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January 6, 2009 8:38 pm
On Saturday, Liverpool will be celebrating the end of its year as European Capital of Culture with “Transition”, a light and sound spectacular that will lead into an evening of street theatre, dance and performance in the city’s parks and public spaces. It will be an extravagant finale for a year that has seen a vast range of events – some more compelling than others. When I went to Liverpool at the beginning of the year, I asked a bus driver what he thought of all the sculptures appearing across the city, colourful lambs with, apparently, huge bananas stuffed up their bottoms. “It’s only art, inneh?” he replied. They were, I learned later, Superlambananas.
Perhaps the most significant intervention among the built schemes has been the Bluecoat Arts Centre. Designed by Dutch architects Biq and situated in the fabric of an early 18th-century school, the £12.5m scheme brought four big new galleries and a performance space to the heart of the city. The building’s elegantly proportioned court has been retained but a big chunk has been added to the rear and side, a hybrid of the surrounding industrial architecture and the brick domesticity of the Georgian face of city.
The new construction is announced by a gable wall clad incongruously in granite, a cocktail of precious material and everyday form. Windows appear as picture frames and the building’s slightly disconcerting effect of shiny stone against old brick is compounded by a smooth, harsh, mechanical surface of stack-bonded bricks (each one not offset from those below).
Inside, the new spaces are stunning. From the full-height void at the heart of the structure to the clean, bright galleries, the interior is workmanlike and of great clarity, a rigorous background for the work on show, yet not one that strives for neutrality. The spaces are encased in well-finished concrete, the proportions exquisite, a compelling blend of classical, industrial and early modernist aesthetics. It is as good a new building as Britain has seen in recent years.
The refined Bluecoat opened amid the frenetic activity of the Paradise Street development – an ambitious, retail-led scheme that attempts to tie the city back to the river Mersey. The connection was lost for many years because of the warehouses and industrial detritus that formed a barrier between the source of the city’s wealth and its own fabric.
I had been sceptical of the idea of allowing retail to lead a re-imagining of a city centre, particularly in light of the corporate blandness that characterises many of Britain’s provincial centres. But Paradise Street confounded many of my preconceptions. Covering 42 acres, costing £1bn, developed by the Duke of Westminster’s Grosvenor Estates and masterplanned by architects BDP, the development embraces projects by 26 practices. Work by Haworth Tompkins, John McAslan + Partners, FAT and Allies & Morrison (whose stone-clad, round-cornered structure has real elegance) is among the best. There are duds – the usual glass and steel commercialism that has engulfed so many cities – but, in general, the variety of architectural approaches, formal languages and materials, and the retention of older fabric introduce a complexity and grain that make this feel part of a real city rather than an outdoor mall. There must, though, still be misgivings about this kind of de facto privatisation of the city centre. Exemplary aesthetics, questionable civics.
Elsewhere, architects Union North did a fine, low-budget job of turning three disused industrial structures into a series of tough arts spaces for the A Foundation in Greenland Street. Theatrical, harsh and unpretentious, they supplement the city’s more classical art spaces with aplomb. The Liverpool Museum, the building pompously billed as the “Fourth Grace”, failed to open on time (it is now due for 2010) but its eccentric profile is already brashly asserting itself on the cityscape. As a complement to the three other Graces, though, the tall, US-influenced mini-skyscrapers that so powerfully define the seaward edge of the city, it is a disappointment. Its look-at-me slant, its self-conscious iconism, all looks a little tired, a little desperate. This city doesn’t need more icons.
Liverpool has much in common with Glasgow, the last UK city to be designated a Capital of Culture: its post-industrial decline, its mix of creative, bourgeois and proletarian culture, its history of radicalism and capitalism, and its harsh chippiness. But it is also, like Glasgow, a city of wonderful architecture, long neglected, often isolated and under-appreciated. The architecture of commerce, the docks, the warehouses, the offices and chambers, taken with the city’s unique pair of cathedrals, the delicacy and harmony of the Georgian terraces and the brash confidence of postwar planning, make it one of Britain’s most architecturally compelling and diverse cities.
Phil Redmond, the television writer and producer who has been creative director of Liverpool ’08, did a good job of rescuing the events from a series of early problems that, only a year ago, looked likely to cause severe embarrassment. He felt no need to justify to the outside world what Liverpool was doing, and treated the year as an internal celebration of the city and its culture. The built legacy is harder to judge than the cultural content; it will take longer to finish, to mature and to prove itself, but it is surely better than anyone expected. This sharpest, most critical and most cynical of cultural cities feels like a far more attractive, lively and connected place than it did 12 long months ago.
This year’s European Capitals of Culture will be Linz and Vilnius.
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