victims of the Nazis.

Hans Haacke, Der Bevölkerung (The People)
Hans Haacke, Der Bevölkerung (The People)

Hans Haacke’s Der Bevölkerung (The People) is particularly challenging since it touches on one of the country’s most divisive questions: whether German identity should be defined in terms of ethnicity or place of birth. It’s a question provoked by the third word of the inscription over the entrance to the Reichstag building, Dem Deutschen Volke (‘To the German people’). Volk, like Heimat and Vaterland, has resonance far greater than its literal meaning. The Reichstag inscription could almost as accurately be translated as being ‘To the German race’.

Dem Deutschen Volke
Dem Deutschen Volke

Hans Haacke’s work is a riposte to that inscription, which for many Germans carries disturbing echoes of the nationalistic past. The words superimposed on his work –  a large wooden container filled with earth from each of Germany’s 669 constituencies and now flourishing with greenery – are of the same design and size as those above the entrance. But his inscription employs a different word: Der Bevölkerung. translates as ‘To the population’.

Both German expressions can be translated with the same word, ‘people’. But, because the Nazis favoured the term Volk to emphasise their overtly nationalist and exclusive notion of German identity, it has a rather different connotation than the word Bevölkerung. Haacke’s intention was to highlight the link between the German people and the land they inhabit, rather than the traditional, ethnic or racial concept of German identity. A more detailed discussion of ‘the hue and cry in Germany over Hans Haacke’s artwork’ can be found here.

Anselm Kiefer, Only with Wind, Time, and Sound (Nur mit Wind, mit Zeit und mit Klang), 1997
Anselm Kiefer, Only with Wind, Time, and Sound, 1997

One of the Reichstag artworks I would really like to see (having been transfixed by his recent retrospective at the Royal Academy) is Only with Wind, with Time and with Sound, a large painting in one of the reception rooms by Anselm Kiefer. Here is how it is described on the German Bundestag website:

The picture looks like some archaeological site. In the centre is a huge tower of mud bricks, reminiscent of a Mesopotamian ziggurat. The tower has disintegrated at the sides, where it is barely distinguishable from the ground around it. The monochrome tones of the painting and its crusty surface, with some areas seemingly burnt, almost suggest that it was created from the same material as the tower.

The image is poised between reality and an illusion of reality, its archaeological character intensified by ceramic shards and pieces of paper with writing on embedded in the painted surface. The title, taken from a poem by the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, is inscribed in the paint at the upper edge. Bachmann’s poem, written in 1957, is titled Exile and describes the condition of an exiled German who has no spiritual home outside his native tongue: ‘I am a dead wanderer / no longer registered anywhere … long since done with / and provided with nothing / Only with wind with time and with sound.’

The immaterial nature of wind, time and sound is contrasted in Kiefer’s painting with the seemingly solid tower, which symbolises worldly might and, like the tower of Babel, the human presumption that seeks to appropriate divine power by constructing boundless utopias. By inscribing the words ‘wind’, ‘time’ and ‘sound’ in the remains of a tower that appears to have decayed over a period of many centuries, the artist indicates that things we may consider permanent are, in the long term, just as evanescent as inherently fleeting phenomena. By extension, human life  on  earth may be described as a state of exile, our utopian visions resembling nothing so much as a breath of wind, mutable and insubstantial.

Like the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann, Kiefer experienced World War II as a child and often references ancient wars in his work, in order to meditate on the destructive cycle of history. Bachmann was born in Klagenfurt, Austria in 1926. Whilst a student in Vienna she became a member of the legendary literary circle known as Gruppe 47, whose members also included Paul Celan, Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass. She  died in hospital three weeks after a fire in her bedroom in October 1973.


A dead person am I, who walks along
registered no longer anywhere
unknown in the prefect’s realm
superfluous in the golden cities and the verdant country
dismissed long ago
and adorned with nothing…
but with wind, with time and with sound
I, who cannot live among people
with the German language
this cloud around me which I consider as my house,
drift across all languages
oh, how it darkens itself
those dark ones, those rain sounds
only few fall
in brighter zones it then carries the dead up

The Reichstag building is one that has been inhabited or surrounded by the ghosts of history: of war, imperialism, fascism, communism and the failure of democracy. What is remarkable is that in today’s reincarnation the ghosts are not exorcised, but are brought in plain view in bold, often jarring, juxtapositions of past and present, of history and hope.

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A walk beneath the Thames and a song that will play forever

A walk beneath the Thames and a song that will play forever

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The view from the north bank of the Thames

Heading for the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, we decided to take the Docklands Light Railway, past the improbably named Mudchute, to Island Gardens, the last stop on the north bank of the Thames. We wanted to take advantage of the excellent views across the river to the complex of elegant 17th century buildings at Greenwich – Inigo Jones’ Queen’s House, and the Royal Observatory and the Greenwich Hospital for injured and disabled seamen designed by Christopher Wren.

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The Cutty Sark at Greenwich with the glazed dome of the foot tunnel entrance on the right

Another attraction is that from Island Gardens you can walk to Greenwich under the Thames using the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.  The tunnel was opened in 1902 to allow workers living on the south side of the Thames to reach their workplaces in the London docks and shipyards then located in or near the Isle of Dogs.

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Entering the tunnel

The cast-iron tunnel is 1,215 feet long and burrows 50 feet below the river bed.  Its cast-iron rings are lined with concrete which has been surfaced with some 200,000 white glazed tiles.  At each end, access to the tunnel is by means of a round entrance hall with a glazed dome.  There are lifts as well as steps!

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The tunnel entrance at Greenwich

We emerged from the tunnel on the south side to what was originally the site of Greenwich Palace, built by Henry VII and the birthplace of the Tudor queens Mary I and Elizabeth I. Having fallen into disrepair during the Civil War, the palace was demolished and replaced in 1692 by the Royal Hospital for Seamen, a permanent home and healthcare facility for disabled sailors of the Royal Navy which operated until 1869. The building was designed by Christopher Wren, who was also the architect responsible for the Royal Greenwich Observatory up the hill beyond.

