POOR old Liverpool is getting ready to be European City of Culture next year - a Eurotitle second only to the Olympic Games for bringing cultural, economic and social catastrophe to any city.
Liverpool city council has used the accolade to encourage an orgy of commercial redevelopment (Eyes passim ad nauseam) which has little or nothing to do with the title's intended purpose. And, like Ken Livingstone, this once left-wing city thinks high buildings are cool (for the full horror of what is proposed see skyscrapercity). The principal develop ment, originally called the Paradise Project but now given the catchy title of "Liverpool One", is a £s;920m scheme by . Grosvenor Estates - . under construction on the land between the Crown Court and Lord Street and the Albert Dock. This is claimed as Europe's biggest retail scheme. There will also be hotels and luxury flats in the largest gated community in Europe. Lucky Liverpool.
What used to stand here was the Neo-Classical Custom House designed by John Foster. This noble landmark was gutted in the Second World War and subsequently demolished to relieve unemployment - did it not occur to the bone-headed authorities that restoration might have relieved unemployment? Never mind: that is past history. On its site was laid out Chavasse Park. And now, between a new and improved and smaller five-acre park and the Strand, the road by the docks and Pierhead, a 17-storey block with 326 "high specification apartments" is rising. Needless to say, a fashionable foreign firm has been wheeled in to design it - that of Cesar Pelli, the Argentinian-American commercial architect who gave London the Canary Wharf tower. Mr Pelli has designed a "dramatic raking corner feature" and his team of architects "say they have designed an intricate, iconic, curved and glazed building, aimed to be sympathetic to its place among Liverpool's famous waterfront buildings". Well, they would, wouldn't they?
All this is depressing enough, but its name, "One Park West", is a vapid American-style appellation which tells us more than we need to know about Grosvenor Estates and Liverpool. Grosvenor chose the name because the building will overlook Chavasse Park — so why not call it "One Chavasse Park" or "the Chavasse Tower", or whatever? This matters, as Chavasse Park was named after Noel Chavasse, who was not just a local hero but one of the most admirable heroes of the First World War. The son of Bishop Chavasse of Liverpool, Captain Chavasse was in the Royal Army Medical Corps and won the VC and Bar, not for fighting but for tending and rescuing
wounded on the battlefield under fire and regardless of his own safety. He died of his wounds in 1917. If Liverpool, in its Year of Culture, cannot continue to honour Chavasse then it should be ashamed.
AS IT happens, Bishop Chavasse was the man who got the project for a cathedral in Liverpool going, which resulted in Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's stupendous masterpiece. Naturally, this last great Gothic Revival building has to be brought into the 21st century and revamped by 2008 -at a cost of?3m - to attract more visitors. One initiative is "the Great Space", a film theatre providing an interactive and exciting display about the cathedral. Even more essential in a modern religious building is somewhere to eat, and a Mezzanine Cafe Bar has been created in the north-west transept above the bookshop, on a new steel and glass mezzanine floor designed by the local architects Brock Carmichael, with Mother & Co. as consultants.
Oh dear: it is all a bit reminiscent of the crass new restaurant in the Victoria & Albert Museum (Eye 1178). Liverpool Cathedral now proudly advertises "our newly opened contemporary 'life bite'cafe bar where you can meet and eat, and enjoy a brand new view of the cathedral". And, what's more, both visitors and worshippers in the body of the cathedral can enjoy a brand new view of the exciting bright Cafe Bar. They can also enjoy its noise. Diners on the mezzanine merely have to look over the glass parapet to enjoy the view, for the tall space overhead in the transept flows (with architects space always "flows") into the Great Space beyond. The result is that anyone trying to hear Evensong, say, or pray can have their thoughts concentrated by the cheerful secular sound of rattling cutlery, plates being dropped, diners chatting and children screaming, which echoes all around Sir Giles's great church. It is the same fatuous mistake that that supreme genius Milord Foster made in the new Law Library in Cambridge (Eye 888), forgetting that, unless space is enclosed, sound travels. And modern cafes with their bright, clean hard surfaces are very noisy indeed.
So much for the Great Space being a sacred space. Of course, cathedrals and churches need an income for maintenance and repairs, especially in the absence of serious state funding and with Tessa Jowell squeezing English Heritage to death. Some initiatives, however, seem to defeat their aim by ruining the building or betraying its purpose. But in the 21st century perhaps it is a mistake to think that cathedrals are for religion. They are for the tourist industry and making money, just as - in Liverpool - the European City of Culture accolade is really for commercial development and making money.
