- since 2011 -

On the waterfront

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

From Fourth Grace to Museum of Liverpool, featuring chain-smoking Frenchmen, furious Danes and long-suffering Scousers

Is Anderson's Bar, or whatever it's called these days, still there on Exchange Street East down the side of Liverpool's Town Hall? I wouldn't even know. It was here anyway, on Friday 15 November 2002, that I got the scoop on the Fourth Grace that never was.

The ill-fated Fourth Grace

The ill-fated Fourth Grace

I say scoop, I mean soft soap, from the architectural practice which would ultimately win the coveted right to build a new 'iconic' waterfront building which they planned on christening The Cloud. It never happened of course - almost a decade on and we have the Museum of Liverpool instead - but how the process got so far beggars belief.

So, Friday 15 November. Downstairs in Anderson's, heaving at lunchtime. As editor of a 'lifestyle' mag called Space I'd been invited by the Alsop Consortium to learn more about their vision. They were one of four shortlisted architects - the others being Edward Cullinan, Norman Foster and Richard Rogers - whose proposed schemes were on show in a public exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery.

I'd interviewed Rogers that very morning at Albert Dock, but my Stone Age dictaphone had packed in and nothing he said had seemed memorable. Alsop, or rather his team (evidently Will couldn't be arsed attending), were a different matter.

The man who managed their charm offensive was a Frenchman called Christophe Egret, who lit cigarettes and ran his fingers through his hair as if he were on the Left Bank, which in hindsight didn't bode well. Around him sat the chief developer, whose name escapes me, and an eager young fellow from the practice, and me.

They were good company, polite and persuasive. I was impressed. These were the days of optimism and excitement, potential and possibilities. In Space I referenced what had been done to great waterfronts elsewhere: the new piers and tree-shaded walkways of the Hudson River Park in New York; the cruise-ship terminal and designer skyline of Barcelona; and Shanghai's Pudong peninsula, redeveloped by the Richard Rogers Partnership opposite the historic Bund waterfront that looks a bit like the Pier Head if you squint a bit from 74 miles away.

Conclusions drawn at a Harvard University conference entitled Waterfronts in Post Industrial Cities:

  1. There is an enduring, even eternal, dimension to a city's waterfront as it bears witness and often takes the brunt of the ebbs and flows of a city's prosperity.
  2. Despite undergoing periodic and sometimes rapid change, a waterfront maintains for its bordering city some inherent and unalterable stability.
  3. A city's waterfront cannot be thought about as a thin line. The broader the zone of overlap between land and water the more successfully a city captures the benefits of its water assets.
  4. Most cities possess one great linear avenue along their waterfronts, but they should also consider perpendiculars to the water's edge - figuratively, blurring the suddenness of the edge.
  5. To compete globally may involved re-casting, rather than more narrowly preserving, a city's waterfront image. They must become places for people to dwell, not just visit or recreate.
  6. Visits to many cities located on major bodies leave indelible images of place and forestall the 'this could be anywhere' syndrome of much current urban development.
  7. Every waterfront city can aspire to be called superb. Human instincts to preserve and reinvent are acted out in the passion play of waterfront revitalisation. And this is an eternal dynamic.
  8. The tactics of urban planning at the waterfront should be a bit like that of the tide: scouring, reshaping yet miraculously sustaining the shore.

Egret announced that they were going to build something that was "totally Liverpool and never been seen before." How was I to know that, for 'Liverpool' and 'been seen before' we'd end up inserting 'make-believe' and 'going to see the light of day'?

"What is important," said Egret, only with a more convincing Gallic accent than mine, "is that this is like the new member of the family. It respects the size of the three existing Graces, it doesn't over-dominate them. It's the fourth, then maybe one day there'll be a fifth, then a sixth."

The 'Graces' from the ferry

The 'Graces' from the ferry

Talk about a moot point. People who should know better bang on about the sacred significance of these so-called Three Graces. They claim that, at the beginning of the last century, Liverpool's mandarins intended there to be three - and only three - stately buildings on Liverpool's Pier Head and that to add more would cause a rupture in the space-time continuum, possibly. (The source material of course being the Three Graces from Greek mythology, daughters of Zeus called Euphrosyne, Aglaea and Thalia who represented beauty, purity and joy, and were painted by Raphael and Rubens and set in neoclassical marble by the sculptor Antonio Canova).