Our main purpose in coming here was to see the current exhibition at the National Maritime Musuem – Turner and the Sea (to be the subject of the next post), housed in The Queen’s House, designed by Inigo Jones for Anne of Denmark, wife of James I.  Jones had recently spent three years in Italy studying Roman and Renaissance architecture. It was his first important commission and the first fully Classical building built in England.  The building was completed in 1619.

Queen House colonnade

The Queen’s House colonnade, a 19th century addition

After seeing the Turner exhibition, we climbed the hill to the Greenwich Observatory, commissioned in 1675 by King Charles II who also created the position of Astronomer Royal to serve as the director of the observatory and to

Apply himself with the most exact care and diligence to the rectifying of the tables of the motions of the heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find out the so much desired longitude of places for the perfecting of the art of navigation.

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The Greenwich Observatory

The Observatory was the first purpose-built scientific research facility in Britain and played a major part in the history of astronomy, especially in solving problems of navigation and timekeeping. Both were critical to the development of colonisation and overseas trade in the 17th century, and representative of the Enlightenment focus on scientific method and knowledge.  The Observatory is probably best known as the location of the prime meridian, and on the day we were there groups of schoolchildren were excitedly photographing other standing astride the meridian.

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Astride the Greenwich meridian

If you climb the winding stairs to the upper section of the observatory, you emerge inside the onion dome which houses the 28-inch Greenwich refracting telescope; completed in 1893, it’s the largest of its kind in the UK and the seventh largest in the world.  We were here for something less astronomical though, but inspired nevertheless by similar questions of time and space.

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The 28-inch Greenwich refracting telescope

Entering the dome, you slowly become aware that you are hearing music of an ethereal beauty: ringing tones, bells and unearthly vibrations.  This is Longplayer, a piece of music designed to last for one thousand years. It started to play at the start of the millennium in 1999, and if all goes to plan it will continue without repetition until 31 December 2999. Then it will start over again.

Longplayer was designed and composed by Jem Finer, formerly of The Pogues (he co-wrote several of the band’s songs, including ‘Fairytale of New York’, with Shane MacGowan).  We had wanted to visit Longplayer ever since encountering another Jem Finer sound installation – Score for a Hole in the Ground – while walking in a wood in Kent.

Longplayer is a piece of music designed to last 1000 years without ever repeating itself, and currently exists in both online and live versions (at the Royal Observatory, inside a 19th century lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf in London Docklands, and at the Science Museum. Longplayer is based on an existing piece of music, 20 minutes and 20 seconds in length, which is processed by computer using a simple algorithm. This gives a large number of variations, which, when played consecutively, gives a total expected runtime of 1000 years. The music was composed using Tibetan singing bowls and gongs, which are able to create a range of sounds by either striking or rolling pieces of wood around the rims. This source music was recorded in December 1999.

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Longplayer reflects several of Jem Finer’s concerns, particularly relating to systems, long-duration processes and extremes of scale in time and space. Finer explains on his website that:

Longplayer grew out of a conceptual concern with problems of representing and understanding the fluidity and expansiveness of time. While it found form as a musical composition, it can also be understood as a living, 1000-year-long process – an artificial life form programmed to seek its own survival strategies. More than a piece of music, Longplayer is a social organism, depending on people – and the communication between people – for its continuation, and existing as a community of listeners across centuries.

An important stage in the development of the project was the establishment of the Longplayer Trust, a lineage of present and future custodians invested with the responsibility to research and implement strategies for Longplayer’s survival, to ask questions as to how it might keep playing, and to seek solutions for an unknown future.

As to how the long duration of the piece has been achieved, Finer says:

Longplayer is composed in such a way that the character of its music changes from day to day and – though it is beyond the reach of any one person’s experience – from century to century. It works in a way somewhat akin to a system of planets, which are aligned only once every thousand years, and whose orbits meanwhile move in and out of phase with each other in constantly shifting configurations. In a similar way, Longplayer is predetermined from beginning to end – its movements are calculable, but are occurring on a scale so vast as to be all but unknowable.

Longplayer has been playing since 1999 and will continue to play till 2999. On the 12 September 2009, 1000 minutes was performed live at The Roundhouse in London:

Leaving the Observatory, we walked back down the hill.  Along the way there is a dramatic view of the City skyline, its steel and glass towers dwarfing the classically-proportioned buildings on the near bank of the Thames.

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I found the view deeply depressing; it provoked the thought that here, in concentrated form, was an image that spoke of the contrast between an age of enlightenment, distinguished by scientific enquiry and the pursuit of human dignity, and one in thrall to the pursuit of wealth and the power of financial institutions (see their names emblazoned there on the towers!); between an architecture whose proportions were in tune with the human scale, and one with no humanity which subjugates humans to little more than ants.  I thought of Blake’s ‘London’:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow. 
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

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The suffocation of a park in Brussels: metaphor for our time

Botanique 1a

There’s a battle on in Liverpool to save the Meadowlands, a wedge of green space that lies within the original 19th century boundary of Sefton Park.  It’s another example of how we lose the right of access to public open space through the privatisation of land for commercial development.  Like Joni Mitchell once sang: ‘Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got / Till it’s gone’.

In Brussels recently, I encountered a particularly rapacious instance of encroachment upon a green urban sanctuary carved out of the expanding 19th century city for the pleasure of its citizens.  Our hotel was situated on the edge of the Northern Quarter financial district, in an urban landscape of startling juxtapositions and fantastical change.  An old working class district hard by the Gare du Nord is being torn down; what remains are isolated streets of tawdry buildings and seedy sex shops.  I was reminded a bit of the devastated landscape in which stood the dilapidated apartment building of the 1991 film Delicatessen.  Except that here, as buildings are being torn down, instead of leaving an empty wasteland, the steel and glass towers of international finance have risen from the rubble.

