This time I got to see the new buildings which are going up at Mann Island, in the Pier Head area of the city, and I am really not very enthusiastic at all. Whether or not you care for Liverpool, it does have a vitality and a bustling, cosmopolitan feel which befits its traditions as a seaport. It even has beauty. The "Three Graces" - the Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the old Dock Office buildings - are now clean and refurbished and rightly occupy centre stage in what may be the most widely recognised waterfront view in the world. But they have a new neighbour – an asymmetrical monstrosity of black glass which I would consider, at best, ill judged. The strange shape is supposed to represent the bow of a ship, an idea which is interesting for maybe 15 seconds, but the structure is not at all in keeping with its surroundings, and completely obscures the famous view of the Pier Head from the Albert Dock area to the south.
Liverpool's Pier Head
Mann Island - no, it isn't a practical joke...
I tried very hard to see some merit in this addition, but regret that – like the majority of the locals – I can only see it as a blot. It feels, somehow, like a deliberate defacement of the traditional image of the city. I started wondering idly about why someone might wish to do this.
Liverpool has become many things it did not used to be. For one thing, it has become extremely contrite, and not before time. The wealth of Georgian and Victorian Liverpool was largely based on the unspeakable triangular trade which its merchants plied. Ships loaded with beads and copper trinkets would sail to the west coast of Africa and the Goree, where the goods would be exchanged for slaves, who would be shipped across the Atlantic to the plantations of the New World. The ships would return home filled with cotton, sugar and tobacco from America and from the Caribbean, and round they would go again. It’s appalling, but it’s true. In recent years the city has made a very public attempt to present an honest appraisal of its historic role in slavery – the top floor of the Maritime Museum is now given over to a permanent exhibition of the subject. It’s a heartrending experience, but well worth a visit. I do not doubt the sincerity of this effort, but there is an inevitable whiff of PR there as well. A proposal was made recently in the city council to rename a number of streets which commemorate prominent local families and individuals who profited from (or were otherwise connected with) slavery – the Tarletons, the Newtons, the Tates and so on. It was realised that this would require Penny Lane, no less, to be renamed. Since a great many cash-bearing tourists would be disappointed by its disappearance, the project was shelved.
It is obviously difficult to be selective about which bits of your history you wish to admit to. Liverpool has to come to terms with what it has been and what that means in the modern world. In my idle way, I wondered whether self-mutilation – deliberately spoiling the famous landmarks of the mercantile tradition – was part of all this.
You can’t blame the architects. Architects will always dream up something new and different – why, even the Liver Building might have been considered inappropriate when it was designed. It’s the planners. If you tell an architect not to be silly, he will generally go away and happily come up with something else – that’s what he does for a living. No – some weasel on a committee somewhere is delighted that he has earned a little immortality by achieving what the Luftwaffe failed to do in 1941 – he has destroyed the city’s waterfront.
No doubt I shall get used to the results, like everyone else. It would not surprise me if the new Mann Island building is demolished long before the Three Graces – it may even fall down, who knows? In the meantime, if some lunatic wishes to put up a large, 3D version of a child’s drawing in front of the Sacre Coeur, or the Rialto Bridge, or the Taj Mahal, see if you can talk him out of it, will you? We have to look after what we’ve got.