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On the waterfront

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Pevsner Architectural Guides: Liverpool By Joseph Sharples. Yale University Press, 2004. £9.99

A city enjoying an unrivalled setting but curiously failing to take advantage of it, with a confusing centre, badly behaved Modern architecture (the university being the main offender), and Frederick Gibberd's Catholic Cathedral (above) the only major modern building of note. Anyone who knows Liverpool would find this a fair summation of the city, at least until the very recent past. These observations, however, come not from the new Pevsner Architectural Guide, Liverpool - the third in Yale's colour-illustrated, paperback city series - but from the original 1969 Pevsner Buildings of England volume, South Lancashire, published by Penguin.

Joseph Sharples, an architectural historian at the University of Liverpool (an institution Pevsner called 'a parasite in the finest domestic part of the city'), has doubled the original Liverpool section but also scaled it back to the 1835 municipal boundary so that only the city centre and inner suburbs are covered in the new guide.

The outer suburbs and former villages, now subsumed by the sprawling north-west conurbation, will appear in the forthcoming revised South Lancashire edition, somewhat confusingly with a different city-centre section written by Richard Pollard, who wrote the docks section for the Liverpool guide. Any updating of a classic, of course, sends one scurrying back to the original, so people could end up buying three books. Clever.

This is not to suggest that Liverpool - despite the city's arrested development - isn't long overdue. It is a superb and erudite read, fluent and engrossing where Pevsner is often clipped and cursory. There may not be a great deal of new architecture to talk about but Sharples takes us behind doors, over walls and under floors. He digs out drawings and dusty tomes, airs details and newly discovered names and dates ignored or not available to his predecessor, and takes a measured view, where Pevsner stood briefly (or sat in his clapped-out car), quietly fulminated and moved quickly on. The distinctive voice can't be replicated, of course, but Sharples makes up for it with verve.

It also has wonderful colour photography, mainly provided by English Heritage, which also funded research. From the first illustration showing the Stakhanovite Memorial to the Heroes of the Marine Engine Room, erected in 1916 at the Pier Head to the engineers of the Titanic, and its highlighting of unsung sculptors, designers, clients and builders as well as more famous architects, Liverpool announces itself as a very different animal from the original Pevsner. Sharples justly celebrates Liverpool's 200-year heritage of progressive public sculpture and statuary, from the Nelson monument of 1807 to 20th-century masterpieces by Frink and Epstein, barely mentioned by Pevsner.

Pevsner, nevertheless, remains the guiding spirit, and Sharples sticks largely to his gazetteer style and structure, and often indeed the script. But he is not afraid to take Pevsner to task. For example, where the latter dismissed the 1912 Adelphi Hotel accusingly as 'big, stone-faced and stodgy', Sharples commends its 'chaste Classicism' and takes us into its once-sumptious interior, redolent of the great liner era.

While Pevsner harrumphs about the university precinct, where post-war growth destroyed a Georgian square and the architects created 'a zoo, with species after species represented', Sharples restores its reputation, pointing out that 'the late Georgian pattern provides a counterpoint to the clamouring individualism of their architecture'.

Liverpool is in the process of reinventing itself but, as Sharples wryly notes, much of its recent architectural vigour has been in small-scale conversions of its past port and commercial buildings legacy. Its future architectural interest resides with two major proposals: a huge shopping centre at Canning Place (site of the first dock and arguably the heart of the city), and the waterfront 'Fourth Grace' building, Alsop's Cloud. Neither of these excites Sharples.

One can only guess what Pevsner would have made of these proposals. 'Modern architecture is as much a matter of visual planning as of detailing, and most architects, if left to themselves, contrive sculptural monuments too strong in their display of personality to be acceptable neighbours, ' he said of Liverpool in 1969; and Sharples would surely think this true of Liverpool today.

Deborah Mulhearn is a journalist in Liverpool

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