Nearby, though, I discovered a green haven amidst the towers.  The Botanical Garden (Le Botanique) that gives its name to the nearest metro stop was originally founded in 1826 and bought by the Belgian state in 1870 which commissioned various fountains and sculptures to beautify the park. Nowadays, office workers hurry through in the mornings as park employees drag hoses across the gravel to water the borders of lavender. There is a sort of tranquillity here: though the roar of city traffic never ceases, beneath the trees and by the winding lake patrolled by ducks there is sanctuary.

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But, though the the Botanique has survived in the heart of the city, it has been invaded, encroached upon, sliced in two and trampled. Interpretation boards in the park tell the sorry story: how in recent decades the garden ‘has been subject to continual harm at the hands of the many infrastructural works that have been conducted in the district’ – the development of a ring road that amputated several hectares from the garden, and the creation of a feeder road that now slices the garden in two.

Botanique road works

This was the road we walked back along from the centre of town in the evening, passing through a grim, neon-lit and graffiti-daubed underpass.


Underpass 2

But for me what makes the predicament of Le Botanique a visual metaphor for the brutalisation of our cities by corporate power is the way in which the park has been suffocated by the steel and glass towers that have risen around it.

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Brussels has become an international business community composed of diplomats, lobbyists, and euro-politicians connected with NATO and the European Union. Global corporations arrived in the past three decades, resulting in blocks lined with steel-and-glass office buildings. These brutal edifices now rise only a few steps from the cobbled streets, cafes, and graceful architecture of the city’s past.  The European Union’s buildings are no better: the same monolithic, excluding walls of steel and glass.

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In the case of the IBM tower, it couldn’t be any closer: any office worker who wished could open their window, reach out and touch the park’s greenery.

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Other corporate behemoths tower over the park.

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Someday, my baby, when I am a man,
And others have taught me the best that they can,
Sell me a suit, cut off my hair,
And send me to work in tall buildings.

So its goodbye to the sunshine, goodbye to the dew,
Goodbye to the flowers, and goodbye to you.
I’m off to the subway. I must not be late.
I’m going to work in tall buildings.

– John Hartford

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It’s not just Brussels, of course.  Here in Liverpool the Liverpool Waters scheme, with its 55-storey tower, has just been given the green light by the government, despite warnings that it puts in jeopardy the city’s prized Unesco world heritage site status. While Simon Jenkins writing in The Guardian recently about a Qatari consortium’s plan to build a visual wall of towers ‘on a truly Stalinist scale behind the Royal Festival Hall next to Waterloo’ argued that towers reveal a civic leadership weak in the face of commercial pressure. They are, he claimed, not ‘vital’ to the urban economy, but are simply ‘plonked down wherever the money talked’.  Jenkins’ argument – which is true of Liverpool, Brussels or most other European cities – is that ‘the charm of London still depends on relatively low-rise streets and open spaces. This, he insists, is not an “accident of history”, to be overridden by property speculation at will’.

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It’s a curious fact that in capitalism’s first great 19th century heyday, in Brussels as in Liverpool, city fathers – wealthy industrialists and merchants – bequeathed acres of valuable land for parks and gardens for the physical and spiritual benefit of their citizens.  Name me one example of today’s corporate giants doing the same.  In fact, the opposite is invariably the case – green space devoured and public access to urban commons denied.

The Rescue Man: a city built and destroyed

This is Oriel Chambers on Water Street in Liverpool.  It is one of the city’s greatest treasures, the world’s first metal framed glass curtain walled building erected in 1864 and a precursor of the modernist architecture that took flight two decades later in Chicago. It was designed by a little known Victorian architect, Peter Ellis who, in his time, was reviled and scorned for it.

The rationale for the oriel windows with their maximum area of glass was a desire to provide good daylight for the clerks at work inside.  The oriels on the front and side elevations are separated by tall stone mullions, carved with nailhead decoration, and designed to look like cast iron. But the oriels themselves are framed in the thinnest sections of iron, and in the courtyard behind, the glazing forms a curtain wall, cantilevered out beyond the line of the frame.

The building’s minimalist forms and large windows were hard for Victorian traditionalists to take. It was described as ‘an agglomeration of great glass bubbles’ and even ‘a great abortion’ which almost certainly led the disheartened Ellis to abandon architecture.  He designed only one other building at 16 Cook Street, another striking modernist edifice.

Like Oriel Chambers, it is the rear of building that presents the most remarkable feature.  A glazed cast iron spiral staircase (below) dominates the narrow courtyard. The spiral has no central support, but appears to be cantilevered from each floor. The influence of this can be traced in the early skyscrapers in Chicago, and there is speculation of  a direct link between Ellis and the American architect John Root, one of the founders of the Chicago School style.  Root, having been sent to abroad to avoid the Civil War, was in Liverpool at the time that Cook Street was being built, and some of his work shows the influence of Peter Ellis.

I’ve been reading The Rescue Man, the first novel by Anthony Quinn,  film critic of the Independent.  Quinn has taken the bare bones of the Peter Ellis story (for that is all there is – little more is known of Ellis than the facts stated here), fictionalised them and woven them into a gripping story of Liverpool during the Blitz of 1940-41.   The central character is an architectural historian, Tom Baines, who, at the outbreak of war in 1939, is languidly working on a Pevsner-style survey of Liverpool’s architectural heritage. He’s making slow progress, partly because he is making architectural drawings of each building. But, with the threat of aerial bombardment looming, he’s keen to preserve a record of Liverpool’s magnificent heritage.  Someone suggests that he would make more progress if he photographed the buildings, and he is directed to a photographer who works from a city centre studio along with his wife.

