NEWS ANALYSIS: The latest of a number of Millennium projects to fail, the much-admired Merseyside visitor facility is closed and decaying. Richard Waite asks: what went wrong?
The National Wildflower Centre in Knowsley is a sad, rotting mess. Hodder and Partners’ tragically decomposing 160m-long visitor centre at the heart of a larger complex in Court Hey Park, east of Liverpool city centre, is less than two decades old.
Last month the cash-strapped charity Landlife, which ran the centre since its opening in 2001, went into liquidation and now this award-winning, ‘inhabited wall’ looks set to hit the scrap heap alongside a slew of New Labour’s other lottery-funded Millennium projects.
Its demise follows other flops such as the Earth Centre in Doncaster and Sheffield’s National Centre for Popular Music (now accommodating a students’ union), although, admittedly, it lasted significantly longer than both.
Indeed, the centre’s concrete structure remains strong and (with a bit of a clean) visually striking. However, even on a cursory investigation, it is clear that the building is afflicted with problems which go deeper than the cosmetic.
The roof leaks, and has done so to varying extents for years. Huge floor-to-ceiling double-glazed window units have failed. The fire escape stairs have rotted. And the lift up to the impressively long, ‘elevated boardwalk’ seems to have stopped working soon after the building opened in April 2001.
Steve Hodder had the foresight to ignore the submission rules. It was a bold decision to risk elimination for what we wanted to create
So how has such a highly regarded building, which made it onto the mid-list for the Stirling Prize in 2001, fallen into such a state of disrepair?
The building’s story begins in the late 1990s. The project’s backer, the ambitious Landlife, had been active for more than two decades and its seed sales business was – figuratively as well as literally – flourishing.
With the support of the Millennium Commission, the organisation launched an RIBA-run competition in 1998 to find an architect to design a focal point and visitor hub.
Despite clearly (and cleverly) bending the brief, Hodder’s proposal for an ultra-rational piece of architecture within the setting of a natural idyll was chosen as the winner.
Maurice Shapero, who led the project at Hodder and Partners, recalls: ‘The competition rules had the obligatory red site line stipulating where the new building should go. My idea didn’t fit by about 100 metres. And that’s where Steve Hodder had the foresight to ignore the submission rules. It was a bold decision to risk elimination for what we wanted to create.’
The build, he remembers, went well for such a difficult sculpted form, with all services, including lighting and even the door top pivots cast into structural concrete in situ.
Once opened, the £1.35 million building was a success both publicly and among architecture critics. It scooped an RIBA Award in 2001 and a Civic Trust Award a year later. Landlife’s then chief executive, Grant Luscombe, described the scheme as a ‘courageous, highly complex building’.
In 2008 the charity launched a second competition to design a new income-generating conference centre and education complex. It was won by Ian Simpson Architects. But the £5.4 million scheme never materialised. The global financial crisis hit; the North West Development Agency (which had put £300,000 towards the competition) was scrapped; and visitor numbers began dwindling.
When Liverpool-based architect Maggie Mullan was brought in to look at a more modest, workable masterplan for the site following another contest in 2015, Landlife was struggling financially and saddled with a headquarters building that was draining its resources. The final statement issued by Landlife’s trustees confirms that the building had ‘significantly added to the organisation’s severe financial stress’.
Mullan, a former partner at Austin-Smith: Lord, was asked to improve the visitor experience by providing more exhibition space, opening up the site and making the centre a year-round attraction to smooth out the seasonal troughs. But Mullan’s initial condition report catalogued a number of problems – not least a conservatory space rendered virtually unusable due to its poor state of repair, leaking rooflights, failed glazing and lifting floor tiles. In her opinion, ‘the materiality and the detailing of the building had [become] a significant challenge’ for Landlife.
Wildflower building 4
‘I found a group of committed people battling with a building and environment that was taking their energy and resources away from their core business,’ says Mullan, clearly upset by the closure of the charity .
She believes the limited resources of the charity in the longer term could have been predicted, yet were not factored in at the beginning of the design process. ‘There is always a question of design versus maintenance when building condition is an issue,’ she says. ‘[But] this building is only 16 years old. The client and function have not changed in that period and, although the demise of large-scale lottery funding could not have been predicted, the limited ongoing resources of an organisation like Landlife could have, and should have been taken into consideration.’
Mullan also claims some of the original construction drawings she had been shown lacked detail, placing more of a burden on the contractor. This allegation is rejected by Shapero. He says: ‘Every single detail for that building was drawn; the contractor didn’t interpret anything.’
The cost of making the building good, says Tony Jones, the now out-of-work former chief executive officer of the National Wildflower Centre, is around £500,000.
Jones took over as chief executive in 2012, but had been involved as a charity trustee before Hodder won the job. He praises the centre’s architecture, saying it is a building he has ‘grown to love’.
However he remembers how the building started to leak shortly after opening and how, to try and solve the problem, the charity installed metal caps over expansion joints. Poor drainage also became an issue; windows which he had expected to last 25 years failed and the building, he says, ‘became a huge financial headache for Landlife’.
Back in 2002, Jones says Landlife considered taking legal action against the architects and contractors Moss Construction, now part of Kier North West.
But the charity ruled out tackling these ‘design and construction problems’, as Jones describes them, fearing the organisation was too small to fight such a case. Instead, he says, they decided ‘to get on with it’. ‘In hindsight that was a bad decision,’ he adds.
