Liverpool – Old and New

Great swathes of Liverpool’s history is writ large in its architecture. Nowhere is this more true than on its famous waterfront, found Stephanie Kehoe…

From the Three Graces – the Port of Liverpool, Cunard building and the Liver building – to contemporary developments, the controversial Mann Island included, Liverpool is swimming in nautical history. We took our place on the Royal Institute of British Architecture’s (RIBA) Gateway to the World tour, promised “the story of Liverpool past, present and future”.

Until the twentieth century, Liverpool was world-renowned for its docks; trading of exotic animals and goods, passenger ferries, as well as markets set up around the Pier Head area. Not to mention its infamous part in slave-trading. Another notorious link to the city’s past was its part in the building of the Titanic.

Albion House (also known as the White Star building) was designed by Richard Norman Shaw and completed between 1896-8 . Resembling streaky bacon, which hence forth became its nickname to Liverpool locals, it was constructed from white Portland stone and red brick. It was from the White Star balcony at Albion House – so high that local myths suggest it was to protect officials from a feared rebellion posed by the swarming crowds of below – that officials broke the tragic news of the Titanic’s fate.

Opposing the historic building is Liverpool’s newest edition to the waterfront, Mann Island. The controversial £80 million project, which opened in 2011, was designed by architectural group Broadway Malyan and is a definite attention-grabber. The material chosen to build the three enormous buildings was black granite, the reflective nature of the brick allowing the River Mersey and the Three Graces to be reflected upon the building.

“A quick glance in its direction suggests a ship-like shape protruding from behind other buildings”

At different points throughout the city, especially Liverpool One, a quick glance in its direction suggests a ship-like shape protruding from behind other buildings; the clear intention was to pay homage to the history of Liverpool. 

In stark contrast to the mooted ‘fourth Grace’, the Port of Liverpool building, Cunard building and the Royal Liver building remain the most notable and best loved of Liverpudlian waterfront attractions. Constructed by Sir Arnold Thornley, The Port of Liverpool was completed in 1907, its grand scale intended to show Liverpool’s importance to the economy and trade of the British Empire.

Two statues stand guard at its doors, symbolising “Commerce” and “Industry”, although through years of neglect the statues – as with the health of what they represent – have eroded significantly. The influence of the past continues to loom large though, with detailed depictions of mermaids, dolphins and the ancient Greek god of the Sea, Poseidon. 

Its neighbour, the Cunard building, also contains echoes of  the city’s debt to trade and maritime operations. Built for the use of the Cunard Steamship Line, its façade carries a number of shields that appear around the entirety of the upper part of the building. These shields, when studied closely, depict the flags of countries which the Cunard business had trade connections with around the globe.

Inspired by Italian palazzo buildings, the Cunard continues to strike an imposing figure. Built very much to illicit a reaction (it contains marbled insides in a formal setting), it was used for visitors to the city, who would be led – perhaps open mouthed – into company headquarters.

Last port of call, but certainly not least, is the Royal Liver building. Perhaps the most famous of the Three Grace’s due to a pair of free-standing ‘Liver Birds’ at the very top, was designed by Aubrey Thomas (responsible for many of the buildings found throughout Liverpool’s waterfront).  Completed in 1911 and with a clock face 18 inches wider than that of London’s Elizabeth Tower (which houses Big Ben), the Royal Liver building rivalled all buildings in the Western hemisphere, and remained the tallest building in Europe until 1934.

Liverpool, over the past century, has seen dramatic transformations; from its role as an important component in British trade, building some of the World’s most famous ships, to the title of Capital of Culture in 2008. Taking architectural inspiration from Italian, Greek and Egyptian architecture, the Three Grace’s combine with Mann Island to create a striking view from the waterfront, recalling the city’s past while pointing to its future.

Stephanie Kehoe

RIBA’s Love Architecture Festival begins Friday 21st June 

More on Mann Island

Posted on 20/06/2013 by thedoublenegative