This couple seem, very loosely, to be based on the celebrated Liverpool photographer, E Chambre Hardman and his wife, Margaret. This is characteristic of Quinn’s approach: there are echoes of real people in several of his fictional characters (Baines, for example, might be inspired by Quentin Hughes who, like Baines, studied at the University of Liverpool School of Architecture before the War).  In the novel, Baines becomes deeply committed to recording and preserving Liverpool’s architectural heritage, making him a close approximation of Hughes, who, in 1964, published the magnificent Seaport: Architecture and Townscape in Liverpool, which utilised superb black and white photograhs to underline the significance of the Victorian and Edwardian architectural inheritance of the city. Much of the city centre was saved because of Hughes’ influence, including the Albert Dock Warehouses and Oriel Chambers. His book was  influential in opposing the architectural brutalism of the 1960s. In 1967 he wrote a detailed policy for the conservation of Liverpool’s architecture which was adopted by the City Council.

In the novel, Baines discovers the journal of Peter Eames, an 1860s architect whose radical designs for the city centre office building, Janus House, provoke ridicule and scorn.  Eames, clearly, is Ellis – though radically fictionalised, few  aspects of the personal life recorded in the journal extracts bearing any relation to that of Peter Ellis.  But it’s clear that they are one and the same when Eames writes in his journal:

Janus House opened for business last month & every day the people file down Temple street to stare & point & declare their astonishment, as if some asteroid had plummeted from the Heavens & landed on their doorstep.  The press notices have been, thus far, extraordinarily hostile.  The Mercury slights it as ‘a greenhouse gone mad’ while the satirical weekly, the Badger, offers this: ‘The plainest brick warehouse in the town is infinitely superior, as a building, to that large agglomeration of protruding plate-glass bubbles in Temple-street, known as Janus House.

Quinn alternates between Baines’s story – he volunteers as a ‘rescue man’ in a Heavy Rescue Team during the period that saw the Christmas Blitz of 1940 and the May Blitz of 1941 destroy large parts of Liverpool and kill over 4,000 residents – and the 19th century story of Eames, the Victorian architect.  The war revitalises Baines. In the most evocative passages in the novel, working with his rescue crew, he employs his specialist knowledge of building structures to assess the risks involved in a rescue operation. Quinn evokes a real sense of time and place in stories that intertwine amidst the fear and tension that builds in the city during the months leading up to the bombardment:

The city was still holding its breath as spring lurched into summer.  Anxiety had become his companion. It woke in the morning in front of the blackout curtains, hovered by the wireless, read the newspaper over his shoulder.

The gripping rescue scenes, in which Baines and the members of his team pull people from the rubble in the most dangerous circumstances, are brilliantly told and evidently draw upon careful research of actual incidents.  When the Lipton factory is bombed, the crew pours cold water on tea leaves to douse the burning smell. In another memorable scene, Baines encounters an unexploded bomb in the cellar of a bombed-out pub, ‘a steel cylinder in green-grey casing, snouty and heavy like a prize-winning marrow, its tail fins set at a jaunty-looking angle’.  It could go off at any minute, but the rescue of a woman and her baby goes ahead.

May 1941: Liverpool city centre

All through this terrible period, Baines continues to read Eames’ 19th century journal.  He knows that Eames’s designs – and many other fine buildings – may not survive the war.  When the city rebuilds there will be a new vision of Liverpool and he is not sure how he feels about this: ‘The transient landscape of the city, its inexorable susceptibility to change, both thrilled and depressed him’.  The damage to the Custom House, built between 1828 and 1839 by city architect John Foster on the site of the original Old Dock, concerns him deeply. This huge domed building graced the south end of South Castle Street and its dome complemented that of the Town Hall at the other end of Castle Street. It was larger than St Georges Hall and, like the hall, built in the classical style.

Liverpool Custom House

Baines was right to be concerned: following the heavy damage that the building incurred during the May Blitz of 1941 which gutted the interior and destroyed the dome,the decision was taken to demolish the shell of the building. There is controversy to this day about whether or not reconstruction would have been practical, but there seems no doubt that the loss of the Custom House was Liverpool’s greatest architectural casualty of the Second World War.

Members of Liverpool Corn Exchange outside the bombed building during the Blitz.
Members of Liverpool Corn Exchange outside the bombed building during the Blitz.

The two main strands of the novel finally draw together one night during the May Blitz as a firestorm rages around Abercromby Square in the city’s Georgian quarter.  It was here, in the 19th century, that Peter Eames’ family had their home, and here in May 1941 Baines and his men struggle to save themselves amidst the inferno which threatens St Catherine’s Church on the square.

St Catherine’s Abercromby Square (Streets of Liverpool)

Again, Anthony Quinn has done his homework: the church was badly damaged, but still stood, the centrepiece of an elegant wing of Liverpool’s most elegant square, as seen in the panorama below, from Quentin Hughes’ Seaport.

Panorama of Abercromby Square before demolition of St Catherine’s (click to enlarge)

This is what Quentin Hughes wrote about the church and its setting in Seaport in 1969:

Physically, most of the area has deteriorated badly. The houses, now too large for single family occupation, have been turned easily into flats and lodgings. Many races inhabit them and dark-skinned, curly-headed children play in the streets.

The shopping centre of Myrtle Street is cosmopolitan. Untidy and threadbare, it has the quality of an eastern bazaar, remarkable in its range of goods which cater for every taste. Paint peels from the walls, the stucco cracks and crumbles and ornate cast-iron balconies rust and fall apart. The once proud district has gone to seed.

At the north end the University attempts to arrest this dilapidation and has shown how admirably adaptable these fine buildings can be. Even here the stucco houses of Regency Bedford Street are being pulled down under the pressure of redevelopment to higher densities and new uses within the University precinct.

