YOU could be forgiven for assuming that a free public talk about Liverpool’s architectural legacy and stature as a significant European city of sculpture could be notable for its blandness - even if delivered by an artist who studied alongside Arthur Dooley, and even if delivered under the auspices of the impressive Roscoe Lectures series.
I still see little evidence of
symbol or artistic expression, within
this latest ‘Big Dig’, that speaks
of citizenship, connectedness
That Stephen Broadbent should attract more than 1,200 people to hear him proffer his views, in the grandiose surroundings of St George’s Hall on a rather chilly Monday lunchtime in February, including, mark you, Phil Redmond and a brace of academics, is credit to his growing reputation and, yet more so, perhaps an indication of the true cultural zeitgeist that fires up Liverpudlians, both native and adopted.
Our civic landscape is clearly a subject that intrigues - even enrages - and engages people. Remember the controversial Cloud, designed by Will Alsop: a wondrous concept ultimately rejected in favour of a less scary, nondescript scheme, a decision decried by numerous pundits as indicating a singular lack of vision.
The well-known journalist Larry Neild – who served as a judge with the Liverpool Architecture and Design Trust – said at the time it was a lost dream “to be mourned”’.
He added: “The Cloud would have had Liverpool stamped all over it. It would have been a global statement about a new Liverpool and ranked among the greatest buildings, not just in the UK, but anywhere in the world.”
Whilst Broadbent was primarily declaring his passions for Liverpool’s public sculpture at the lecture, revealing that it has more such examples than any other UK city apart from London, he suggested with an equal fervour that the city’s architectural “personality” is now largely in the clutches of the mediocre.
“Our city, right now, is in a period of rebuilding, and these new buildings will inevitably speak - but will they have a significant Liverpool accent? Or are they just generic shapes, colours, and forms that could be transplanted to any city?”
It is, actually, maybe such a gloriously wayward, creative city because of a heady confection of cultures and nationalities that has been baked with global ingredients, not the least the Celtic fringe that infuses the city’s potpourri with an anarchic energy.
“We all love to see something of the patron, the designer or the character of the citizen within what’s been built, and we’ve certainly inherited a wealth of buildings with personality,” Stephen Broadbent commented.
“Just as communities throughout history have gloried in their successes, through fine buildings and civic grandeur, so the Liverpool wealthy merchants in the 19th century began to build their city, glorifying in stone and iron, their own remarkable commercial achievements.”
He pointed out that the stylistic choice for Liverpool was classicism, a code that was synonymous with beauty and order, birthed by the Greeks, developed by the Romans and rediscovered in Renaissance Italy. “It was an aesthetic language that spread throughout the West, that was not about innovation or ‘the new’ but about authenticity and repetition.
“Sadly, it seems that much of the architecture built today is lacking that local distinctiveness.”
He went on to say: “I expressed concern when I first saw the extent of the Grosvenor development - but this fantastic opportunity will be a failure, and could even be destroyed, unless it feels like home to all of Liverpool’s communities. And I still see little evidence of symbol or artistic expression, within this latest ‘Big Dig’, which speaks of citizenship, connectedness or welcome.”
And, according to Broadbent: “One of the latest - and most monumental and symbolic - additions to the skyline, is the elevated Unity apartment building. Compare this, in philosophical terms, to the sublime church spire, or the many corporate symbols to commerce, education and health. And whatever the failings of those grand narratives, we now have this new symbol set up on our skyline that proudly speaks of disunity,” said the sculptor, persuaded that such buildings define the new age spirit of independence, a mood that neither desires nor needs social or civic interaction. It is, he believes, the culture of a self-obsessed ‘Only Me’ period in the city’s history.
So, do we have a dynamic, new modern city springing up around us, or merely a hotchpotch of the the ordinary, a building programme driven by rampant consumerism – and dressed up with sparkle and glitter – that disconnects us from both our architectural heritage and our fellow Liverpudlians? The jury is being selected.
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