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. Continue reading “Visiting the Reichstag: the ghosts of history”


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

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

Greenwich 1

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.

Greenwich 2

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.

Greenwich 3

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!

Greenwich foot tunnel entrancea

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.

Greenwich 5

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.

Greenwich 9

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.

Greenwich 8

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.

Greenwich 7


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.

Greenwich 6

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

See also

The suffocation of a park in Brussels: a 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. Continue reading “The suffocation of a park in Brussels: a metaphor for our time”

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.

Image result for liverpool custom house

Custom House from Canning Dock 1891. Source: Liverpool And Merseyside Remembered

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 preserve 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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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 Day visits to a Greek Orthodox church and Liverpool’s oldest building

Heritage Open Day visits to a Greek Orthodox church and Liverpool’s oldest building

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. The next day I visited  Walton Old Grammar School, one of Liverpool’s oldest surviving buildings. Continue reading “Heritage Open Day visits to a Greek Orthodox church and Liverpool’s oldest building”

The Temple of a Thousand Bells

This morning we went to see the installation by Brazilian artist Laura Belém which is the first of this year’s Biennial artworks to be opened to the public.  It’s on display at the Oratory, next to the Anglican cathedral, a Grade I listed building that is only rarely open to the public.

It consists of one thousand suspended glass bells, with sound accompaniment telling of an ancient legend of a temple of a thousand bells that was built on an island.  I have to say, it looks better in the photographs than in reality.  I think the solidity and formality of the surrounding memorials overwhelms the installation.  The bells look plasticky (I am surprised that they are, apparently, made of glass), and it doesn’t look like there really are a thousand bells.  However, if you watch the Vimeo video (link below), you’ll discover they are glass (there’s an interview with the glass-blower, so apologies to him) and it is confirmed that there are a thousand.

The Biennial website explains:

It is a free adaptation of an ancient legend, the story of an island temple whose most remarkable and distinctive feature was its endowment of a thousand bells. Allegedly, the sound of these bells could be heard by travellers crossing the sea even at a great distance from the island. Over the centuries, the island sank into the ocean, and so did the temple and its bells. But the island and its shrine are not completely forgotten, as shown by the unremitting attempts of a sailor to hear again the music of the sunken bells. Although their sound has long vanished into the depths of the ocean and his undertaking seems pointless, the man does not give up trying and obsessively pursues his search.

The artist cannot guarantee that the lost music of these bells (possibly symbolising our continuous and somehow frustrated quest for spirituality) will be heard during the exhibition period. But traces of their sound might find a resonance in the ears and hearts of those who are most able to open themselves to their surroundings and interpret silence.

The Oratory is the former chapel of St James’s Cemetery, the former burial ground which once occupied the rocky hollow on the east side of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral now called St. James Gardens.  This hollow was originally a quarry and provided the stone from which the Town Hall and other 18th century public buildings in the city were constructed. By the 1820s, however, it was exhausted and a proposal was made to adapt it as a cemetery, Liverpool’s only public cemetery at that date being the non-denominational Necropolis at Low Hill, opened in 1825.

Work began on the new St James’s Cemetery in 1826 and the architect John Foster was appointed to design the necessary buildings and to lay out the ground.  The Liverpool Museums website elaborates:

Through his imaginative use of a unique site Foster created a cemetery of real dramatic grandeur. He transformed the east wall of the quarry into a sequence of broad ramps lined with catacombs cut into the rock face; these led down to the burial ground itself, laid out with winding paths and planted with trees. On the high ground to the north west, overlooking this sunken area, Foster built the Oratory (foundation stone laid 1827) and a house for the minister (later demolished to make way for the Cathedral), while at the south west corner he provided a monumental entrance arch and a porter’s lodge. The cemetery was opened on 13 January 1829 but Foster designed one more addition to it, the small circular temple which marks the grave of William Huskisson (1770 – 1830), the Liverpool MP killed at the opening of the Liverpool-Manchester railway.

The purpose of the Oratory was to accommodate funeral services before burials took place in the cemetery, but it was also used as a kind of cenotaph for housing monuments to the dead.

Following the closure of the cemetery in 1936 the Oratory fell into disuse. In 1980 Merseyside County Council assumed responsibility for its care and carried out major repairs. In 1986 it became part of the newly formed National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside. Further important funeral monuments from elsewhere have now been added to the original collection, including some from demolished churches on Merseyside, making the Oratory into a gallery of 19th century sculpture.