Abercromby Square is threatened, but is still well cared for and well loved. The last of the London-type squares built between 1820 and 1865 for the wealthy merchants of Liverpool, it is named after Sir Ralph Abercromby, the intrepid general who was killed in Alexandria in 1801 after his brilliant landing of the British forces at Aboukir. The Square is sufficiently high to command a fine view over the river and the Cheshire bank to the rising hills of Wales beyond. The elder John Foster submitted a plan to the Common Council on 21 November 1800 for this area of the Moss Lake Fields, proposing that ‘houses with not less than twenty-one feet frontage shall be built to a form elevation approved by the Common Council or its Committee’. However, the development appears to have awaited the installation of the city sewerage scheme which John Rennie was commissioned to undertake in 1816, draining amongst other places the ‘intended Abercromby Square’.

Picton called this the ‘most aristocratic quarter of the town’ and each resident had a key to the square and was able to use it for his recreation.

Most of the houses are of plain brickwork, well proportioned and dignified. The doorways are uniform with the exception of a few stone columnal porches which project from the face of the buildings. On the first floor, cast-iron balconies are continuous across the fronts of the houses. On the east side stands St Catherine’s church, its dome shattered in the war, but its splendid stone Ionic portico remaining intact. On each side are stucco-faced houses which set off the sombre character of the church facade.

But the church did not survive – and this where my own story links with that of the fictional Baines and Eames.  In 1966, the University of Liverpool reduced St Catherine’s to a pile of rubble to make way for their new Senate House.  I arrived as a student at the University the following year, and in 1969, working as a student journalist, I discovered through friends involved with the local tenants’ association that the University owned many of the slum properties in the area, in which families, often with young children, lived in indescribable conditions.  The student newspaper published my story, and a movement gathered  pace in which students and tenants joined forces to protest at the fortune squandered on Senate House, due to be opened officially that spring by Princess Alexandria.

Colin Wilkinson on his Streets of Liverpool blog makes this comment about the destruction of St Catherine’s:

Whether the destruction of St Catherine’s Church in Abercromby Square was vandalism or redevelopment is a matter of opinion. The whole integrity of the square was quite incredibly broken up by no less a body than the University of Liverpool in their drive for expansion. Street after street of Georgian housing was removed to allow for their vision of a modern campus and John Foster’s classical church of 1829 unfortunately stood in the way. At least until 1966, when it was reduced to a pile of rubble.

In Quinn’s novel, however, Baines is able to rescue a precious (though entirely fictitious) building.  Hidden under bomb damage he discovers Peter Eames’s final unfinished project, a grand public library, planned as a monument to his dead brother. He launches a campaign to save the building from Corporation demolition, enlisting the support of a journalist from the Liverpool Echo who is initially sceptical of his chances:

‘But I thought, with it being a site of historical interest, they might want to preseve the place.’

‘My dear chap, this is Liverpool we’re talking about.  “Preserve”?  When has this city ever honoured the principles of culture or heritage above the cold brute urge to make money?  You know as well I do that the place has always been a mercantile centre – and if a thing isn’t paying its way it’s either knocked down or left to rot.’

One of the features of this fictitious building is ‘a row of lovingly carved capitals beneath the frieze … all of the same figure, a young man seated, one leg crossing the other, reading a book’.  Quinn must have been inspired by the images of boys engrossed in a book that are carved in stone on the exterior of Norris Green library, on the outskirts of the city.  These were sculpted by George Herbert Tyson Smith who executed many works in the Liverpool and Merseyside area, in particular war memorials, including  the beautiful reliefs on the Liverpool Cenotaph outside St Georges Hall.

The Rescue Man is an impassioned tribute to Liverpool – the city’s history, its architecture and its people.  It’s a gripping read for anyone, but if you have a love for this great city by the Mersey you will relish it.  Quinn ends the book with Baines musing on the changes being wrought to the cityscape as a result of the war’s destruction:

He’d heard that they were planning to pull down the old Customs House, which had stood by the river since 1829.  It would be infamous – unforgivable.  Whole streets and lanes were disappearing, their names remembered only by word of mouth, or in the forgotten folds of disused maps.  These brief candles.  They were blowing out their own past … But maybe he’d got that wrong.  Maybe you couldn’t destroy history.  You could only add to it.

There are echoes here of the controversy in Liverpool right now about the plans by Peel Holdings for a massive redevelopment of the North Docks – the Liverpool Waters scheme – which will feature skyscrapers housing offices, shops and apartments, but threaten the city’s UNESCO World Heritage status.

Oriel Chambers is now a Grade 1 Listed Building.  It was damaged during the war, but sympathetically restored with a 1950s extension. It’s a working building still, housing a set of barristers’ chambers.

A notable Liverpool landmark, however, is a building left in ruins since the Second World War. St. Luke’s Church stands prominently at the top of Bold Street as an enduring symbol and reminder of the destruction caused by the Blitz.  The church was hit by an incendiary bomb on Monday 5th May 1941 and the ensuing fire proved impossible to quench.  The city was burning as a result of the prolonged attack by the Luftwaffe; fire fighters and relief workers were already stretched to the limit.  In the early hours of Tuesday May 6th local residents who were sheltering in the nearby basements of Roscoe Place reported hearing the great bell fall from the tower.

A fantastic example of neo-gothic architecture, St. Luke’s was designed by another great Liverpool architect, John Foster along with his son.  It took nearly 30 years to build, but a single night to destroy.  Now the burnt out shell is commonly known locally as ‘the bombed-out church‘. It is now a garden of remembrance, commemorating the thousands of local men, women and children who died as a result of the bomb attacks on their city.  It remains one of Liverpool’s best loved landmarks.