Pure revisionism. They've only been called the 'Three Graces' since the 1990s at the earliest. And well before then came this heathen forecast: 'What is the vision of the future then? One sees, I think, a great series of tall buildings along the riverfront as the old docks get filled up, backed by others'.

What kind of a heretic, nay philistine, would say that? Only Charles Reilly, revered professor at the University of Liverpool's School of Architecture, way back in 1928, in a guide to the city published 12 years after the completion of the last of the three buildings, for Cunard's new HQ.

The 1920s imagining of a future Liverpool waterfront

The 1920s imagining of a future Liverpool waterfront

When the Cunard, Port of Liverpool and Royal Liver Buildings went up, this was a modern city on an upward construction curve. Accompanying Reilly's words was an artist's impression of a future waterfront crammed with large buildings 'of different heights and sizes, like the three there already' and 'a sense of unity and order by means of two great office towers symbolising together the Gateway of Europe from the West. It is a fine idea. Some day it will be realised...'

The academic author Christopher Crouch, in his own far more recent book Design Culture in Liverpool 1880-1914, describes the drawing thus: 'Large buildings of loosely defined functions (offices, hotels) line the riverfront creating an architectural fantasy illustrating a conception of an ideal city form. Designed to be viewed from the river, the development takes on the air of a stage set for the future...'

It was, he concludes, 'a symmetrical and harmonious fantasy supposed to be the City Beautiful, the complete and perfect metropolis, inevitably doomed to exist only in fragments.' Or, as we've since dubbed them, the Three Graces.

Anyway, back to Alsop's Fourth Grace. Three weeks after that lunchtime in Anderson's they got the nod and everyone went spare. The development agency Liverpool Vision recommended its preferred choice via a press release which I've still got. Listen to these quotes from it, they're great...

"This is a dramatic and innovative design with the potential to become an international landmark on a par with the Sydney Opera House" (Liverpool Vision chair Sir Joe Dwyer).

"We have chosen the most radical concept - a design as original and thought-provoking as the Three Graces were in their day. This bold choice comes after a stimulating and mature debate...it will send out a message that Liverpool is a truly 21st century city with global ambition" (leader of Liverpool City Council, Mike Storey).

"It offers a state-of-the-art new cultural attraction that will draw people to the waterfront...but critically it is also a technically and commercially robust scheme which can be delivered" (some fella from the North West Development Agency).

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call 'shite'. The notes at the bottom of the press release analysed people's preferences at the aforementioned Walker exhibition: Foster 29.5%; Rogers 26%; Cullinan 26%; Alsop 18.5%. So much for the popular vote.

The emails read out on BBC TV's North West Tonight reflected this public vote in which The Cloud had come last in a four-horse race. 'A disastrous carbuncle'... 'How on earth could they have picked that?'... 'A monster that belongs in a fairground'... 'Never mind the Fourth Grace - it's a dis-grace'... And so on.

Naturally the nationals took the mickey. Guardian architecture critic Deyan Sudjic called Alsop's £225 million scheme a 'custard pie thrown in the city's face' that 'ambushed the imperial relics of Liverpool's past like something out of War of the Worlds'.

With some prescience Sudjic warned: 'Liverpool hired [Alsop] because it wanted a building with the impact of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao which triggered a burst of irrational architectural exuberance that already looks out of date... In a darkening economic and political climate, Alsop's design could be the last gasp of an architectural movement whose time has already passed'.

A year later, after The Cloud had been canned due to spiralling costs, Sudjic wrote in The Observer: 'The really pressing question that Liverpool needs to consider is whether it really needs any more iconic buildings, or any more museums for that matter... It is concentrating on the iconic idea of itself, rather than engaging with its existing and potentially glorious urban fabric'.