Penny Lane: thoughts in the barbers

Penny Lane – there is a barber showing photographs
Of every head he’s had the pleasure to have known
And all the people that come and go
Stop and say hello…

I was having a trim today in the Penny Lane barber shop and I thought my hair would have grown another inch before the cut was finished.  Not a complaint: the reason was that the place was invaded by tourists, including a Japanese couple, keen to step inside the famous barber’s, take photos and buy memorabilia.  So the hairdresser had to keep breaking off from my trim.  When the rush had subsided we got to chatting about the sorry state of the old bus shelter in the middle of the roundabout and the strange failure of the authorities to capitalise on tourists’ interest in the Penny Lane area. Amazingly, she said that when she had phoned the City Council to raise these issues, the newly-appointed tourism officer had asked where Penny Lane was!

We both agreed that signs and plaques could be placed in the vicinity to identify the main points of interest from the Beatles’ song for tourists.  But the main problem is the sorry state of the former bus shelter which presents a very poor impression to visitors.

Penny Lane – the barber shaves another customer
We see the banker sitting waiting for a trim
Then the fireman rushes in
From the pouring rain…
Very strange

When Lennon and McCartney lived locally, Penny Lane was the terminus for trams and buses from the city.  In the video for the ‘Penny Lane’ single, released in 1967, there are shots of the old green rear platform number 46 bus with its destination sign that reads ‘Penny Lane’ (although, in reality, the destination is Smithdown Place – but no-one ever calls it that).  Originally the building was used as a tram stop and inspectors’ office, with public toilets added to the rear of the building.  When the building closed as a transport facility in 1990, it was redeveloped as Sgt Peppers cafe, decorated with Beatles photographs, artwork, posters and memorabilia.  In 2006 owner Ray Maatook closed it, saying the limited size of the premises made it uneconomic to operate as a going concern; in addition, the Beatles tours that passed by didn’t stop there because there was nowhere for coaches to park.

A year later Maatook put in a planning application to extend the cafe by adding an upper floor to the former tram stop, and increase the floor space to attract more diners and visitors on the Beatles trail.  The Council rejected the proposal, arguing that an upper extension on what was built as a single storey structure could create a feature out of keeping with the street-scene around Penny Lane.

Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout
A pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray
And though she feels as if she’s in a play
She is anyway…

So the building has been standing empty and increasingly forlon-looking for four years now.  There were hopeful signs last June when the Daily Post reported on Council plans to create a Penny Lane Beatles quarter to revitalise the area the area.  Specially-made signs would be put up along the two-mile route giving information about the quarter, and there was talk of  a more cafe-orientated district, with widened walkways and a major facelift to an area of derelict land on Penny Lane itself.

The Post reported that the Penny Lane Development Trust had secured £760,000 of Big Lottery funding to refurbish a run-down and disused building on the site,which would feature local art and provide access for coaches visiting Penny Lane.  There were plans for a gift shop and a Beatles museum to bring more music tourists to the area. Meanwhile, Ray Maatook had submitted revised plans for the extension to the building which would be less obtrusive. I wonder whether any of these ideas will come to fruition?

On the corner is a banker with a motorcar
The little children laugh at him behind his back
And the banker never wears a mac
In the pouring rain…
Very strange

Ray Johnson, a manager for Magical Mystery Tour, said last year: ‘Penny Lane is a very ordinary part of Liverpool, but also very important, as it was part of the Beatles’ early career. This is where they got their inspiration to write songs.  It’s changed now, of course – the barber’s is now a modern salon and Martin’s bank became TSB.  It’s one of the most iconic streets in the whole world and every year tourists see a sign, and that’s it.’

Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes
There beneath the blue suburban skies
I sit, and meanwhile back
In Penny Lane there is a fireman with an hourglass
And in his pocket is a portrait of the Queen.
He likes to keep his fire engine clean
It’s a clean machine

The fire station isn’t actually on Penny Lane  – or Smithdown Place – but over a mile away at the junction of Mather Avenue and Rose Lane.  A little bit of artistic licence there by Paul McCartney. More artistic licence was shown by the Beatles when they filmed the promo video for ‘Penny Lane’:  although there are some shots of the green 46 bus and a brief overhead view of the ‘shelter in the middle of the roundabout’, the street scenes with the Beatles were filmed in  London’s East End and the sequence of John walking alone was filmed on the King’s Road.  The other outdoor scenes were filmed at Knole Park in Sevenoaks.

