LiverpoolDisrepair: Stanley Dock, Liverpool, the world's largest brick building
Heritage sells but is it right to fixate so heavily on the past that you ignore the sales opportunities of the future?
This is the question occupying the minds of both supporters and detractors of the huge Liverpool Waters development scheme to regenerate the long-derelict stretch of waterfront Georgian and Victorian warehouses to the north of the great northern city.
Liverpool’s history is dominated by these behemoth reminders of the port’s global importance to shipping trade represent the huge wealth the city brought to this country during the Industrial Revolution. Their importance cannot be over-stated and they remain one of the reasons the city was awarded Unesco’s world heritage status in 2004.
Now Unesco is threatening to withdraw this status because it dislikes some parts of the £5.5Bn redevelopment scheme by architects Chapman Taylor for Peel Holdings. This project plans to provide about 9,000 homes, 300,000m2 of offices, 50,000m2 of hotel and conference facilities, shops, cafes, restaurants and more than 400,000 m2 of parking.
But most objections to the scheme, including those by English Heritage, focus on a series of tall buildings, the highest reaching 55 storeys, radically changing the seafront vista especially when approached from the water.
Yet supporters, which includes both Conservative and Labour politicians, point to the huge impact on providing jobs both in the near and long-term for a city blighted by one of the highest unemployment rates in the UK.
Naturally, keeping the historic fabric of the old warehouses in a contemporary setting will add to the attraction for both tourists and companies eager to showcase themselves in a vibrant regenerated area – a Canary Wharf of the north.
Of course, heritage conservationists, can point to many instances where valuable historic buildings have been lost by insensitive regeneration projects. Take Croydon as an example – the Edwardian planners were guilty of tearing down the Old Town red-light district the home of many timber framed buildings dating back to Tudor times. Some of these same Edwardians may have lived just about long enough to see the brutalists of the ’60s and ’70s tear down their buildings to erect the soulless concrete stumps that dominate the town’s heartlands where the Tudor relic of Old Palace remains as the one example of what Croydon could have been if ‘regeneration’ was not allowed to run amok. Imagine how much of an easier ‘sell’ Croydon would be today with its Tudor Middle Row housing intact and maintained inside a modern thriving metropolis.
However, Liverpool’s case is not one such instance of overly aggressive regeneration. Backers of the redevelopment place great emphasis on retaining as much of the historic infrastructure as possible to enhance the area’s appeal to visitors. That said, a quick look at some of the imagery on Liverpool Waters' website leaves something to be desired terms of design innovation and may, dare I say it, have too strong a whiff of Croydon about them! Hopefully, the planners will make efforts to make the buildings look much better in real-life.
But, if supporters of Unesco and the English Heritage’s viewpoint prevail, Liverpool could continue to be shackled to a run-down, sterile pile of historic ruins that bring little or no benefit, even with its world heritage status intact.
It’s also worth pointing out that the first European city to lose its world heritage status was Dresden when the four-lane Waldschlösschen bridge was built in 2009 across the Elbe just a mile from the historic city. It suffered no loss of tourism because of the development.
So let’s hope that sense prevails, most of the historic heritage is saved and put to use in a modern environment and Liverpool gets to sell itself on a global stage again instead of being hamstrung by a past on which it cannot capitalise.