A dock and a hard place

The industrial waterfront has become the default home of the contemporary museum. Whether in Bilbao, Copenhagen, Boston or St Petersburg, the inner-city landscapes of import and export are metamorphosing into locations of leisure. Although of course these buildings are about culture, and about their contents, they are just as much about the image of the city. They are civic plazas which aim to negotiate the awkward legacy of industry and change. Nowhere was more defined by its docks than Liverpool, a city which for a brief imperial moment sparkled as arguably the third most important in the world – after London and New York – but which, unlike those two, never found a way to recover from the decline of its docks.

More than any other British city’s waterfront, Liverpool’s looked out to the Atlantic for inspiration and scale. The result was a grand wall of architecture, of semi-skyscrapers and imperial Edwardian puddings holding back a mass of smaller-scale stone and brick. The new Museum of Liverpool then, a huge building which forms a hinge between the massive, US-scale bulk of the city’s Three Graces (a triumvirate of grand Edwardian buildings), the regenerated Albert Dock and the River Mersey, has much to do. More, perhaps, than any single building can bear.

The Museum, which opens on the 100th anniversary of the neighbouring Liver Building, is already scarred by its own history. Its Danish architects 3XN were impolitely dumped and replaced by Manchester-based AEW. The Museum is suing 3XN, who are counter-suing for unpaid fees. The cost has ratcheted up from initial estimates of £50m to £72m, which partly reflects the addition of some awesome and unforeseen engineering challenges.

Some buildings need to be criticised from the inside out, others are more about their impact on the city. The Museum of Liverpool is the latter. It does some things very well, others less so. The first and most successful thing about it is that, although it is a sculptural, theatrical piece of work, the architects have been careful not to attempt to compete with the massive iced wedding cakes of the Three Graces. It is relatively low-lying and clad in an elegantly quilted light limestone which defers to its bigger neighbours, and acts as a kind of architectural hinge that links the dark, solid pudding of the Albert Docks. The surrounding landscape is part of a surprisingly impressive urban design which includes a new extension to the Leeds Liverpool canal by the huge multi-disciplinary practice AECOM.

But there are issues. Some of these have been beyond the architects’ control – notably the appalling Pier Head ferry terminal building (by Belfast-based Hamilton Architects) which bastardises the style of the museum in a shockingly incompetent way. Everything about that building is wrong, from its shape to the way it blocks the vista to the Mersey when it could have been sunk to a lower level.

In the museum itself, it is possible to walk straight through the building’s generous internal public spaces without having to engage with the museum, a kind of grand urban promenade. At either end vast picture windows reveal dramatic views back on to the city centre, and sweeping marine vistas. Perhaps it is right that a museum should fetishise these theatrical views: Liverpool is a city still very much in love with itself. But perhaps it also reveals a lack of confidence in the institution, in the collection which, although it wasn’t installed when I visited, encompasses everything from transport and military history to the inevitable Beatles.

3XN’s ideas have been broadly retained despite the handover and pieces such as the sinuous central spiral stair, around which the building revolves, are grand and generous. The top-floor gallery, too, is an attenuated box, cut at an angle at either end into a simple parallelogram plan, a fine exhibition space. But something about the wide-screen ends, the convoluted geometry, the way the stone-clad upper floors sit uncomfortably atop the glazed ground floor, feels unresolved. Ultimately it is clever, sophisticated and civic but not beautiful. It reminded me of the ICA in Boston by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (2002), which also has a dockside site, yet still fails to establish a context.

There is something unbalanced about a new building cropping up among the old docks which is too modest to attempt to engage with the Three Graces or the brick mass of Tate Liverpool’s Albert Docks but arrogant enough to yearn to be a stand-alone icon. I don’t think I’ve ever criticised a building for being a good neighbour and a fine piece of civic planning, yet there is a kind of confident Scandinavian modernity here that is too conflict-free, too happy in its perverse form. It has the appearance of a tourist, enjoying the view. Perhaps that’s fine, perhaps Liverpool is content staring blankly, with a nostalgic smile, at its own iconography.

The Museum of Liverpool opens on July 19. www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk

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