Bioletti’s barber shop as it was in 1971 – see the comment from Dave Robertson below.  In The Beatles Anthology, Paul says:

‘The  lyrics were all based on real things.  There was a barber called something like Biletti (I think he’s actually still therein Penny Lane) who, like all barbers, had pictures of the haircuts you could choose.  But instead of saying ‘The barber with pictures of haircuts in his windows’ it was changed to: ‘Every head he’s had the pleasure to have known’.  A barber showing photographs – like an exhibition.  It was twisting it to a slightly more artsy angle, more like a play.  Like the nurse who’s selling poppies from a tray for Remembrannce Day.  Then ‘she feels as if she’s in a play’ – which ‘she is anyway’.  These were all trippy little ideas we were trying to get in.

A lot of our formative years were spent walking around those places.  Penny Lane was the depot I had to change buses at to get from my house to John’s and to a lot of my friends.  It was a big bus terminal which we all knew very well.  I sang in the choir at St. Barnabas Church opposite.  It’s part fact, part nostalgia for a great place – blue suburban skies, as we remember it, and it’s still there.  ‘

Mann Island catastrophe

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.

(Liverpool Daily Post)

Another Irish ruin

Yesterday I wrote about JG Farrell’s haunting novel Troubles.  No-one who has read that book can ever forget the decayed splendour of the Majestic Hotel. Today, as on almost every day, I passed an Irish ruin in the heart of Liverpool – the Irish Centre on Mount Pleasant. This was once a vibrant musical and social venue: I recall seeing world music events here, and attending many trade union and left-wing social events in the rather shabby and rambling building.

Empty and decaying since the late 1990s, the Irish Centre is a grade II listed Georgian building which began life in 1816 as the Wellington Rooms, where the merchant elite of the city held balls and parties. The Wellington Rooms were designed by Edmund Akin as assembly rooms for the Wellington Club in 1815-1816. It was built with the purpose of providing a venue for balls and other entertainment and was designed to attract Liverpool’s most ‘respectable and fashionable’ residents.

So how did it become the Irish Centre?  The Wellington Club was wound up in 1923 but the Rooms continued to function as a social club and place of entertainment throughout the 20th Century, being known in succession as the Embassy Rooms, Rodney Rooms and Rodney Youth Centre. Meanwhile, the Liverpool Irish community, that by the turn of the twentieth century constituted nearly a quarter of  the city’s people, had began to establish cultural centres and associations, and a number of organisations and venues in the city gave support to Irish music and dance. In 1957 a Liverpool branch of Comhaltas Céoltoirí Eireann (Association of Irish Musicians) was established which set about promoting the performance of Irish traditional music and song through organised classes, music sessions and competitive events. In 1964 the Irish Centre opened in the former Wellington Rooms, which became a base for Irish dance classes, the Liverpool Céilí Band and the Comhaltas Céoltoirí Eireann branch.

The Irish Centre closed in the late 1990s and on several occasions in the past decade it has been reported that New Dimensions Properties, which took over the 99-year lease in 2000,  was seeking to attract funding to meet the £2 million redevelopment costs, in order to reopen the building. For example, in 2006 New Dimensions announced a plan for a 60-bedroom hotel which would have straddled the existing building with a metal structure, with the hotel sitting above. The city planners objected, as did English Heritage, because building on top of the existing structure was considered unsympathetic.

The Georgian Group commented:

Although keen to see a new use for the building, we are alarmed by the plans currently on the table, which would necessitate adding floors to these modestly scaled, single-storey assembly rooms. The intervention would not only terminally alter the character of the Wellington Rooms, one of Liverpool’s finest Greek Revival buildings; it would also damage the picturesque skyline in this elevated part of the historic city. There is also a serious question mark about the wisdom, in structural terms, of loading additional floors on top of the relatively fragile ballroom.

Another plan, by Liverpool City Council, was to save the centre by making it the home of the North West National Dance Centre. The Council was reported to be entering negotiations to compulsorily purchase the building so it could be turned into a dance studio with dance and theatre rehearsal space, studios and facilities for dancers to meet and perform.

Liverpool City Council, which owns the freehold of the site and also has statutory responsibilities for the listed building, has served a number of notices on the leaseholder, in order to try and arrest the serious outbreak of dry rot. Temporary eradication measures and emergency roof repairs have been carried out, but the fine interiors with ornamental plaster work continue to be at risk. The cause of the Wellington Rooms has also been taken up by Liverpool Echo’s ‘Stop the Rot’ campaign and is a national priority for The Georgian Group.

This painting of the Irish Centre is by local artist Jane Adams, who has painted many of Liverpool’s architectural landmarks: ‘Our personal histories are anchored in our geography and a snapshot of a particular place can spark strong memories and emotions’.