St Luke’s after the bombs, 5 May 1941
St Luke’s before the Blitz

See also

On the Waterfront: Liverpool’s new museum

We had a great evening yesterday, father and daughter, down on the waterfront where we joined twin celebrations – of the opening of the new Museum of Liverpool, boosted as the ‘largest city museum in the world” and ‘the largest newly built national museum in Britain for more than a century’, and the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Liver building.

The new museum has had its fair share of criticism (there’s an extensive critique of the building architecturally and of the museum displays by Rowan Moore in today’s Observer).  As far as the building is concerned, I like it.  With its low elevation and unique twisted shape, it does not obscure views of the Three Graces – unlike the horrendous Mann Island development next door, a criminal act of civic vandalism.  The white limestone façade with its relief patterning echoes architectural details of the Three Graces.

Inside is even better: a huge spiral staircase rises from a spiral set into the ground floor entrance area – a reference to the designs on the prehistoric Calder Stones, the earliest exhibit displayed in the museum.  And on the second floor are the enormous gabled windows that in one direction open up a simply stunning view of the Three Graces and the waterfront plaza in front (above), and on the other side of the building provide a panoramic view across the Albert Dock towards the Anglican cathedral (below).

According to the Museum guide, the building footprint occupies an area ‘longer than the pitches at Anfield and Goodison combined’.  Well, it certainly didn’t feel like that last evening (the museum is opening late over three evening this weekend). The photo below gives some indication of the density of the crowds packing into the place this week (something like 14,000 people through the doors every day, the toilets cracking under the strain).

The local Seven Streets blog observed this week that ‘at times the sheer sensory overload of it all leaves you breathless – exhibition floors are choc-a-block with memorabilia, posters, architect’s models, gleaming cabinets crammed with relics, glittering booty and Meccano’, while in The Observer Rowan Moore complained that ‘the pace is frantic. You hardly get a moment to dwell on the horrors of the first world war before you’re on to something else’.

It certainly felt very busy – in both senses.  The spaces seemed small and swept along in the flow and surge of the crowd there was a sense of displays and themes flashing by in a bitty, disjointed manner.  Audio or video displays often collided with each other.  It was hard to concentrate.

But I’ll go back when the crowds have dissipated and hope that it makes more sense then.  Another reason to return is that there still several galleries that have not yet opened – including ‘The Great Port’, a gallery on Liverpool’s transformation from a small tidal inlet to one of the world’s great ports, another gallery devoted to the Overhead railway, and ‘History Detectives’, which will explore the history and archaeology of the city from the Ice Age to the present.

As for now – on the ground floor there’s ‘Global City’, a gallery exploring the city’s global links – from West Africa to China – and the resulting cultural influences.  We didn’t have time to see this, and spent our time on the second floor where ‘Wondrous Place’  celebrates Liverpool music and cultural creativity, as well as the city’s sporting achievements.

Parts of this seems like a continuation of the World Museum’s excellent survey, in Capital of Culture year, of the city’s musical landscape, The Beat Goes On.  Star exhibits include the church hall stage where John met Paul, Roger McGough’s poem to Macca’s Trousers (with the selfsame trousers), and the bedspread from John and Yoko’s 1969 Bed-In, presented to them by Hull-born designer Christine Kemp during their Bed-In at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal (below).

The top floor also plays host to ‘The People’s Republic’, a celebration of the people of Liverpool taking in Liverpool poets and novelists, the scouse accent and distinctive phraseology, and plenty more.  The model of the unbuilt Edwin Lutyens’  design for the Catholic cathedral, only seen previously during Capital of Culture year (below) is there, as well as a reconstruction of the court slum housing of the late 19th century, complete with the sounds and smells of a privvy.

Amidst the hurly-burly, my attention was drawn to the display of  two sculptures rescued during the demolition of  Gerard Gardens council flats in 1987.  Liverpool sculptor George Herbert Tyson Smith made these relief sculptures (below) for the entrance to the flats in the 1930s.  They represent the Architect and the Builder.

As Seven Streets observed, on first impression this seems to be the most succesful area of the Museum: with its vivid glimpses of ‘the changing shape of the city over the past century, and explorations of religion, ethnicity and politics, you get the sense that, finally, the city’s character – our character – is fleshed out, made visceral. Blood and passion is pumping through these dioramas – taking in everything from the silver service dishes of William Rathbone to a gorgeous, glazed, coal-fired fryer from a 1920s fish and chip shop’.

The second floor is also the permanent home of the Liverpool Cityscape by Ben Johnson, commissioned for Capital of Culture year and previously displayed in the Walker (below, click image to enlarge), as well as a sculpture from the International Garden Festival of 1984, ‘Wish You Were Here’ (above) and a temporary exhibition of photos, Mike McCartney’s Liverpool, which was rather disappointing.

After all that it was time to go outside and join the festivities on the waterfront.  On a fine evening, as the sun set over the Wirral, the Liverpool Philharmonic played Beatles numbers, and then, as darkness fell, it was time for the main event.

For three nights this weekend, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Royal Liver Building,  Czech Republic-based artists’ collective Macula put on a stunning video display that transformed the Liver Building in a way that isn’t easy to describe in words.  This was no run of the mill light show – it was something else entirely.

Macula have built a reputation for temporarily dressing some of the world’s most iconic buildings in rainbow-hued lights, video-projections and vivid narratives, bringing the hidden histories of these silent landmarks to life in a truly exciting way. See, for example, The 600 Years, a commission from earlier this year for the 600th anniversary of the astronomical clock tower in Old Town Square in the centre of Prague.

Here in Liverpool, Macula were assigned to celebrate the history of arguably the most famous building in Liverpool, designed in 1908 by Walter A. Thomas and completed in 1911.  The Royal Liver Building is 295 feet in height and has thirteen floors. When it was completed in 1911, the Royal Liver Building was Britain’s first skyscraper. It was built using a revolutionary steel and concrete structure.

