To Liverpool, for the Academy of Urbanism’s international symposium. Any rail journey to Liverpool from the north requires a change of trains, usually at Wigan, where the hapless traveller boards a dirty, smelly and grossly overcrowded two-car train operated by Northern Rail. According to their website, Northern was voted Public Transport Operator of the Year at the 2007 National Transport Awards, which proves that someone has a sense of humour.
More excitement on arrival. The symposium was supposed to take place at Rick Mather’s new Design Academy, but the building wasn’t ready on time – not even close, to judge by the state of the building and the number of builders on site. So the Academicians were forced to decamp to the legendary Adelphi Hotel, every bit as shabby and chaotic as I remembered it. There was something rather gratifying about the conjunction between the cream of British urbanism and the Adelphi’s daily round of old folks’ parties, Weight Watchers' meetings and the rest.
Le Corbusier – The Art of Architecture
The event was co-hosted by the RIBA Trust, which is currently staging the excellent Le Corbusier – The Art of Architecture exhibition in the magnificent Lutyens’ crypt of the Metropolitan Cathedral, and a Corb theme ran through the event, which culminated in a session (heroically facilitated by Kevin Murray) which attempted to scope out a Liverpool Protocol on Urbanism, 85 years after the publication of Vers une architecture. Predictably enough, we ended up with umpteen principles, many of them mutually contradictory, but it was an interesting and stimulating exercise, not least because the session chairs, to their great credit, stuck to their brief of drawing out themes and issues.
There was a debate – which I missed – about the Le Corbusier legacy, which concluded (by a 2:1 margin) that he is still a hero, but the tenor of much of the discussion at the main session suggested that a “great architect/terrible urbanist” consensus was emerging. Murray and Sarah Chaplin contrasted the ideological severity of Le Corbusier’s rhetoric (rationalist, orderly, top down) with today’s more reflective and responsive approach.
The other theme of the event was, of course, Liverpool itself. I’m still haunted by the powerful, beautiful and terrible images of the city in the 1960s and 70s in Terence Davies’ extraordinary film, Of Time and the City. Davies describes his childhood and teenage years in Liverpool, at a time when the city was slipping into its long post-industrial decline. The best account of the architecture and townscape of the city at this time is Quentin Hughes’ book Seaport, first published in 1964, with fabulous black and white photos by Graham Smith and David Wrightson recording the gloomy, sublime romance of a tired old city.
For decades, Liverpool was typecast as Britain’s urban basket case: dysfunctional, angry, self-pitying and sentimental. The stereotypes were not fair and only half true, but they stuck, and Liverpool drifted into a long economic decline, reflected in deep and enduring social deprivation. The quality of development in this dark period was predictably awful: the St John’s Centre and its banal neighbours trashed a large area at the heart of the city, and Liverpool’s Georgian heritage was neglected and abused. After Toxteth, Michael Heseltine’s mission to rescue Liverpool rediscovered the waterfront, saved the Albert Dock and restored pride in the city’s remarkable history and heritage. But economic regeneration continued to prove elusive, and Liverpool has had to live in the shadow of its resurgent neighbour Manchester. Manchester is now a successful regional capital, with a core of high-level jobs in business and finance, and a strong creative economy, but Liverpool is typically performing lower-order functions and is still heavily dependent on the public sector.
Capturing the crown of European Capital of Culture 2008 was therefore an important breakthrough. It was a chance to mobilise yet more public money and, critically, to persuade the private sector that Liverpool’s time had, finally, come. Buoyed up by a 10-year long-boom, the market has responded with a welter of schemes, most (to quote the Architectural Review) “a triumph of commercial vigour over civic and architectural subtlety”. The fact that many of these projects are coming to market just as the economy dips into recession is further evidence that Liverpool – at least in modern times – has not been a lucky city. (Although the city’s botched relationship with its architects - Alsop’s “Fourth Grace” was dropped, to be replaced by a new Museum of Liverpool whose architects 3XN were also sacked - is a reminder that successful places do the right thing and make their own luck). Much of the action has been on the waterfront and while it would be premature to judge it a success or a failure at this stage, there are worrying signs that, while Liverpool will get lots of “iconic” object buildings (few of them very distinguished) the serious business of place making has been largely neglected.
There was much talk about Grosvenor’s vast £1bn Liverpool One development, parts of which opened early this year. The masterplan by BDP aims to integrate this retail-led scheme into the existing grain of the city and to establish a better connection to the waterfront. Working within this framework, a roster of big name architects has designed the 30 buildings contained in the development, which opens out onto the new Chavasse Park. Liverpool needed this development: its city centre retail offer was a disgrace, with expenditure leaking to out-of-town retail parks, Manchester and Chester. Liverpool One will stem the flow, and help to attract shoppers from the wider region; it will form part of the package for the lucrative short-break tourism market.
The masterplan is a brave attempt to reconcile the demands of high street retailers for large floorplate stores, with some proper city-making. Some elements of the scheme appear problematic: the buildings are huge; the upper level of the park was deserted on a sunny day, even though the shops were busy; and it will be interesting to see how shops trade on the upper tier of the South John Street “canyon”. Liverpool One is much better than most of its kind and it is important for Liverpool that it should be a success. However, listening to the celebratory tone of the Liverpool PR machine, we should remember that, important though it is, Liverpool One is a site of consumption: it’s only a shopping centre. The real challenge for Liverpool continues to be wealth creation, which the city has not been good at in recent decades, but which is essential to encourage high achievers to stay and talented people to move to the city.
Back to the symposium
I’ve just accepted (gratefully) an invitation to join the Academy, and it would be humiliating to be asked to leave within the first month for rubbishing the symposium. So I am happy to report that Day 2 was genuinely interesting and encouraging. I particularly enjoyed David Rudlin’s contribution, which was a model of clarity, and Anne Power’s reflections on the experience of seven post-industrial cities in Europe which offered grounds for optimism – and an agenda for practical action - but were also a useful corrective to the civic boosterism which is inevitably part of the package on these occasions. The stories from Copenhagen and Berlin were familiar but still worth hearing, and a reminder of the value of long-term (20-year+) strategic thinking. Running through all of this were important threads about governance, economic renewal, community engagement and the role of experts.
I spent much of the day thinking about the North Laines in Brighton, one of the nominees for the Academy’s Great Place award. It is a great place, and John Thompson spoke about his visit there with evident passion. But it also presents a challenge for designers and regeneration practitioners, because the North Laines has evolved slowly over a long period of time, and because it was created by the urban pioneers, entrepreneurs and mavericks who saw the possibilities of a run-down quarter of Brighton. In truth, it is probably already past its best: money has moved in; the shops have become smarter; and some of the bohemian quality of the place has been lost, but it is still charming, surprising and really good fun. You can’t make places like this: for policy makers the trick is to leave them alone, and not to worry about the rough edges. Places like the North Laines thrive on spontaneity, serendipity and diversity: in other words, they are the antithesis of Liverpool One.