The plea, which fell on deaf ears, was Sudjic's reaction to news that the site was not dead in the water, or rather on the waterfront, but earmarked instead for a brand new Museum of Liverpool. From the start, given the city's record in project delivery - especially in this prime location - you felt the odds were stacked against it. But slowly, surely, wheels began to turn.

Editing Space at the time, I was in a privileged position, getting invites to all sort of events. National Museums Liverpool liked us because we gave them lots of positive coverage. I received a letter from them dated 30 January 2006, reassuring stakeholders that the new Museum would still go ahead despite the Heritage Lottery Fund's decision not to fund the fitting-out of its galleries.

Another NML letter, dated 5 November 2006, joyously announced that the North West Regional Development Agency had released a grant of £32.7m to fund the building element. Just over a week later came a black-tie dinner, for a broad cross-section of Liverpool society, at the Town Hall.

A briefing note introduced guests to 'a type of museum which is still relatively uncommon - a city history museum... Worldwide there is now an expanding interest in urban history in museums as the dominance of cities continues to grow... [It] will be an exemplar for city museums across the world'.

It sounded great. I was impressed, again.

The new Museum of Liverpool

The new Museum of Liverpool

When images were first released to the papers, wags likened the Museum's X-shaped design to a skateboard park, a Star Wars spaceship and even a vacuum cleaner. Danish architects 3XN, who were selected from a shortlist of seven including Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid, envisaged 'a dynamic, open and democratic structure that grows out of the chosen site'.

There was a private presentation at World Museum in which NML director David Fleming insisted there had "always been a desire that this city should have a big museum about itself... The Fourth Grace was a symbol of a modern city regenerating itself, and that included a rather negative reaction. It was always going to be high-risk. The job of National Museums Liverpool now is to create something positive out of it - what to do with this prime, pivotal site."

He heralded "a chance to create Liverpool's first 21st Century architectural masterpiece... We're quite bullish about this, building something that might be a shock." And he described 3XN as "really clever, intelligent, they haven't come here to sell us a line... We got the feeling we'd get great quality from them."

Plenty of hands went up for the subsequent question time which over-ran - confirmation, if it were needed, of the Liverpool public's sense of ownership in the project and emotional investment in their city. There were queries about deliverability and accessibility, both generally and for disabled visitors.

Would it reanimate the whole Pier Head area as a truly public place? Yes, and the museum would be alive in the evening. Would it really matter if it wasn't finished by 2008? No, some of it would be open and the area would no longer be a building site. Would it obscure any of the existing Pier Head buildings? No, it'd be roughly the same height as the Albert Dock.

In hindsight, would it be worth the shuddering fall-outs with both the architects 3XN and the Friends of NML that heaped ridicule on the city again amid all sorts of accusations and allegations (which I'd read about online, slack-jawed, from afar)? We'd just have to wait and see.

'The man who managed their charm offensive was a Frenchman called Christophe Egret, who lit cigarettes and ran his fingers through his hair as if he were on the Left Bank, which in hindsight didn't bode well'


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All Play and No work

Peel on wheels

Walk on Water

Blue jays over Botetourt

Golden Virginia

Georgia on my mind

Strange Magic

Nurse Gosling's book of verse

Titanic 2.0

Love for sail

Bex maniacs

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

Wings of desire

World cities works of art: some offcuts

World cities: some works of art

'I have no idea what other people do'

Raiders of the well looked-after Ark

Railroad blues

Blog on the grog

Did you hear that too?

A cherub astride a what?

A time to dance

Ghosts of Mount Urgull

Postcard from San Sebastian

El Camino, with knobs on

'Of the city, by the city, for the city'

Guggenheim Bilbao: as good as it gets?

Still small voice

On the waterfront

Raise the botanic

Old man of the sea

What a carve up

Gates to the city

Brand of hope and glory

Two of a kind

Kingdoms of Heaven

Green and serene

Seville for divvies

Ride a Black Swan

The pub on the beach

On Savannah and Charleston

Still chasing the birds

The Liverpolitan
Published at Brighter Design
Unit 26A, Britannia Pavilion,
Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4AD

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