At the top of the building, sat on each of the two towers are the mythical Liver Birds, the symbol of Liverpool. They are 18 feet tall, have a total wing span of 24 feet and are made of copper. Local legend has it that if they fly away, Liverpool will cease to exist. The Liver Birds are a cross between an eagle and a cormorant (the bird of good luck to sailors). A German sculptor called Carl Bernard Bartels, who was living in England, designed them. When the Great War broke out, Bartels was arrested as a German citizen and imprisoned on the Isle of Man. The City of Liverpool removed all reference to his achievements and at the end of the war, he was sent back to Germany.

The clocks, 25 feet in diameter, are bigger than the clocks in London’s Big Ben and are the largest electrically driven clocks in the United Kingdom. They were built to give mariners the most accurate local time and are said to be accurate to within thirty seconds per year.

The Macula display began with a countdown…

What followed was a series of tableaux in which, in Macula’s words, ‘the suggestive play of light on a physical object creates a new dimension and changes the perception of a seemingly ordinary object. The goal is to achieve perfect symbiosis. …Everything becomes an illusion’.  Here, the idea of the liver bird is visualised across the facade of the building….

‘The main objective is to use projections tailored to the selected surface or object to shatter the viewer’s perception of perspective, explain Macula.  ‘The projector allows bending and highlighting any shape, line or space. A suggestive play of light on a physical object creates a new dimension and changes the perception of a seemingly ordinary object’.

The city’s association with the sea and shipping was celebrated in a sequence in which an 18th century trading vessel tossed on the waves out in the ocean….

The display concluded with the memory of La Princess, the giant spider, the highlight of Capital of Culture year…

The best way to appreciate all this if you weren’t there is to view Macula’s video of the event:

Macula served up a second helping for Liverpool: a further projection onto the distinctive shape of the new Museum of Liverpool in which the stone patterning of the facade appeared to lift and re-form in geometric patterns, followed by sequences in which the structure took the form of a snowstorm or billowing, Hokusai-style waves.

When it was all over, as we joined the throngs streaming for car parks or bus station, two generations, father and daughter agreed it had been a brilliant celebration – and that, having met so many people we knew among the thousands there, Liverpool is a unique combination of village and city in one wondrous place.

Footnote, 2 August: New Museum of Liverpool has 150,000 visitors in two weeks (Daily Post)

The poetry of the Welsh streets

I went to look at the poems which have appeared on the doorways of derelict houses in the Welsh Streets, now threatened with demolition. A group calling itself the Unknown Poets posted the poems the other day to draw attention to the imminent destruction of the houses, which include Ringo Starr’s birthplace at 9 Madryn Street.

Demolition of the empty properties could begin in three weeks’ time.  Clearance notices, announcing that the bulldozers would be moving in soon, appeared in the area last week – this afternoon they could be seen pasted to lamp-posts and doors of derelict properties. No developer is yet assigned to the area, which means the empty site will be grassed over.

A spokesman for the Unknown Poets said:

This was a poetic response to wanton destruction. It was intended to lift people’s spirits. We focused on Beatles lyrics and in particular John Lennon on what would have been his 70th birthday. The idea behind the piece, called Safe as Houses, was to put a poem on the doorway of each derelict property. The demolition compares with the destruction of the original Cavern club. While we don’t think it will save the houses, it will have brightened up people’s lives in some small way. We turned a derelict street into an open-air gallery.

I noted poems by Shakespeare,Roger McGough and Adrian Henri – as well as several Beatles’ lyrics, including Ringo’s ‘Liverpool 8’:

I was a sailor first, I sailed the sea
Then I got a job, in a factory
Played Butlin’s Camp with my friend, Rory
It was good for him, it was great for me

Liverpool I left you, said goodbye to Madryn Street
I always followed my heart, and I never missed a beat
Destiny was calling, I just couldn’t stick around
Liverpool I left you, but I never let you down

Livepool I left you, said goodbye to Admiral Grove
I always followed my heart, so I took it on the road
Destiny was calling, I just couldn’t stick around
Liverpool I left you, but I never let you down

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Ringo Starr was born in 9 Madryn Street, where he lived until he was four. His family then moved to Admiral Grove, a minute’s walk away, where he was still living when he joined the Beatles.  Madryn Street is earmarked for clearance as part of the government’s controversial Housing Market Renewal (Pathfinder) Initiative, described by the Urban Task Force as a ‘crude, insensitive and wasteful’ return to mass housing clearance, and criticised as ‘high risk’ by the National Audit Office. The programme has already resulted in the demolition of large swathes of Liverpool, for example along Smithdown Road, Kensington and Wavertree Road.

SAVE Britain’s Heritage and the local Civic Society are calling for the immediate listing of Madryn Street, together with 10 Admiral Grove, Ringo’s subsequent childhood home; 12 Arnold Grove, the birthplace of George Harrison; Mendips, Menlove Avenue, where John Lennon lived from 1945 to 1963; 20 Forthlin Road, childhood home of Paul McCartney, and the ornate iron gates and stone piers of Strawberry Field, all that remains of the house and gardens which inspired one of the Beatles’ most famous songs. William Palin, Secretary of SAVE says:

This is a bid for national recognition and statutory protection for a group of buildings which are intimately associated with the four men who, together, became the greatest cultural phenomenon of the 20th century.  In 1973, Liverpool’s celebrated Cavern Club, birthplace of the Beatles, was demolished because of a council compulsory purchase order, to make room for a ventilation shaft that was never built. The destruction of Madryn Street would represent another tragic loss and a further assault on the heart and spirit of the city.

The demolition of the Welsh Streets, 16 streets with Welsh names, would also close a chapter in the long-standing relationship between the city and Wales. More than any other English city, Liverpool’s roots are uniquely Celtic: towards the end of the 19th century around 120,000 of the city’s 450,000 population were first-born Irishmen, and second only to the Irish influx was the wave of migrants from Wales.

