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Idealog—in the ideas business

The Mersey feat: What Auckland can learn from Liverpool

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Photographs by Graham Reid

The Beatles may have brought Liverpool fame, but the city was stuck in the Mersey Beat for decades. Now ambitious new architecture is reigniting interest in Liverpool and the city suddenly is celebrating its past and setting itself up for the future. Envious Aucklander Graham Reid reckons the formula could work in New Zealand’s timid cities, too

As the vessel pulls away from the pier, the soundtrack is predictable: Gerry and the Pacemakers’ 1964 hit ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’, Gerry Marsden’s paean to this, his hometown of Liverpool. What is less expected on this short trip across the River Mersey and back is the commentary that sketches in the fascinating history of the Wirral Peninsula opposite, where thousands once came to bathe in public pools.

However, it is when the Mersey ferry returns to the city that Liverpool offers a view a visiting New Zealander might envy and wonder about. While the imposing ‘Three Graces’ of the early 20th century—the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the former Mersey Docks building—dominate the shoreline, what is happening in the foreground is of greater interest. Striking and sometimes controversial contemporary architecture is springing up here along the old dockland and waterfront, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The impressive Arena and Convention Centre opened in January last year, launching Liverpool as the 2008 European City of Culture. It lies low along the waterfront, its curved exterior reflecting light off the river. It houses a 10,000 seat arena, a 1,500-capacity auditorium, ticketing and retail areas, and 8,000 square metres of variable exhibition space. Designed by Wilkinson Eyre Architects and an easy walk from the city centre and the revamped Albert Dock area, the $365 million ACC won a 2008 RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) award and in June picked up Liverpool’s Sustainable Tourism award.

By any measure it’s an architecturally exciting building, and it is not alone in this rapidly redeveloping city perhaps best known for its Merseybeat soundtrack of more than four decades ago: the Beatles, Cilla Black, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Searchers …

While Liverpool understandably trades off that history in numerous Beatle exhibitions and tours, it is also facing the future and last year’s City of Culture status gave added impetus to urban redevelopment. Further along the dockland is the $170 million, state-of-the-art Museum of Liverpool opening next year and estimated to attract 750,000 visitors in its first 12 months. The angular museum came from the Danish architectural firm 3XN, but a falling out with the client meant that Manchester-based AEW (already a partner in the project) is now delivering the detailed design. In pale Jura limestone, it is shaping up as a landmark in a city that many perhaps still picture in grim black and white as the young Beatles reigned in its bleak urban streets.

But Liverpool is changing fast: the abrupt geometric design of the museum is echoed in the nearby Pier Head Ferry Terminal, the recently opened, highly controversial and asymmetric building by Hamilton Architects. At a cost of $25.5 million, it sits as a solitary imposition within the heritage area and has been the subject of considerable criticism—perhaps because it also occupies the open space in front of the iconic Liver Building. Those who defend it argue that once the other buildings and waterways projects are complete, the terminal will appear more integrated in architectural landscape. That’s a difficult case to make—it does appear decontextualised— and while it currently houses an interesting Beatles museum on one floor, the superior Beatles Story is less than a ten-minute walk away in Albert Dock.

Architect Kim Herforth Nielsen of 3XN, the concept designer for the museum, was especially scathing: “I cannot find the words to describe my disappointment that any architect could do such an amateurish lookalike next to our building. And how could they get the planning permission, when I know how much effort it took to get the museum design through the planning process, on this very sensitive UNESCO heritage site?”

Today, the once run-down Albert Dock attracts more than five million visitors a year. Tourism is a $3 billion-a-year business. Liverpool has, through a ‘build it and they will come’ strategy, turned itself into an attractive destination

Alongside these three major projects (and new, eye-catchingly geometric residential and commercial buildings around nearby Canning Dock) has been the development of Liverpool One, a retail complex twice the area of Auckland’s Sylvia Park with parking, public sculpture, high-end stores, cinemas, restaurants and bars. The overall Paradise Project (around Paradise Street which is part of Liverpool One) involved more than a dozen architectural firms and added impetus to the urban renaissance. It has also pulled the city centre closer to the Albert/Canning Dock precinct.

A decade ago, in an enviable display of corporate, civic and national co-operation, the Liverpool City Council, the Northwest Regional Development Agency and national regeneration body English Partnerships formed Liverpool Vision, Britain’s first dedicated urban renewal company. Parallel to this partnership have been other developments: the Tate Liverpool, which opened in 1988 in one of the converted warehouses on Albert Dock, was expanded a decade later and in 2007 the entrance was redesigned.

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The Museum of Liverpool, at rear, is a new landmark in a city long imagined in Beatles-era black and white—but the Pier Head Ferry Terminal ( foreground) was panned by the museum’s architect as “an amateurish lookalike”.

Old stone warehouses around Albert Dock between the museum and the ACC have been converted and renovated. They house bars, restaurants, hotels, the excellent Beatles Story (expanded last year to double its previous size), the International Slavery Museum, the Merseyside Maritime Museum. Today, the once run-down Albert Dock attracts more than five million visitors a year. Tourism, especially cultural tourism, is a $3 billion-a-year business. Liverpool has, through a ‘build it and they will come’ strategy, turned itself into an attractive destination. A 2008 Conde Naste Traveller survey voted it Britain’s third-favourite city for a holiday, 15 million attended a cultural event or attraction in Liverpool last year, and a cruise liner terminal along from the Three Graces opened in 2007.

In June, The Mersey Partnership’s annual Tourism Awards were understandably selfcongratulatory after 2008’s culture year. Chair Rodney Holmes observed, “Liverpool demonstrated unprecedented collaboration between private and public sectors, individuals and organisations, cultural partners and artists all working together to achieve a shared ambition.

“Liverpool once again captured interest and imagination around the world, transforming outdated perceptions outside the city and bringing new-found self-confidence within.”

This redevelopment is not without critics: some find the juxtaposition of the heritage buildings and modernism too jarring. It is a fair point. But standing on the waterfront looking across the rather muddy River Mersey, you can’t help feel some similarities with Auckland: the distance across to Wirral is about that from the Ferry Building to Devonport; the central city is some distance back from the harbour; and although greater Liverpool has a population of around two million, as with sprawling Auckland, such figures are deceptive. A more relevant figure might be just over a million in the immediate area.

The similarities are there to be considered, but in many respects Auckland would seem to have more going for it: a more attractive harbour; more space for potential development; the Viaduct has started the revitalisation; Liverpool attracts 40 cruise ships annually but Auckland welcomes 70. However, Auckland conspicuously lacks a coherent vision and a collective will that would allow its harbourside to be a place for its citizens and tourists alike.

Build it and they will come? Auckland, it seems, wouldn’t dare be so bold. And unlike Liverpool with “Ferry Cross the Mersey”, we don’t even have a decent song about our city.

Originally published in Idealog #25, page 84

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