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Museum of Liverpool, Mann Island, Liverpool by 3XN/AEW

From its ill-thought out commission, to its flawed execution, the Museum of Liverpool dispels the myth of the once heralded ‘Bilbao effect’, writes Rory Olcayto

In 2004, the full force of the ‘Bilbao effect’ hit the west coast of Britain like a stormfront spiralling out from the Bay of Biscay. The term, coined to describe urban renewal centred around iconic architecture and inspired by Frank Gehry’s spectacular Guggenheim Museum in the forgotten Spanish Basque city, was the buzzword echoing through the chambers of Britain’s Atlantic port cities. Each of them - Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow - were eager to reproduce the success that the wily Canadian architect had brought to their continental cousin.

Gehry’s museum signposted a remarkable regeneration that encompassed new bridges, metro lines and a fantastic airport by Santiago Calatrava. Virtually overnight, Bilbao had become one of Europe’s hottest tourist spots. The quest to build an icon was on.

Today, those cities have their starchitect-designed buildings, but none of them rank alongside Gehry’s showstopper. What has become very clear in the intervening years, and is most evident in 3XN’s Museum of Liverpool, a landmark civic building is only as good as the vision behind it and the process used to commission it.

So Bristol now has its M-Shed, but as Bristol City Council backtracked under public pressure over its appointment of LAB Architecture - famed for the riotous facade of its Federation Square project in Melbourne - to design a new city museum, the result is a retrofitted transit shed with LAB’s ideas hidden inside, limited to a memorable staircase rather than fully explored in an ambitious new build. (AJ 07.07.11)

In Glasgow, city leaders chose Zaha Hadid to design the Riverside Museum of Transport, but then largely left their star alone to design and oversee construction. The finished project is not so different from the original vision: a beautiful building, but difficult to get to because the client didn’t think hard enough about urban design. (AJ 08.06.11) And it is why Liverpool’s icon, an X-wing configuration of sloping rooflines, corrugated facades, and cinema screen windows, is so disappointing, especially given its Unesco World Heritage Site, neighbouring Three Graces and central location.

Liverpool

The ‘largest National Museum to be built in the UK in over 100 years’ was planned to open in time for the city’s coronation as a European Capital of Culture in 2008. Which begs the question, who thought such a building would be best commissioned on the basis of a couple of sketches?

Incredibly, that was how the client, National Museums Liverpool (NML) appointed Copenhagen-based 3XN, which beat off competition from a typical starchitect hitlist including Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind and David Chipperfield, as well as fellow Scandinavians Snøhetta, to design the coveted icon.

This flippant approach to procurement is not only the fault of thoughtless civic leaders, however. Starchitects themselves refuse to challenge the myth of inspired doodles on business class napkins and have been only too happy to collude with the notion of effortless speed-of-light talent.

Perhaps even more astonishing in Liverpool’s case, is that the teams were left in the dark about what kind of museum they should sketch. ‘Not’, Deyan Sudjic warned in the Observer at the time, ‘the best way of achieving either a satisfactory museum or great piece of architecture.’

This vagueness resulted from the collapse of Will Alsop’s Cloud project, dating from a 2002 competition to design a fourth Grace. The mixed-use project was to contain an undesignated museum of Liverpool, but was scrapped two years later (see timeline below, click to enlarge), only to be revived within months in reduced form, as an errant starchitect sketch-off.

The building is now complete, albeit three years after the Capital of Culture party. Evidence that something has gone drastically, comically wrong is immediately apparent: the museum’s Waterfront Cafe faces the city, not the Mersey.

timeline

But what a city Liverpool is. The route leading to this back-to-front landmark is to be savoured, unlike Glasgow’s Clydeside icon for example, which is barred by motorways and undeveloped land. A journey on foot from Lime Street Station leads through what Owen Hatherley, in The New Ruins of Great Britain, says is the ‘most thrilling urban environment in England outside of London’, encompassing Peter Ellis’ ‘Steampunk experiment’ of the 1864 Oriel Chambers, the ‘Czech Cubism’ of Bradshaw Rowse and Harker’s HSBC corner block, and the Tower and Liver buildings by Walter Aubrey Thomas.