The streets were nicknamed the Welsh Streets because they were built and lived in by the Welsh workers who also built a large percentage of buildings in Liverpool in the 19th century and early 20th century. The streets were consequently named after Welsh towns and villages. In the late 19th century almost a quarter of the city’s population, around 80,000 people, were Welsh, drawn by the promise of work.  Liverpool once had 70 Welsh chapels, and across the city, in places like Anfield, Walton, and Vauxhall and Scotland Road, are dotted rows of Victorian terraced properties with Welsh places names like Denbigh Road, Snowdon Lane and Barmouth Way.

Views are deeply divided in the local community between those who are fighting to preserve the streets and those who favour demolition and rehousing. The homes in the Welsh streets were built above streams and have had persistent problems with rising damp.  They are small properties and have no gardens.  Others argue that the houses were well-built and could be modernised.  On the outside, at least, these are pleasant, tree-lined streets which once harboured a strong sense of community and solidarity.


Heritage open days 2010

Heritage Open Days have rolled round once again.  The English Heritage website explains the purpose of this annual event:

Heritage Open Days celebrates England’s fantastic architecture and culture by offering free access to properties that are usually closed to the public or normally charge for admission. Every year on four days in September, buildings of every age, style and function throw open their doors, ranging from castles to factories, town halls to tithe barns, parish churches to Buddhist temples. It is a once-a-year chance to discover hidden architectural treasures and enjoy a wide range of tours, events and activities which bring to life local history and culture.

Last year I took a peek at the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth and the Unitarian Church on Ullet Road.  My first visit this year was to The Greek Orthodox Church of St Nicholas on Princes Road. It was built 1870 in the Byzantine style and is a Grade II Listed building.  It is one of only four purpose-built Greek Orthodox churches in the UK.

This was the second purpose built Greek Orthodox Church in England. Before 1870, the Greek community had no public place of worship, assembling for services in a house in Sandon terrace.  George Michael Papayannis was the founder of the Papayanni Steamship Company, a subsidiary of  the Liverpool-based Ellerman Lines which became one of the largest shipping firms in the world. He was the first President of the Liverpool Greek Community and in 1867 organised a loan to fund the construction of the church, which was completed in 1870 and dedicated to Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of families, children and seamen.

The exterior is extremely ornate, featuring arches within arches, done in alternating bands of white stone and red brick. There is a row of three domes on the portico, and a fourth dome over the nave, all raised on drums. The interior, however, with white marble columns and Byzantine capitals, is surprisingly plain compared with the exterior.

The styling of the church draws heavily on the Byzantine architecture which is typical of the domed eastern Greek Orthodox churches around the world, with the architect adopting a design similar to that of St Theodore’s church in Constantinople.

There has been a Greek Orthodox community in Liverpool for over 180 years. Refugees from Chios, the island just off the coast of Turkey, who fled after the massacre of Greeks by Turks in 1821, were among the original Greeks to settle in Liverpool.  By the late 19th century, among foreign merchants, the Greeks occupied a prominent and important place as gentlemen of position, wealth and intelligence. Five shipping lines exported to Greece.

Goods destined for Greece passed through the Liverpool docks, where many Greeks worked as seamen and dockers.  On their return, the ships brought cargoes of fruit, oil, vegetables and wine from Greece and the Middle East.

Today there are estimated to be 2,500 Greek Cypriots in the Merseyside area.  Their impact on the restaurant scene in Liverpool has been considerable.  For students in the city in the late 1960s, the Kebab House, established in 1968, was a place to eat wonderful food cheaply. It began life in a family house on Windsor Street, before moving to much larger premises in Hardman Street a decade later.

Next day I visited  Walton Old Grammar School, one of Liverpool’s oldest surviving buildings which I must have passed hundreds of times without knowing it was there.  It’s tucked away under trees at the corner of Walton Parish churchyard, next to the Black Horse pub, where busy County Road sweeps round a final bend before meeting the roundabout and  Rice Lane.

This was the heart of the old township of  Walton-on-the-Hill under whose auspices Liverpool was administered until it became an independent parish in 1699.  Walton was an Anglo-Saxon settlement (the name derives from weald+tun and means ‘walled settlement’).  It is mentioned in the Domesday Book when a church was recorded on this site, noted as being made of wattle and daub.  The first stone church was not built until 1362 and it has been rebuilt many times over the centuries.  This was once the parish church, of not only Walton, but of the whole of the town Liverpool.

The present school building, constructed in the local red sandstone, dates from 1613 and replaces an earlier building of 1548. At the beginning of the 17th century, the population of Liverpool numbered barely 2000, but was beginning to build on its potential as a shipping port, with civic efforts producing the first Town Hall and this, the first grammar school of the town, founded by John Crosse of Crosse Hall which stood where the Municipal Buildings are now.  He was a member of the wealthy and influential Liverpool family, after whom Crosshall Street is named.

The provisions of John Crosse’s will were sufficient to finance a chantry priest who would also keep the grammar school. The dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540s disrupted these arrangements, but during the reign of Edward VI it was refounded with a new charter.  The building remained a schoolhouse until the 1820s, by which time it was deemed to small to serve its purpose.

The school must have contributed to rising standards of literacy amongst the merchants of the town. In Liverpool 800, edited by John Belchem, it is suggested that though the majority of the town’s merchants could sign their names by the end of the 16th century, most may still have been ‘operating at the margins of literacy’.

The grammar school that I attended in the early 1960s – King’s School Macclesfield, then a direct-grant grammar – had a similar history, established by John Percyvale, a local man who had made a fortune in London and who endowed a chantry school in his home town, where there were ‘copyous plenty of Children … and vertue right fewe Techers and scolemaisters’, and the scholars would pray daily for his soul. The school was established in 1502, also survived the dissolution, and was re-established in 1552 as ‘the free Grammar School of King Edward VI’.