Liverpool One shopping centre beats out brutal developersMarcus Binney, Architecture Correspondent
Nothing chills the blood quite like the prospect of a ?shopping development?. There is hardly a town in Britain where handsome, happily working buildings and streets have not been bulldozed and hideously concreted into a spirit-numbing uniformity of chain-store shopping centres and multistorey car parking.
Liverpool is a city that has, over the years, suffered more than its share of such depredations. The latest large development there, however, offers hope that shopping schemes can be carried out, on a large scale, in an imaginative and humane fashion.
The Grosvenor Estate?s grand Liverpool venture involves more than a dozen leading architects in reshaping 42 acres of the city centre. Remarkably, this project has involved almost no loss of historic fabric ? instead it has even opened up old streets closed off in 1960s developments.
The starting point was an enlightened brief from the city?s planners that stated that it was ?keen to avoid inward-looking structures? presenting ?bland, lifeless facades? to surrounding streets.
The master planners, BDP architects, have not made the Modernist mistake of insisting that everything conforms to a grid. Instead kinks, set backs and curving corners provide informality and variety.
Shopping developments usually need ?anchor? stores to bring in the other tenants. Here they are John Lewis and Debenhams, but not given dominating positions. John Lewis, on one corner, subtly attracts attention with streamlined horizontals sweeping round a grand curved glass wall. This is the work of John McAlsan, who masterminded the makeover of Peter Jones in London.
Paradise Street, the spine of the sheme, has been re-created to its former width, the more generous as it is now pedestrianised, just like Lord Street, which it crosses. Even in winter the sun can stream in. Rod Holmes, Grosvenor?s development director, says: ?We conceived it in 2000-01 when everyone was focused on the new urban agenda, on how city centres could fight back against regional shopping and leisure centres and business parks. Despite the attraction of out-of-town shopping centres with abundant parking, the evidence was that people felt more comfortable out of doors than in an enclosed air-conditioned environment. High street rents remained persistently higher than those in covered shopping centres.?
The hoardings round Liverpool One, as the new centre is called, came down last autumn, coinciding with Liverpool?s year as European City of Culture. Though there could hardly be a more testing time to open a new shopping centre, almost every unit was let. The crowds before Christmas suggest that Grosvenor?s aim of attracting shoppers from prosperous areas of Wirral and north Cheshire is working.
Covered shopping centres in big cities include shops on different levels. In traditional city streets something more dramatic is needed to tempt people to higher levels. This is provided here by architects Allies and Morrison, with a giant zigzag stair ricocheting between adjoining buildings. Just as you are wondering how much puff it will take to get to the top, an escalator comes into view behind making the 50ft ascent in a single flight.
At the top you emerge in a piazza ringed by bars and restaurants that forms the roof of a car park for 2,000 cars. To make the point you can stand on glass panels in the middle of a lawn to inspect the cavernous void below.
The upper walks are cleverly aligned on neighbouring towers and spires but the big thrill is the stupendous panorama of the great warehouses around the Albert Dock with the Mersey behind. The view is framed by curving, slanting apartment blocks by Cesar Pelli, architect of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. There is also Liverpool?s own version of the Spanish Steps, a cascade of stairs swelling out like a wave that acts as an impromptu auditorium.
Liverpool One is true civic architecture addressing public spaces, streets and vistas as well as commercial gain. Better still, it is public realm open 24 hours a day. And as Grosvenor has invested so much it is likely to be kept both clean and free of litter, safe and well lit.