Wildflower under stairs 5
Yet Jones is candid about Landlife’s own flaws, admitting that its construction project management team ‘wasn’t as strong as it could have been’. He also acknowledges that, as the charity suffered a financial ‘death by a thousand cuts’, it struggled to pay for the upkeep of its trophy headquarters.
It did find £35,000 to replace the rotting decking, but could not regularly rustle up the £60,000 which Jones estimates Landlife needed each year to spend on simply maintaining the site.
Jones confesses: ‘The building has its faults, like any other, but they could have been solved with sufficient resources.’
Unsurprisingly, Stephen Hodder, who was famously sued over problems with his Clissold Leisure Centre in 2004, has robustly denied any blame on the part of his practice.
Hodder points the finger at a lack of care for the building and, in part, the decision to add a giant green roof without the architect’s knowledge.
He says: ‘It became clear during [his architect wife Claire’s] site visit [in January] that there has been little investment in planned building maintenance over the intervening years [since completion].’
The former RIBA president recalls when Landlife’s director Grant Luscombe contacted the practice in 2002 ‘regarding an isolated occurrence with a rain water outlet’. That, Hodder claims, was found to be an issue of workmanship where the asphalt ‘roof finish had not been dressed into the outlet’.
Wildflower cafe 3
He insists no other concerns nor requests for remedial works were raised either by Luscombe or by his successor Jones – not even when he visited the building to look at the subdivision of office space in 2007.
The Manchester-based architect says Landlife’s decision to launch the 2008 contest showed the charity was ‘looking forward at this time, attempting to expand the centre, without an intent to fund maintenance work’.
With regards to the glazing, Hodder believes Landlife should have relied on the guarantees supplied by the window manufacturer, Swiss-based Jansen, which supplied a high-quality steel frame system. The lift, too, Hodder argues, should have been covered by warranty.
Speaking about the ‘flawed decision’ to add a green roof, Hodder says: ‘As we were not consulted, we don’t know the detail, but we do consider this to be a critical change in the design of the roof.
‘Such a design change would impact upon the drainage strategy, and the designers of the green roof should have taken this into account.’
When the AJ toured the building in January, exploratory holes in the roof remained open. In some places, planting had grown over the upstand.
The people on the ground haven’t loved the building. This was tangible from the beginning.
Shapero, too, defends the quality of the construction and design, saying he stayed at the practice long enough to see out the year-long defects liability period. ‘At that point,’ he says, ‘all defects had been resolved and Landlife was happy to sign the building off.’
He is not, however, blind to the issues that have troubled the centre.‘The people on the ground haven’t loved the building,’ he says ‘This was tangible from the beginning.’
Shapero adds: ‘The centre [was closed] not because of the architecture, not because of maintenance costs, not because of lack of flexibility, but because there was not enough money to continue.
‘There was no way in 2000 to predict that a global financial meltdown would occur that we still haven’t recovered from.’
Moreover, he is hopeful for the future, saying: ‘I recently revisited [the building] and was reassured by the strength of its presence. Initially the weathering disturbed me, but after a while I grew to enjoy this new layer.
‘Time hasn’t dulled the expression at all; the idea still feels viscerally relevant.’
Wildflower centre site plan
There is certainly affection for the centre, even though it was recently stripped bare and the contents sold off. A petition to save it has attracted more than 4,500 signatures, a Facebook campaign is gathering momentum, and a number of interested parties are understood to be circling with a view to reusing the existing building stock.
Tim Smit, the driving force beyond Cornwall’s Eden Project, is not one of them, however. Although he went public with news that he was willing to take the organisation and some of the staff to Eden, Smit believed he could make the seed and wildflower business ‘completely viable without the building’.
There are other difficulties, too, for those eyeing the site. The plot is owned by Knowsley Council and, more importantly, the Big Lottery Fund has a charge of £2,070,045 attached to the centre. This sum equates to the three millennium grants the fund made in the early noughties and, now the charity is in voluntary liquidation, the fund wants its money repaid. Lawyers have been instructed to recover these owed funds, though whether there is anything to recover is doubtful.
Today the centre stands empty and moss-covered – the exact reasons for that are complex, historic and disputed.
Perhaps the building was too experimental and technically advanced for a small charity whose international horizons were, paradoxically, narrowed to Knowsley by its swish new home.
Hopefully the centre, despite its exacting design, will find a new function. In doing so, however, it will have become yet another Millennium monument to have only fortuitously survived the unplanned demise of its original occupant and use.
Millennium projects that went wrong
The Earth Centre, Doncaster
Billed as a ‘world centre for sustainable development promoting the best environmental practice’, the £60 million scheme by Will Alsop, Bill Dunster and Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios opened in 1999 but closed after going bankrupt in 2004. Doncaster Council sold the 20ha site in 2010 and it has been used since 2012 as an educational activity centre. The car park was sold to a housing developer.
Millennium Dome, Greenwich
A true white elephant that, after the hullabaloo of the Millennium year, simply had no purpose. It is reported that the Richard Rogers-designed homage to Ralph Tubbs’ 1951 Dome of Discovery cost the British taxpayer 39p a second while it sat empty. The building re-opened as the O2 Arena in 2007.
The Big Idea, Irvine, Ayrshire
Built on the site of Alfred Nobel’s dynamite factory in North Ayrshire, this BDP-designed museum was devoted to invention and inventors including John Napier, Alexander Fleming and John Logie Baird. The £14 million, dune-like structure attracted 120,000 visitors in the its year of opening in 2000. But a year later that number had dropped to 50,000. Despite a £500,000 bailout by the Scottish Executive, the museum closed in 2003 and has remained shut.