Liverpool's Lost Future / from the archive / issue 1

Liverpool has an unexpected relationship with modernism. This modern port metropolis of capital and trade par excellence is perennially concerned with the preservation of its pre-1914 achievements of High Victorian historicism and proto-modernism at the expense of the thoroughgoing modernism of the later twentieth century. Where post-war comprehensive development schemes in cities like Newcastle, Sheffield and Birmingham have arguably crafted some of the finest pieces of townscape in those places, Liverpool is still largely defined architecturally by its handsome legacy of nineteenth century trading supremacy. Gone is the rationale, current until around 1939, that saw virtually every building in this city dating from before 1800 swept away in the pursuance of greater commercial and architectural gains.

Business (Jack Hale's conflicted copy 2011-05-05).jpg

There was a moment, however, that saw Liverpool nearer to the mainstream of post-war British planning and close to the creation of a modernist cityscape. Between 1963 and 1965 the Chief Planning Officer at the City Council, Walter Bor, and architect and external planning consultant Graeme Shankland created the Liverpool City Centre Plan, the first comprehensive proposals for modernising a still-war damaged city. What was effectively proposed was the creation of a brand new city centre, one which would operate as a single, integrated unit that better fulfilled the modern functions required of it and which sought to predict and provide the services that would be needed in the forthcoming 20 years and beyond. It was a plan predicated on economic growth and shifting forms of business and leisure, but also one based on the assumption that the cramped historic core had not operated adequately for some time. Bounded by a new inner ring road – the Liverpool Inner Motorway – and scattered with new architectural forms, the plan sought to do far more than circulate traffic more effectively and produce new buildings: it aimed to achieve a complete reconfiguration of the centre of Liverpool with only a few monuments to the achievements of the older city. This was a set of schemes that emerged later than many equivalent plans seen elsewhere around the UK and sought to learn the lessons of earlier redevelopment, aspiring to a consistent level of humanity and deftness in its execution.

Much of the plan had a good deal in common with those seen around the country during the same period, particularly the inner ring road and the overall strategy for movement. All major radial routes from southwest Lancashire and northwest Cheshire would converge on the inner motorway, removing all but local access traffic from the centre and guiding vehicles either to their intended through-route or to one of several new multi-storey car parks, primarily by means of elevated carriageways with grade-separated junctions. The reach and the philosophical tone of what was, after all, just a grand road plan was notable. There was a frank acknowledgement that other post-war inner ring roads, ‘driven ruthlessly through existing urban areas’, had had a hugely negative impact in some cases. The way to avoid this, other than more intelligent route planning, was to integrate road and new buildings as a ‘total environment’, with, for example, warehousing located below elevated sections and car parks or other structures placed above as a means to embrace the presence of the road in the urban fabric and mitigate the effects of fumes and noise. Other movement around the city was to conform to the principles already outlined in the government's Buchannan Report of 1963, separating all road users wherever possible and offering pedestrians traffic-free precincts, highwalks and underpasses. There was, however, no dogmatic rejection in this model of the traditional corridor street or square; indeed, the utility and attractiveness of these forms in planning for a pedestrian environment was emphasised.

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The ‘total environment’ envisaged in the ring road and movement strategies can be found as a recurring idea throughout the plan, not least in the proposed shopping, culture and entertainment area flowing from branches in London Road and Bold Street along the main Church Street/Lord Street drag to Castle Street. Whilst much of the existing retail building stock would remain, several new facilities such as an arts and youth centre were mooted, and an intriguing new complex known as ‘Strand-Paradise’ – a sequence of five residential towers on a podium of multi-level, multi-functional space set beside a new park between The Strand and Paradise Street – was proposed on the approximate site of today’s Liverpool One development. Between this area and St George's Hall a new Civic and Social Centre was proposed at the heart of a sequence of new open spaces: a superstructure to house council functions, law courts and miscellaneous new social and cultural facilities. The design, being worked on by Colin St John Wilson at the time of publication, was consciously low-lying and sprawling to maximise public access and emphasise its role as a piece of the city, permeable but integrated.

What emerges most strongly from these plans was not the detail itself but the governing principles and overall ambitions. There was an abstract desire to recreate the city as ‘Entertainment’ and ‘Art’, very much capitalised as concepts, with a commitment to innovative architecture and the manufacture of variety and delight in pedestrianised precincts, both day and night. The view of the citizen, moving through the city at a walking pace either through traffic-free thoroughfares or highwalks, was to be the paramount consideration. Water, seating, planting, kiosks and cafes of various types would fill the space vacated by vehicles, whilst at night brightly lit, dynamic displays would be encouraged, advertising shops and cultural attractions to create a sense of energy and occasion. 

Strand Paradise (Jack Hale's conflicted copy 2011-05-05).jpg

It's interesting to note how fragmentary the application of Liverpool's plan was considering its similarity to other comprehensive redevelopment schemes of the 1950s and 60s. There is of course an inner ring road but only the loosest application of the plan was achieved along perhaps three-quarters of its proposed route, with none of the elevated motorway materialising; there was only a highly restricted execution of the highwalk network that was intended to criss-cross the traffic streets of the business district, now completely demolished; the principal shopping streets were pedestrianised by the early 1980s, but with little design flair and involving no major architectural remodelling; and the Civic Centre scheme was reduced in scope in stages and finally abandoned due to lack of funding and a political change of heart in 1973. One of the most concrete applications of the entire plan was perhaps the construction of the underground railway loop to knit Central, Moorfields and Lime Street stations into a central network, a useful bit of infrastructure that wasn't really reflected in achievements above ground.

The plan of 1965 was always at risk of over-stretching itself in scope over a meandering timescale. Whilst central government funds were available, there was no single pot of money anywhere that could pay for such a multi-faceted programme, and the local funding required was increasingly difficult to access during a time of accelerating economic decline. More than anything, political momentum was lost by the end of the 70s, meaning that executing the plan could only ever be piecemeal and reactive to acute need rather than an overarching vision. What we see in the 2008 Liverpool One scheme is the private development of land earmarked for a remarkably similar treatment in 1965, and whilst this sort of investment and innovation in design – highwalks and all – is naturally to be welcomed, it falls several degrees short of the municipally-led plan of more than 40 years earlier that conceived of an entirely new means to experience the city. The gap between the scale and philosophy of these two visions of comprehensive redevelopment is remarkable.    

© Matthew Whitfield

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 1 'BOLD'.