A Creative Alternative?

Photo of Bradford Odeon protest by P13 D

Photo of Bradford Odeon protest by P13 Digital Media

By Kenn Taylor

When I was a child, I was taken by my school to see a submarine launched at the
Cammell Laird shipyard, a place that had been the raison d’être of my hometown, Birkenhead, for the last 200 years. I was given a flag to wave at the vast, metal object as it went down the slipway. My principle memory is of the scale of the place, as we stood dwarfed by the yard’s huge construction sheds and yellow cranes. What I didn’t quite understand at the time was that this was the end. This was the last ship that was to be built at the yard.

I would to come to realise this, though, and also that it was almost to mean the end of the town, reduced largely to decline and dependency on low-paid service-industry work, benefits and a small number of public-sector jobs. What happened to Birkenhead as a phenomenon has, if anything, increased elsewhere in my lifetime. The sort of decline that could once safely – for others – be said to be located in certain specific areas, has engulfed more and more places over the last twenty years in a rapidly shifting global world. What do you do with a place when its reason to exist has gone? Can it have a future? How can people suffering from the poverty generated by such situations have better lives and opportunities? These were the questions that plagued me as I grew up in a postindustrial area.

Economic decline is inextricably linked to population decline, both of which create surplus land and buildings. In the later part of the twentieth century, in certain urban areas such as New York, London and Berlin, this ‘free space’ was often occupied by artists and those seeking alternative lifestyles. Economically, this ultimately worked out for these cities, since while certain industries and the communities that had relied on them had been hollowed out, they had other industries to sustain them. In New York and London this was principally high-finance and in Berlin, principally government. So this occupation by ‘creatives’ actually helped re-animate what was, in the eyes of local authorities, ‘problem spaces’, bringing them back to economic use as they became fashionable and subsequently attracted new, wealthier residents. Such gentrification has been well documented.1 Writers like Richard Florida suggested that other postindustrial areas should adopt this model, becoming ‘creative cities’2  that attract the highly educated, highly mobile people who set up the likes of Google. This was seen by some civic leaders as a catch-all answer to stemming population decline, creating those lucrative ‘good jobs’ and so increasing the tax- and power-base of postindustrial areas. Based on these theories, many such localities spent big on arts venues, festivals etc aimed at regenerating disused space, attracting culture-seeking tourists and more importantly, those new ‘creative’ business-starting residents.

However, in many other cities, while empty buildings, declining populations and tax bases were also the problem, this solution was not so easy as in New York and London. In a place as large as a city, a ‘creative class’ generally needs a ‘real’ economy to feed off in order to enjoy a supporting infrastructure and audience. Shoreditch may emphasise its mental distance from The City of London, but without the latter’s finance industry paying for the likes of London’s advanced public transportation system via demand and taxation, along with everything from sponsoring theatres to buying artworks and commissioning designers, its ‘creative class’ would struggle. As any artist who has lived in a postindustrial city for any length of time will tell you, cheap rents and easily available space are important, but to lack easy access to a major market or audience (even in these internet days) is ultimately limiting.

While we may love them for their diversity, vibrancy and creativity, cities have since ancient times largely existed for strategic or economic reasons, formed out of convergences of power and money. This is why so many artists and creative people still move to New York and London despite the harsh costs and lifestyle. These cities offer potential for advancement that other localities do not, whether in terms of creative stimulation or more pragmatic personal opportunities. This is why economically successful cities are always centres of inward migration, people seeking their own piece of the growing pie, whether money or culture, which in turn helps gives birth to that diversity, vibrancy and creativity.

Throughout history, art and culture have generally emerged from economic centres that can afford them, rather than being expected to be the economy, or at least not solely. Some unique places such as Venice can, via tourism, achieve an economy based on their cultural histories. Yet even Venice has a shrinking population, which is causing it problems now that it is no longer a centre of manufacture, commerce and slavery. Indeed, despite all the new creative industries being talked about in postindustrial places like Detroit, such as the start-ups at the A. Alfred Taubman Centre,3  making cars is still actually the biggest part of the Detroit economy.4  Likewise, even as cultural-focused tourism does grow in Liverpool, its maritime and manufacturing trades are still bigger economic assets.5  Over in Birkenhead, even the old Cammell Laird shipyard has re-opened and is now booming.6  These most traditional of industries, which had declined for years, are still the main points of growth for such places as trade patterns shift, to a degree, back in their favour. Such growth remains vulnerable, but at least these localities are still playing a significant role in the global economic system, in fields, despite their reduction in staff numbers, that employ far more people than the arts are ever likely to.

In London and New York, the fight for space against the overwhelming power of capital is key, hence the constant shifting of ‘creative zones’ to the latest deprived area. In cities such as Liverpool, though, the fight is for capital or rather any way for the city (including its artists) to sustain itself without having to rely on cross-subsidy from elsewhere to pay for its services. The latter is a dangerous situation, leaving postindustrial areas vulnerable to the whims of the policies of often faraway governments.

Is there an alternative for cities other than to fight each other for a slice of global capital? To take part in a pact with the very ideology that brought down industrial cities? We should not forget that it was also this same ideology that gave birth to these cities and subsequently the culture that rose from them: be it Motown or The Beatles, Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals or the metal sculptures made by Arthur Dooley, himself a former Cammell Laird welder.