More depressing but predictable news from Liverpool, European City of Culture for 2008.
In preparing the site on Mann Island next to Pierhead for the gratuitous Museum of Liverpool Life (Eyes passim), that twisted shoe box on stilts that will be an unwelcome neighbour to the Three Graces, the splendid trio of Edwardian buildings which stand in a World Heritage Site, the remains of an early dock have been discovered.
The Manchester Dock, which lay between the former Canning and George docks, was built in 1785 and enlarged in 1818. It survived until the 1930s when it was filled with rubble from building the Mersey tunnel. The sandstone walls of the entry to the dock from the Mersey and the original timber lock gates have now been uncovered.
As it is 60 years older than the famous Albert Dock, now restored as the home of the Merseyside Maritime Museum and much else, this dock is of immense importance to the history of Liverpool and for understanding the development of the city's dock system.
You might have expected this discovery to be greeted with enthusiasm by those charged with protecting Liverpool's legacy of historic structures. After all, the design for the Museum of Liverpool Life could be modified so the dock can be preserved and restored. But this is Liverpool, where the past is regarded as a nuisance until outside agencies intervene and tell the city it matters (the council once tried to destroy Albert Dock until Michael Heseltine stepped in). So it has been left to private individuals to try to protect the Manchester Dock.
English Heritage has been asked to list what remains of it while UNESCO, which is concerned about the way Liverpool is treating its World Heritage Site, has been asked to intervene. But UNESCO moves slowly and is not having its crucial inspection meeting in Liverpool until June - and English Heritage has done nothing.
Liverpool, of course, has acted swiftly. Faced with inconvenient heritage, the only thing to do is to get rid of it as soon as possible. The lock gates have been destroyed as part of the work preparing the site for the wretched museum, and the dock will soon be filled in.
Further east, meanwhile, other perfectly decent buildings, such as the premises for Voss Motors, designed by Herbert Rowse, Liverpool's best 20th century architect, are to be removed to make way for black-glass commercial blocks.
A little to the north, in front of the Three Graces, stands the terminal for the Mersey ferries, a mediocre but innocuous structure. With the support of Liverpool city council, "Merseytravel" wants to replace this by a pretentious new three-storey building (pictured). As the old Mersey ferry service has now dwindled to a single excursion boat for tourists, it is hard to understand why this £10m structure is necessary, or why it needs to be so big and tall. No doubt it will contain an interpretation centre as well as a cafe. CABE has "no reservations" about its scale (so that's all right then) and Hamilton Architects have made the design as modish and exciting as possible by having outwardly sloping walls meeting at jagged angles - no doubt inspired by the design for the nearby museum by the Danish firm "3XN".
Talking of which, it has emerged that the funds set aside for fitting out the interior of this £65m project are being siphoned off to pay for the travertine external facing. So, unless National Museums Liverpool can find a lot more money, it will be saddled with an empty and useless - but doubtless award-winning - building. Not that David Fleming, the director of NML, is concerned. "Like all great buildings," he insists, "it is expressive of its period, it respects the past, and looks to the future." How it will respect the past is far from clear - especially as its construction now involves destroying the Manchester Dock - but it certainly will, alas, be representative of its time: a period of mindless modernity and posturing egomania allied to grasping commercialism, all masquerading as "culture".
MORE depressing news from suburban Liverpool. A year ago, as the city council decided to demolish another 3,000 decent houses while encouraging developers to build as much as they liked in the city centre, one street was reprieved from John Prescott's insane Pathfinder scheme for mass demolition.
Ruth Kelly, who took over responsibility for housing and planning from Prescott, decided that the Victorian houses in Prescot (no relation) Drive overlooking Newsham Park, laid out in the 1860s, should not be bulldozed. The council had owned these handsome and interesting buildings — which stand in a conservation area — for some years and had allowed many to become derelict and subject to arson attacks. Ms Kelly ordered the council to dispose of the properties so they could be renovated.
However, Liverpool council has failed to implement the order and has consistently refused to accept any offers to purchase. Nor has it looked after the houses or kept them secure. The inevitable result, to the dismay and terror of occupants of other houses in the street, is that they have been subject to more arson attacks. Last month, three "went on fire" (as they say in Glasgow) in one night. A council member of Merseyside Civic Society commented: "The council has been turning down written offers from reputable refurbishment specialists, effectively delaying a decision while Rome burns... This is demolition by stealth. I can only surmise the council has another agenda."
So much for Liverpool being European City of Culture 2008!