Paul Finch’s letter from London: Liverpool’s new architecture is transforming the city’s image and burying images of the 1980s riots
It is 25 years since the ‘Building Communities’ conference marked the apotheosis of the community architecture movement, prompted by riots and disorder, themes which are back in the news after last week’s extraordinarily disturbing urban breakdown.
However, the issues today appear to be different, and happily there has been no outbreak of simple-minded explanations involving architectural determinism, that people behaved as they did because of the built environments they inhabit.
Every other sort of explanation is on offer; my feeling is that the elements in society responsible for the trouble, or those (the majority) who simply took advantage of it to loot, are the nasty version of their elders and betters, who have also had their snouts in the trough for no good reason.
One example is the MPs who helped themselves from the public purse, large numbers of who gave back what they had taken – an option unavailable to those held in custody this week. A better example comes from the financial services sector, whose role in life has been to hand out bonuses for massive failure, and then tell the taxpayer to continue subsidising the people who helped bring the economy to its knees. ‘Heads we win, tails you lose.’
This same group has been responsible for illegal selling of insurance, defrauding older people of hard-earned savings through aggressive marketing of inappropriate financial instruments, and negligent lending to fraudsters. Meanwhile, it turns out that parts of the media have been bribing the police for information, and the police have been only too happy to join in the something-for-nothing game. So while I have zero sympathy for looters, I see in their behaviour aspects of the get-rich-quick culture enjoyed in comfort by people now discovering social difference.
Given all this, it was a huge relief to go to Liverpool last week – I can hardly believe I am writing these words. In the past, that city has been a focus for ‘mindless’ criminal behaviour, but walking around the city centre was a pleasant experience, especially since the standard of paving compares with anything in London. In fact, it is a lot better.
This is largely the result of the Liverpool One retail regeneration scheme, which is looking good and trading successfully. There is a steady flow of folk walking down Chavasse Park heading for Pier Head and Albert Dock via a properly dimensioned pedestrian crossing. The main new attraction however, and the reason for my visit, was the Museum of Liverpool, which opened last month to general acclaim in the city, and some brickbats from critics.
The competition-winning building, by 3XN, will not be fully open until November, but is open enough to attract big crowds: 250,000 people visited it in the first four weeks, and it was full on my visit. The exhibits are interesting and lively, and the views from the canted end elevations are truly marvellous, worth the admission price – actually, it is refreshingly free.
Apart from the provision of glorious views out, Liverpool’s new landmark succeeds in many ways. First, it pays appropriate respect to the Three Graces in terms of location and scale. A recent half-witted description of it as a ‘punch in the face of a pretty girl’ could scarcely be further from the truth.
Second, the stone facade is a brilliant success, creating light-and-shade contrast through its angled profiles, so you could almost believe the stone comprised different colours.
Third, when fully open the building allows you to walk through or across it without actually entering, contributing to the new sense of routes across the waterfront.
Finally, as a piece of place-making it is very successful, not least because of the contribution of AECOM to the external landscaping, incorporating substantial seating around the new building. The whole area was packed with people enjoying place, water, landscape and building.
What a contrast to the bad old days of Toxteth and Michael Heseltine’s half-forgotten rescue mission.