In Defence of Mann Island

Since its inception, Mann Island has divided opinion, but was it really deserving of the Carbuncle Cup?

Google Mann Island, and you don’t have to scroll too far down the first page of results before articles about it being a Carbuncle Cup Nominee start to appear. In case you were blissfully ignorant of the Carbuncle, think The Razzies (given to worst film or actor around the same time as Oscars are handed out), only this is for the worst examples of architecture.

Similarly, the Carbuncle is given in the time leading up to The Stirling Prize, the annual Royal Institute of British Architects award for excellence in architecture, which will be announced at Manchester Central following a Civic Reception at Manchester Town Hall.

This year, architects Broadway Malyan’s Mann Island development appeared on the shortlist for the first time. Not because in the past it has been deemed not quite bad enough, but because to be eligible, it had to be declared complete. It escaped nomination the previous two years on that basis.

“That the ‘three disgraces’, or ‘coffins’ were nominated at all surely says something. But what exactly?”

While missing out on ‘winning’ the Carbuncle – that dubious honour went to Grimshaw Architects’ ‘ship in a bottle’, The Cutty Sark – that the ‘three disgraces’, or ‘coffins’ as they have variously been dubbed, were nominated at all surely says something. But what exactly?

The site on which Mann Island went up was originally intended for a proposed ‘Fourth Grace’, a building which ideally would have sat perfectly alongside and complimented the other existing Graces: the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the old Mersey Docks and Harbour Board offices; comprising part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

And, here is where problems began for Mann Island, even before a spade was put in the ground. Put simply, and to understate things somewhat, whatever was built there had a hell of a lot to live up to. Had they formed a part of Liverpool’s skyline elsewhere, would they have attracted quite this level of derision? We suspect not.

So, just how bad is it? So bad that anyone connected to it wakes up in a cold sweat each night screaming “CARBUNCLE!!!” at the top of their lungs? Understandably, occupying the space it does, and with all of those expectations to live up to, it was always going to be a rough ride if people didn’t ‘get it’ immediately.

At a recent Q&A at the Open Eye Gallery (on the site in question), Matt Brook, director of BM Liverpool explained: “context defines architecture … peoples’ first impression is that Mann Island is a-contextual.” That is to say, in not so many words, that it looks out of place. Of course it does though. Had it been designed to slavishly fit in with its 100 year old surroundings, perhaps it would have been more warmly received.

“The braver, more interesting thing to do was to challenge the idea of what that part of Liverpool should look like”

But what would have been the point of that? Surely the braver, more interesting thing to do was to challenge the perceived idea of what that part of Liverpool should look like. However, one thing you can’t argue with is that this is exactly what happened. Brook is unrepentant: “We wanted to respond to … the three Graces … it’s a different layer of context.”

Since the buildings first started to take shape, there have been two main questions which can be read broadly as gripes. First, why are they black? And secondly, why is the site laid out as it is? These very questions, predictably, both came up that evening.

To his credit, Brook responded as if it was the first time he’d heard either enquiry. Regarding the colour, he said it was “the dock water – we wanted something to reflect that”, and that the positioning was a further response to the space, that “the geometry of the buildings comes from the docks”.

While some will no doubt fail to be won over by BM’s somewhat abstract interpretation, no doubt preferring instead something more literal, more prosaic – better to be safe than sorry, right? – the fact is, architecture isn’t fleeting. These buildings are here to stay and now offer a different plane to Liverpool’s incredible waterfront.

Right now, it seems a moot point whether they add or detract to that waterfront, but we’re willing to argue that, in time, the city will come to embrace Mann Island. After all, one of those Three Graces, The Royal Liver Building, was lambasted by Liverpool University professor of architecture, Charles Reilly at the time of its building thus: “A mass of grey granite to the cornice, it rose to the sky in two quite unnecessary towers, which can symbolise nothing but the power of advertisement.”

Utter a critical word about the Liver Building today and you’d be run out of town. But back to Mann Island. It sounds dangerously close to a cop-out, but its fate, and whether it goes on to earn a place in the city’s heart is going to be a question only history can resolve. For our part, we welcome it and where other people see coffins, we see a shimmering reflection of the best of Liverpool’s past and a glimpse of its ambitious future.

Posted on 11/10/2012 by thedoublenegative