Renaissance in Liverpool

Renaissance in Liverpool

Opening her concert programme at the grand opening today of Hope University’s Capstone Building, Joanna MacGregor explained why she had chosen to kick off with a piece by Renaissance composer, William Byrd. She was inspired, she said, by the Angel Field Renaissance Garden that will soon open alongside The Capstone to complete Hope University’s Creative Campus in Everton.

Capstone Theatre

It’s certainly a renaissance for this part of Everton, transformed in the last few years from an area of derelict buildings dominated by the old St Francis Xavier school (SFX) and the Gothic facade of the Collegiate. The first step in the development of the campus to house Hope University’s Creative and Performing Arts departments was the transformation of the SFX building into The Cornerstone, home to the annual Cornerstone Festival and the Cornerstone Art Gallery. Meanwhile, across the road, the Collegiate has been redeveloped by Urban Splash to house high-quality serviced apartments, retaining the Gothic facade.

And continuing the renaissance theme – scouser Winifred Robinson on BBC radio 4’s You and Yours today, presented a feature on the new Museum of Liverpool, reckoned to be the largest national museum built in the UK for more than a century, which has now been handed over by the construction company for fitting out before opening in 2011.  The museum will demonstrate Liverpool’s unique contribution to the world and showcase popular culture and social, historical and contemporary issues. It occupies a prominent position in the UNESCO World Heritage site between the Albert Dock and the Pier Head, next to The Three Graces of the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building and Harbour Board.

For some, this has made the development controversial.  The building is in stark contrast to the Three Graces, and is conceived by its Danish architects as inclined or elevated platforms, forming a sculptural structure. Personally, I think that, with its high-quality limestone cladding, it is a fine addition to the waterfront. I don’t see why neo-classical buildings can only be joined by more of the same. Today’s radio broadcast also whetted the appetite for seeing the interior of the building: there is a spiral staircase that soars from a grand entrance lobby (above) and a third floor picture-window view of the Three Graces that is, apparaently, stunning.

Nevertheless, sometimes the loss of a distinctive view must be mourned. The view (below) of the Three Graces from the Albert Dock, looking across Canning Dock, is no more: obscured by a large apartment block, clad in black reflective glass. It’s not an unattractive building, but a famous view is gone.

Returning to the Joanna MacGregor recital:  having seen her several times now in different configurations, I think that this was her most electric performance. She was inaugurating the new Steinway grand piano, and after the highlight of the show – an amazing rendition of George Crumb’s A Little Suite for Christmas AD 1979, in which the pianist is required to hammer, pound, pluck, stroke and strum the instrument inside and out – she assured us that ‘no piano had been harmed in the process’. Later, though, the piano was subjected to an extraordinary pummelling in the Six Tangos by Astor Piazzolla. Leaving a friend remarked, ‘never buy a used piano off Joanna MacGregor!’

Joanna MacGregor – who is now Professor of Musical Performance at Hope – is always educative in her introductions to pieces. No less so this evening. Introducing Byrd’s Hugh Ashton’s Ground, she explained how her piano arrangement aimed to capture the original’s weaving together of several voices over a ground, creating a set of variations each one more complex than the one preceding. She spoke about how the George Crumb Suite was inspired by his first visit to the early 14th century Arena Chapel in Padua and the exquisitely beautiful Nativity frescoes by Giotto.

The concert continued with Six Mazurkas by Chopin, selected from the 58 short pieces MacGregor said, to reflect the range of moods and emotions captured in them. She remarked on their blazingly pro-Polish character (Schumann described them as  ‘cannons buried in flowers’) and noted both Chopin and Piazzolla were exiles from their native land – Chopin a political exile, Piazzolla born in Argentina but brought up (by parents who were in the Mafia!) in New York.

The performance took place in the Hope Theatre, which feels a lot like the smaller theatre at the RNCM in Manchester. If the plan is to stage similar concerts to those at the RNCM, I will be mightily pleased. The Grand Opening brochure does seem to suggest that the Phil’s 10/10 Ensemble performances will take place here.

‘Before the Everyman theatre became a national success in the seventies, Hope Hall, or ‘The Hopey,’ was the much loved venue for poets, actors and musicians. Now there is renewed hope, the Hope Theatre in the Capstone building on Shaw Street. Spacey but intimate, warm and yet cool.’
– Roger McGough

‘Liverpool Hope is opening up new and exciting opportunities not only for the residents of Everton but for all those interested in the arts.’
– Jimmy McGovern, writer, Old Xaverian and Friend of Hope at Everton