Matthew Lloyd Roberts looks at Liverpool in the wake of losing its UNESCO world heritage status

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

On 21 July 2021, at the 44th session of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City became the third World Heritage Site to lose its designation. This was a snub long in the making. Liverpool local government has long held the city’s global status in contempt, thumbing their noses at UNESCO as a signal to constituents that they are committed to the economic development of the city above the wishes of distant, international, bureaucratic heritage fetishists.

The listing sought to commemorate and preserve the tangible fabric of the shipping industry

There was always a problem with Liverpool’s heritage status, which was awarded in 2003 at the tail end of many decades of economic stagnation as it began to pivot into the tourism and service sector powerhouse that has brought 21st century affluence. The listing sought to commemorate and preserve the tangible fabric of the shipping industry that had made Liverpool the foremost entrepôt of the early twentieth century.

At the time of the designation, much of this infrastructure lay abandoned, a symptom of the economic contraction brought about by containerisation and the waning importance of British players in global trade flows.

The designation sought to protect the tangible industrial heritage that had once defined the global economy, and yet it seemed to suggest consigning large parts of the city to continuing dereliction, particularly in the scope and sheer breadth of the heritage site, strung out along the shore of the Mersey for over two miles. Yet redevelopment can be done with sensitivity to context. Indeed, Liverpool itself was an exemplar of this approach with the James Stirling-led redevelopment of the Royal Albert Dock, now home to Tate Liverpool.

As ever, the decision was made possible by political context. One can hardly imagine UNESCO removing world heritage status from the Palace of Westminster, no matter how many jerry-built, speculative, and ultimately financially unviable towers are thrown up in Waterloo or the dubiously titled Vauxhall, Nine Elms and Battersea Regeneration Area, impinging on the vistas from Westminster Bridge.

There is a tension in establishing regimes for the protection and retention of heritage buildings in urban contexts. Cities are ultimately meant to be places where people live and work, and architecture should serve urban life, not imprison it. A tightrope is walked between heritage policy which holds a city in aspic — stymying the local economy — and preserves a shared history that enables us to understand who we are. The sloppily-detailed speculative high rises that increasingly dominate the Liverpool waterfront singularly fail to stay on this tightrope.

But despite the loss of the UNESCO status, despite the rapacious, profiteering and derisory quality of much development in the city over the past decade, Liverpool remains a thrilling city. One of the astonishing things about it is the profusion of thoughtful, opulent detail on such a vast number of buildings. Few other places in the UK can boast the overwhelming sensory effect that the buildings of Liverpool have on visitors as they pour in a vast crowd out of Lime Street station and into her heart.

As the high tide of imperial prosperity receded, it left behind an encrustation of sculpture, of richly ornamented buildings, of Gothic and Imperial Baroque and Art Deco and architecture that spoke of something yet to come.

Take Oriel Chambers, built in 1864 by Peter Ellis, a structure totally out of its own time with huge panes of plate glass projecting out over the street, supported by whisker-thin shafts of cast iron. The subject of careful restoration after bomb damage during the Second World War, this is a building which makes Liverpool: it’s thrilling and careful, everything works together. The same is true of its neighbour, Norwich House, built in 1973 by Edmund Kirby & Sons, where crisp, percussive precast concrete panels act as foils for dark gold reflective glass, holding an aureate mirror up to the wealth embedded in the surrounded built fabric.

Elsewhere, Liverpool boasts some of the best brick places of worship in the country. A rich seam lies to the south-east of Giles Gilbert Scott’s monumental Anglican Cathedral, including St Philip Neri, a Catholic Chaplaincy of 1914–20 by PS Gilby in Byzantine brick; the curious Baroque-Moderne Church of Christ Scientist by WH Ansell from 1914; the Greek Orthodox Church of St Nicholas, 1870 by W&J Hay; and Princes Road Synagogue by the Audsley Bros, 1874. In almost any other city, these buildings would be singular highlights of the architectural scene, being exemplars of their respective styles. In Liverpool they’re just waiting round the corner.

The Anglican cathedral echoes all of Giles Gilbert Scott’s work — from Bankside Power Station (now Tate Modern) to the Salvation Army’s William Booth College in Denmark Hill — consisting of ​​long wings with a vastly disproportionate tower slap bang in the middle. This, combined with the topography of its site, makes it float above the surrounding Georgian streets. It is impossible to mention it without thinking of the Catholic cathedral on the opposite hill, intended as the site of Edwin Lutyens’s design, which would have been the second largest cathedral in the world with enormous transepts the height of his memorial to the Somme at Thiepval.

Tragically, Lutyens’s project fell through and his cyclopean crypt now supports Frederick Gibberd’s exceptional, Marcel Breuer-influenced confection, affectionately known as Paddy’s Wigwam. This is the best of post-Vatican II, centrally planned spaces of worship, shot through with inflections of Niemeyer’s Brasilia. The crown of vibrant John Piper stained glass brings an exceptional quality to the light in the interior, which is filled with all manner of textiles, statuary in bronze, mosaic and carving, particularly in an expressive, hypnotic and all-consuming style by that poet of fibreglass and concrete, William Mitchell.

The problems of new architecture in Liverpool are a product of dominant trends in the British built environment over the last several decades. Designs are value-engineered to death, until you find yourself desperately mastic-ing ill-cast ceramic tiles to fit the luxurious curve of a second-rate piece of iconic cultural regeneration, all to justify the extortionate rents in the adjacent commercial and residential buildings, which are designed to maximise net to gross, with little regard for how they might be experienced from the street. The buildings that made Liverpool a world destination for architecture, regardless of their style, are thoughtfully detailed, generous and entrancing. Why can’t we build like that again?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover