Liverpool needs great modern architecture and it needs tall buildings… but what it needs are visionary and original designs which will set Liverpool apart as a city of architecture. Look how the Guggenheim defines Bilbao; the Opera House defines Sydney and the Gherkin defines the city of London… we want the architectural equivalent of the Lamborghini Countach or the Mini, classics of design; instead we get the Unity and Beetham towers, the architectural equivalents of the Ford Mondeo. ‘Executive’ and ‘corporate’ styles, which lack originality because the developers are first and foremost concerned with making a profit and at low risk; and the easiest way to do that is to not rock the boat, stick to what works. The ‘visionary’ new architecture in Liverpool is so ridiculously similar to that in Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds that you could almost write a brochure on how to build a tower block in a northern city:
1. Opaque glass cladding sells, light blue and green are the colours of preference
2. Lozenge shaped buildings with very gently curving facades are in.
3. Buildings should rise straight out of the ground with no features of interest until you get to the top, there the building should slope or step back like the end of knife.
We have seen some originality in individual buildings such as the slender rectangular Manchester Hilton and the box-topped Unity, but even then, the fact that so many aspects of these buildings are similar should ring alarm bells.
Yuppies are taken in by developers’ intense marketing and believe that they are truly living in a work of architectural wonder and the heritage lobby know they don’t like it but don’t know why; leaving themselves open to accusations that they are just bashing it because it’s modern.
People who point the finger of blame at developers are often reminded of the no-holds barred commercialism of Victorian builders as if this similarity means that architecture such as Unity is no different from the likes of the Liver Building. But there is one crucial difference between then and now… corporatism. The builders of 19th century office buildings, factories and housing estates were often run and owned by rich individuals, or a small group of close knit businessmen. They could take personal pride in what they were building, the spirit of philanthropy ran high and they wanted something which they could point to and say ‘I did that’. In the modern world of distant boards of directors based in London and New York, banks demanding business plans and thousands of shareholders wanting accountability, this pride in what you build cannot exist because no single person sees it as their baby. Even the architects may find their influence diluted by the influence of other architects and worst of all… of accountants.
Also, let’s not forget that in the years since Victorian Liverpool was built, the poor quality buildings have been removed leaving only the best. You can’t compare the Victorian buildings left standing today to just any modern building as we know the older buildings have passed the test of time which the modern buildings are yet to face. Put this way it is easy to see why the old building in Liverpool today are inherently ‘better’ than what you might build now. We need to try and build the buildings that will stand alongside our Victorian buildings as the heritage of the future.