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Personality crisis?

Do our new buildings lack the character of the city? After sculptor Stephen Broadbent's warning shot at his Roscoe Lecture, Lew Baxter looks at the evidence

Published on February 27th 2008.


Personality crisis?

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
or welcome

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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9 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Stanley StreetFebruary 27th 2008.

Liverpool is already a windy city because of the proximity of the sea, and tower blocks turn the streets beneath them into fierce wind tunnels that can cause accidents that kill the old and young alike, a lesson that was learned in the 60s and 70s. Unfortunately Liverpool City Council failed to learn this lesson so it must do the expensive and lengthy lesson again, with us lot paying - again.In today's Daily Post Concourse House is described as one of "Liverpool's biggest eyesores". I'm sure that only a few short decades ago when it was built that it was considered to be the Liverpool One of its day, it was the future of Liverpool, it was "iconic". S'funny how the architect and developer or even the year it was built aren't remembered now and it is considered an “eyesore”.

scousekrautFebruary 27th 2008.

The old renovated buildings look great but I can never get excited about steel and glass. They seem so soulless. The pictures of the New Dubai that I have seen don't do much for me either.

All Seeing SageFebruary 27th 2008.

Will the Peel skyscrapers ever happen? Probably not. The Council are toadying around Peel who it could be said are just after carte blanche planning permission to do what they like. They will probably then just sell the docklands on it on in bits on as they have done on other schemes. How can no-one see through their Dan Dare futuristic proposals?

pommy patFebruary 27th 2008.

who decided to knock down St Paul's Eye Hospital and put some ****y hotel in it's place? - yet another tragedy for the history of the place of many memories for many people both staff and patients alike.

AnonymousFebruary 27th 2008.

The new buildings do lack character!!! Is Barratt involved?? It would seem so... same old boxy rubbish. The one park west thing has a slight bend in the budiling woooohhh!! It looks like the 60's stuff that's being ripped down and replaced with well more 60's looking stuff that will inevitably in 20 years be ripped down again probably to be replaced with more of the same... where's the creativity in the city?? where's the identity?? Probably lining building contractors pockets who must be laughing their heads off at the council giving permission for such rubbish!!! Needless to say I am disappointed... The Unity Building is good though and does say more about what's going in the city than most... disjointed?? I think so, people in power who haven't got a clue??? I think so too... bring in Urban splash at least they have something interesting to say in their architecture!!

London RoadFebruary 27th 2008.

Someone mentioned it on another story the other week, but why can't we have proper skyscrapers in the city? And is this Peel Holdings thing really going to happen on the North Docks. That's all gone quiet.

Laurel GroveFebruary 27th 2008.

If Liverpool really needs tower blocks, why not build them in that windswept 1970s eyesore Wavertree Technology Park? As the place is already hostile to pedestrians with its circuitous, narrow, fragmented and blocked pavements and extreme exposure to the elements, any further blast-related misery would go unnoticed.

Tour GuideFebruary 27th 2008.

It is nothing less than criminal what is happening at the Pier Head. The new Ferry Terminal is bigger than what was demolished, why? It is only to sell tickets for the ferry. Do we need a Beatle attraction there or a cafe. No. I said long ago that no building should be taller than the Liver Buildings, I was over ruled. I feel that I have been proved right when you see the Phalic symbols to "modernism" that have been built. Liverpoo will be another clone city with all the new shops, just the same as in every city and tall buildings, just the same as every other city.What about the earthquake, that should have a few people worried, a couple more of them and the rats will be deserting the high risers.

Stanley StreetFebruary 27th 2008.

Mr. Broadbent’s Roscoe Lecture was excellent and he is spot-on about the ‘Unity’ building. It looks like a badly-stacked temporary pile of shoeboxes about to be moved into the stockroom before the shoe shop opens to the public. Unfortunately we’ll be stuck with the building for a couple of decades at least whether we like it or not. From much of the North End it actually obscures the view of the Liver Building. Broadbent’s point about new building developments only succeeding if they are adopted by the local people is true and not merely confined to new buildings. When the 292 year-old Bluecoat Chambers re-opens next month, the welcoming atmosphere it had before the refurbishment will have to be re-acquired from the people that will use the building. The trendiest, most highly-paid architect cannot design-in in the qualities that makes a building popular and well-liked.

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