Liverpool is a city that can be read like no other as a living, breathing encyclopaedia of British architecture. There’s something for everyone: from lovers of the Greek revivalist spirit of Neoclassicism to the dripping elegance of the Art Deco period or stark 1950s Brutalism. Its grand Georgian buildings capture the complex story of the city’s rapid transformation into an international trading port and troubled role in the expansion of the British Empire (through slavery). While the unorthodox appearance of the iconic Metropolitan Cathedral led to its local nickname: ‘The Pope’s Launching Pad’.
But how has Liverpool’s unique appearance been shaped, and how else might it have looked? These are the intriguing questions asked by Liverpool(e): Mover, Shaker, Architectural Risk-Taker – the opening exhibition at RIBA North, a new national architecture centre on the Liverpool Waterfront. Celebrating the city’s distinct architectural ambition and history, the show features over 30 original drawings, models and watercolours dating from the 1700s onwards that together form a series of remarkable designs that were never realised.
Among the highlights are Sir Charles Archibald Nicholson’s alternative vision for the now much-loved Anglican Cathedral, featuring a series of unusual transepts that radiate outwards in the shape of a flower. Graeme Shankland’s radical reimagining of the city’s skyline after two thirds of its buildings were declared obsolete during the 1960s. And Stirrat Johnson Marshall’s plans to introduce a towering Gothic viaduct over St James’s Cemetery. Many of the drawings are on display to the public for the first time, accompanied by a newly commissioned film that considers how the city may evolve in the future, and an interactive 3D Digital City Model.
The award-winning building that houses the new centre is itself appropriately situated on the Liverpool Waterfront – its rather ‘Marmite’ 21st century design striking a bold contrast nestled amongst the UK’s largest concentration of Grade I listed buildings. With the level of development in the area recently drawing some controversy (and placing its current World Heritage site status under threat), RIBA North seems to have opened its doors to the public at yet another pivotal moment in the city’s architectural history.
RIBA North also features a permanent display about Liverpool’s architectural past, present and future in its City Gallery, and will host a rotating programme of exhibitions, talks and tours going forwards.