To Hatherley’s list, it is not unreasonable to add the remarkable - contemporary - Liverpool One district. Masterplanned by BDP (AJ 15.10.09), it compares favourably with the city’s historic townscape. The route down Paradise Street, which leads to the new museum, has the same grandeur, quality of detail and controlled variety found in Liverpool’s Victorian promenades. It is from here that you will catch the first glimpses of the ill-fated icon and its janus-faced ski-slope profile, first developed from 3XN’s director Kim Nielson’s competition-winning sketches.

Before you reach the entrance, you must first negotiate Broadway Malyan’s ‘Three Black Coffins’, an office and housing development that shares a faceted landscape-like form with the museum. They should be read alongside the much-reviled ferry terminal by Hamilton Architects (an extruded concrete polygon that, like its neighbours, must have been smuggled through planning) and with the angular, AECOM-design landscaping of Mann Island that incorporates a canal and amphitheatres and acres of CAD-inspired public realm.

In its own way, this ensemble is as important as the Graces, or the warehouses of Albert Dock in marking cultural and economic trends, but without the requisite quality. Thankfully, the older townscape - tough, imperial, daunting - maintains the upper hand.

It’s too easy to write off 3XN’s design as Maxxi knock-off, but the temptation is clearly there, in the way the widescreen windows sit on overhangs learing outwards over the river and across to the Graces. In going up against Zaha in the sketch-off, her sway was clearly in the mix. Nielsen, a canny, client-aware designer, was more probably influenced by the Scandinavian fascination with landscape-as-building, typified by shortlist rivals Snøhetta, whose finely judged Oslo Opera House is a far superior take on the idea.

Moving inside, the central ground-floor reception, with galleries either side, is dominated by a huge spiral staircase that leads to another two floors. Again, there is a sense of comedic error. The circular geometry is at odds with the exterior form and lacks the protruding skylight visible in Ben Johnson’s magnificent painting of the city shown elsewhere in the museum. Johnson based his painting on earlier designs, before a cost-saving plan was enacted. Without the crowning lightwell, the experience is badly compromised by a grid of BSF-style ceiling tiles that make you want to look away.

The galleries are worse. The ones that are open - the first floor is still being fitted out - are badly lit and overstuffed with interactive exhibits with unclear routes around them. On a busy day, it’s simply not worth the hassle. There are lots of facts about trade, football, music, tales of immigration and working class life, but given the spatial experience, I was left thinking that I’d rather just read a book.

There are some good architectural exhibits to enjoy. The Ben Johnson painting is an engaging pop art pleasure and there is a huge model of Edwin Lutyens’ never-built Catholic Cathedral, although as with all the exhibits in the widescreen window galleries, this is badly obscured by contrast and forms a major impediment to looking outwards. There is also a presentation of John Lennon’s early life, in the form of models of each floor of his suburban childhood home, and a fascinating homage to the Gerard Gardens social housing project.

Outside there are yet more disappointments. Plant access doors mar the waterfront elevations and the walk-on landscape concept of the original sketch has been lost under a pile of DDA access ramps introduced when executive architect AEW replaced 3XN in 2007 and the client lost its nerve.

The textured, wave-like, limestone cladding is the best thing about the building. It is the only rigourously-managed architectural element, and you could imagine the way it catches the sun, or the way it leads the eye across its surface, might inspire fond memories in the future in adults who remember visiting the building as kids. Might. But one comment card, left under a sign marked, ‘Tell us what you think’ and clearly written by a child reads: ‘It’s a bit boring… Soz just went to sleep.’ You might want to call that the ‘Liverpool effect’.

Credits

Start on site April 2007
Completion July 2011
Gross internal floor area 10,000m²
Form of contract JCT Standard
Total cost £44 million (excluding fees)
Cost per square metre £4,400 (excluding fees)
Client National Museums Liverpool
Creative architect 3XN
Executive and lead architect AEW Architects
Structural engineer Buro Happold
M&E consultant Buro Happold
Quantity surveyor Turner & Townsend
Project manager Mott MacDonald and Mace
Exhibition designers Haley Sharpe Design & Redman Design LLP
Lighting designer Reed
Lighting consultant Sutton Vane Associates
Acoustics consultant Peter Key
Access consultant Vision Sense
Hard landscaping Adana Construction
Visitor experience masterplan BRC Imagination Arts
Exhibition system/display cases Protean/ClickNetherfield
Main contractor Pihl Galliford Try joint venture
CDM co-ordinator Patton Heritage
Planning consultant Drivers Jonas
Approved building inspector Liverpool City Council

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