A bit of a mess

Mersey beat: the new Liverpool starts to emerge.

The big draw in Liverpool until recently was the photo-realist artist Ben Johnson who you would find in the Walker art gallery, six days a week, completing his giant aerial view of the city. As Johnson did his stuff with airbrush and stencils, he chatted with the fluctuating crowd of fascinated onlookers, most of whom wanted to know if their home was somewhere on the 16 foot by 8 foot canvas. That was easy: more difficult was that he also had to forecast the future. Johnson is painting a city (he’s still at it, now on webcam only) with big gaps missing. He has to refer to architects’ drawings. He is finishing their buildings before they can.

You’ll know, I expect, that Liverpool is Europe’s Capital of Culture this year. The last time this happened in the UK, it was Glasgow in 1990 and by common consent the event transformed perceptions of the city. Liverpool has made much heavier weather of it. It doesn’t help that last October they sacked the Danish architect of the big new waterfront Museum of Liverpool, which like much else will not be complete until well after Culture Year is over. So it’s all a bit of a mess. If you go there, you’ll find that the whole city is like that. It feels like one huge building site. But there are nuggets of gold in the mud.

Two of these nuggets consist of the oldest and newest buildings in the city centre, and these also happen to be at complete extremes architecturally. Respectively these are the arts centre known as The Bluecoat, and the new £164m Arena and Convention Centre (ACC) on the waterfront. The former is based on an early 18th century former school building, now with a highly intelligent, very bricky, new extension. It has just reopened. The latter is a vast people-gathering machine, next to the famous Albert Dock complex with its branch of the Tate Gallery.

The two buildings perfectly demonstrate that there is no commonly accepted style of the moment. The ACC Liverpool, by architects and double Stirling winners Wilkinson Eyre, is a pair of great big high-tech sheds – relatively subtly modelled and patterned, but sheds nonetheless – linked by an impressive full-height galleria. On the rare days when the wind isn’t whipping across the Mersey, you can walk out from there onto an upper-level open terrace and take in one of the most evocative views in Europe.

Political third-party leader Nick Clegg, wanting a modern, thrusting image for the Liberal Democrats, has just held his first conference at the ACC: it will host this autumn’s Stirling Prize ceremony, architecture’s equivalent of the Baftas. While the arena end of the complex is every bit as industrially prosaic inside as such places always are – trucks have to be able to drive in – the conference centre end is actually a good, large, characterful theatre. You’d hope it would be used for rather more interesting events than the usual run of annual trade and professional and party political conventions. But it looks like not. Oh well, at least there’s Wrestlemania in the arena next door.

The ACC may be several cuts above the usual big-shed fare, and stuck out in a business park somewhere it would seem marvellous, but here it suffers from its context. Designed down to a price, it can only seem coarse in comparison with its neighbour, the ever-delightful, Grade 1 listed Albert Dock complex alongside – and that was tough, no-nonsense industrial stuff, with great fat cast-iron Doric columns, when it was built in the 1840s by Jesse Hartley.

To find a building that taps into the more muscular Liverpool building tradition represented by the 1840s Albert Dock complex, go to the just-reopened Bluecoat, bang slap in the city centre and consequently surrounded by feverish rebuilding. Long a fixture on the contemporary arts scene, it has been closed for a £12.5m rebuild masterminded by Dutch architects BIQ with help from a good firm of local architects, Austin Smith:Lord. Part of this has involved building a new wing next to an existing courtyard garden out the back. And this is where things get fascinating.

In Britain, the default mode of architects when asked to extend a historic building is to add a shiny modern “foil”. The alternative, sometimes deployed, is out-and-out historicism. Both can yield good results, but it’s a bit of a limited choice. Elsewhere in Europe, they have a third way, and this is what BIQ’s lead architect Hans van der Heijden demonstrates here. The Dutch are good at using traditional materials in a modern manner, referencing the past without being enslaved by it. The Bluecoat is a fascinating complex of domestic-scale brick buildings that has evolved over nearly 300 years. Van der Heijden and his colleagues have added a two-storey extension – with gallery and performance spaces and a noble public ambulatory – that picks up this history and throws it a little further forward.

You see echoes of the roof and chimney shapes of the old building. The bricks are arranged in stacks, all pointing the same way, so giving a sense of movement in what is otherwise a very static composition. Even the end windows look as if they are extruding themselves outwards – though they are proportioned to match the existing traditional sashes. There is copper, and polished stone, even a Latin inscription, all used in slightly unexpected ways. This is clever, understated stuff and it just doesn’t come across in photographs – you have to see and feel it for yourself.

And the rest of the city? Well, the titanic £1 billion rebuild of the central shopping district, involving a whole slew of slightly better architects than usual, is now in its final frenzy and will be finished by the end of the year. Reinstating old streets, it will also link the centre much more effectively down the waterfront – though they could have done more to neutralise the barrier presented by the main road running along behind the dockside buildings. All in all, Liverpool will be fit and ready to present itself as a real Capital of Culture – just a year or so too late. Still, you’ll be able to see what it will look like on Ben Johnson’s painting. Commissioning him was the first really smart move the organisers made.

Text, photo of artist Ben Johnson and ACC exterior © Hugh Pearman. Bluecoat photos by Richard Bryant. Pre-edit version of piece commissioned by The Sunday Times, London, March 2008.


Liverpool Cityscape Ben Johnson webcam: http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org

The Bluecoat: http://www.thebluecoat.org.uk/

ACC Liverpool: http://www.accliverpool.com/

Liverpool Capital of Culture: http://www.liverpool08.com/

Richard Bryant/Arcaid architectural photography: http://www.arcaid.co.uk