How dare they do this to my Liverpool
The threat to some of the city's most beautiful buildings is typical of our disregard for history
The Observer, Sunday 22 March 2009
Back in Liverpool last Saturday night - after quite a game at Old Trafford (Man Utd 1, Liverpool 4) - I decided to take a walk around some of the buildings precious to years living on Merseyside. I thought it might be tough, having seen the "regeneration" of Liverpool 1, the once Victorian city centre, into a construction site and shopping centre.
It was a shock to find my favourite greasy spoon and a fine second-hand bookshop clinging to Lime Street station demolished to make way for the sanitised "Gateway", while the glorious view along the tracks under the great arch of Victorian iron is about to be wrecked by a protruding, big, bent-finger thing. But one can retreat from this folly to various places - including Hope Street.
"Hope Street is," says Hilary Burrage who chairs the Hope Street Association, "either the Left Bank or the Acropolis, depending on how we feel - bohemia, but with more institutions of learning, culture and medicine than any street in Europe." Until now.
How to describe a lifetime of memories on Hope Street, one of Europe's great boulevards connecting the eccentrically massive gothic Anglican cathedral with the 1960s Catholic one? Hope Street was an elegant bridge preceding and spanning the century it took to build the former edifice and the five years it took to build the modern cathedral. There were nights in a dive called Casablanca, adapted to become the "Casa", fixed up and managed by sacked dockers after the strike of 1995-8.
There were Liverpool Philharmonic nights with Charles Groves and at the Everyman Theatre with its famous bistro. The monumental Philharmonic Rooms have the most ornate marble urinals in Europe and down an alley called Rice Street, you'll find Ye Cracke, one of the best little pubs in the world.
But the main thing was the street itself, rich with history, but edgy, funny and fun, tatty and splendid, to which tourists flock, not least to see the finest of its great buildings between the cathedrals: Liverpool College of Art, constructed between 1892 and 1910, where my mother (Shirley Hughes, the doyenne of children's book illustration) learnt her craft and John Lennon studied. I loved seeing students on the steps, chatting with a fag between painty fingers. My mother remembers especially the singular, diffuse light in the life-drawing room.
So I went to pay my usual homage. The art college was empty. Through the windows of so much past diligence, exuberance and colour, just a deep, hollow nothing. "Acquired by the Maghull Group," said the board on the railing. "Invest. Develop. Construct."
I had been to Turin the previous weekend. There is history between these cities, after the death of 39 Italian fans before the European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus at Heysel stadium in 1985. I was at Heysel and love both great teams as deeply as I do the cities they come from.
Yet how differently each city's history is regarded by those holding purse and power. To say that visiting Turin is like going back to 1910 is to appreciate that the city has not lost its strength of aesthetic identity to postmodern mediocrity. Venerable buildings retain their usage, renovated when necessary, so that the centre is robustly fin-de-si?cle and the peeling but lovely arcades and apartments around Piazza dell'Indipendenza are being restored for affordable housing. The Verdi music conservatory looks like the day it opened in 1866.
Unlike the shell of Liverpool art college, listed Grade II by English Heritage. It has been sold in a package of four buildings by their owner, John Moores University, to the Maghull Group. Maghull's proposal reads: "The former art college, attended by John Lennon, will be converted into a 48-bed, 5-star boutique hotel. Alternative proposals for the building are for a high-quality residential refurbishment to provide 19 two- and three-bedroom apartments." Similar plans are posted for the also listed Hahnemann Building.
Maghull's "Hope Street Portfolio" has been mired in controversy because the Josephine Butler building is to be demolished to create underground parking plus overground retail and office space and luxury residential apartments. Maghull sparked outrage by hacking off the building's stone facade.
The sum Maghull paid John Moores is secret. Vice-chancellor Professor Michael Brown has referred to "the hysteria that has been generated" over Maghull's plan. But the most hysterical outburst came from Michael Hanlon, Maghull's founding director, after he received an email from Philip Coppell, a Beatles tour guide, which read: "Please leave Liverpool alone, as you are only in it for the money and I hope that the present credit crunch bankrupts your company and this obscene development never sees the light of day." Mr Hanlon recalled meeting "a whole raft of local consultation groups, many of which consist of time-wasting w*nkers like you who seem to think they are experts in heritage ... if you don't like our proposals then that's hard lines for you so why don't you f*ck off".
Mr Hanlon does not specify who the other time-wasters were, but one may have been councillor Steve Mumby who said: "Sometimes it is better to do nothing than to mess these places up for ever." Or he could have been thinking of Save Our City, whose director, Florence Gerston, says: "Liverpool is losing its soul, its architecture systematically eroded by people with no sense of history."
With the recession, the development is now on hold. The university says it is leasing the art college back. A conversation with Mr Hanlon reveals that John Moores is also renting back two more buildings it owned, so that John Moores will pay Maghull for three buildings it sold them. Mr Hanlon resents his company being "a political football" over Hope Street and has a fair point.
For this is not about Maghull: Hope Street is an allegory for Liverpool. And Liverpool is an allegory for Britain. There is something singularly British about the attitude of local authorities and the developers they favour to our once-great industrial cities. The hopelessness on Hope Street signifies a relinquishing of a civic sense of history and long-term future in pursuit of what Mumby calls "the quick buck now".
Source: The Observer