Conjuring lost lives from the sands of Lunt Meadows

Conjuring lost lives from the sands of Lunt Meadows

Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back

A few miles to the north of Liverpool, on a sandy spur of land on the floodplain of the river Alt, is one of the most significant archaeological sites in Britain. At Lunt Meadows, Ron Cowell, Curator of Prehistory at the Museum of Liverpool, has been directing excavations on a patch of land where some 8000 years ago bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers would regularly pitch camp at different times of the year. Buried deep for thousands of years, the traces left by those people are suggesting new interpretations about the way people of the Mesolithic era organised themselves, and the beliefs that bound them to the natural world and to each other.

One morning this week, as part of this year’s Festival of Archaeology, Ron Cowell showed a group of us around the Lunt Meadows site, spending a generous four hours explaining the significance of his team’s findings and answering questions. Continue reading “Conjuring lost lives from the sands of Lunt Meadows”

L8 Unseen: picturing a state of mind, an idea, a culture

L8 Unseen: picturing a state of mind, an idea, a culture

There’s an engaging photography exhibition showing at the Museum of Liverpool at the moment.  L8 Unseen features twenty arresting large-scale photographs of individuals and groups who have made their home in Liverpool 8, and whose work reflects its vibrant and determined culture. Continue reading “L8 Unseen: picturing a state of mind, an idea, a culture”

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)

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)