Despite the continued economic reliance on transport and manufacture in Liverpool, cultural activity has played a big part in shifting both the perception and actuality of the city in the last fifteen years in a way that few residents would disagree has been an improvement, even if most would also agree there is still a long way to go. If, with the right cultural attractions and activities, a town can create a tourist business and transform external views of the place, creating a few jobs in the process, why would any poor locality not do so?

Are these cultural initiatives in postindustrial locations just window-dressing: a bit of art to cover over the economic cracks, encouraging higher-end tourism and providing something to do between inward investment meetings? A chance for globetrotting arty-types to ‘reanimate’ decayed spaces and help pave the way for developers? Or can they offer more?

I would argue that they can. Art’s real strength in this situation is how it can exist in a space between those at different ends of the scale of power and money. In this deeply imbalanced situation, real sway can be had, as Charles Bukowski once said, when ‘an artist says a hard thing in a simple way’. Art has the potential to cut though things, creating a channel through dysfunctional systems. Creative activism in the public arena can, by highlighting errors, showcasing alternatives and probing new solutions, make the prevailing forces of power, at best take a step back, or at least demonstrate to others the holes that exist within their plans and systems.

Such action in postindustrial areas can break the deadlock that can emerge from vested interests. Governments, local authorities, businesses, property developers, investors, even entrenched community groups, while often having plans that may be valid on one level, can, in the inevitable vastness of such organisations, end up letting neighbourhoods, even whole cities, fall down the cracks. As an example, we can look to Liverpool and how the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder initiative affected it and other areas with mass housing demolition. 7  This plan emerged, no doubt with good intentions, from a think-tank at Birmingham University and was adopted by the then government as a way of regenerating postindustrial communities. Dozens of journals, petitions and surveys eventually began to critique this extreme approach. While these achieved a cumulative effect, ultimately they held less power and sway in general public and political opinion than two actions in Liverpool. In Anfield, the 2up2down/Homebaked project,8  re-opening a bakery that many thought had gone for good, and in Liverpool, eight community groups painting bright images, planting flowers and hosting a local market outside abandoned homes. All the secret meetings, investment strategies and ten-year-plans rightly turned to dust in the face of such an obviously more positive use of empty property reduced to ruin by socio-economic policies. Such initiatives may have impacts that are more emotional than practical, but therein lies the ability of such creative action to compete against, or at least square up to, those who control the money and power. Those with their hands on the levers inevitably struggle to respond when they are faced with a public demonstration of obvious failure and positive alternatives.

The question from critics though, and it is a valid one, is what next? When folly or injustice has been demonstrated, what alternative is there? Can such initiatives represent long-term solutions? Creative perforations can open avenues to new situations, but for real change they have to then grow into something bigger. In becoming more established and practical, such projects may lose some of their initial outsider power, but this is essential if such action is to instigate actual change and shift the balance of ideas, power and control.

For an example of this we can shift from Liverpool to Bradford, where creative grassroots action helped not only to save a grand Art Deco cinema from demolition, but began a total re-imagining of the potential future of the building. After being closed for several years, the Odeon was facing destruction, to be replaced with a new office and retail development,9  the need for which was questionable. Slowly, local opposition built into a ‘Save the Odeon’ campaign, with activists often utilising artistic impulses such as covering the building with ‘Get Well Soon’ cards, decorating it at Christmas while a brass band played, and even turning up as a group to clean its exterior to demonstrate that, beneath a bit of dirt, a fine building was languishing. These actions slowly won over more local people and even gained celebrity support from the likes of Imelda Staunton, Terry Gilliam and David Hockney. After much pressure, the demolition was eventually cancelled, with the local authority agreeing that the building should be retained in future plans for the area. The campaigners have subsequently formed into an Industrial and Provident society named ‘Bradford One’ and are now bidding to be allowed to take over the building themselves.10

Meanwhile, over in Detroit, the apparently sensible policy of reducing the city’s size in relation to its shrunken population came up against The Heidelberg Project, begun in 1986 by artist Tyree Guyton on the city’s east side. Initially, he painted a series of houses in Heidelberg Street with bright dots in many colours and attached salvaged items to the houses. He went on to develop the project into a constantly evolving work that transformed a semi-abandoned neighbourhood into a creative art centre.11  Twice it was faced with demolition by the Detroit authorities, and indeed some of it was destroyed. Yet, despite these setbacks, it is now a global tourist attraction with its own arts education programme for local schoolchildren, not to mention being one of fifteen projects that represented the US at the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale.12

The question raised by those who wanted to see the demolition and removal of all these places was, ‘Well, what would you do with it?’ In answer, creativity was used against the overwhelming machines of business, media, government and prevailing orthodoxy, to open up alternative possibilities for these spaces. Such projects may not in themselves solve all the problems of a postindustrial city, but their operation in a more open-ended space outside of dominant ideologies can raise awareness, generate new solutions and galvanise people to action. After all, successful local regeneration is based on local enthusiasm for it, which, when people are already facing the multiple challenges of living in a deprived area, can be slow to start and quick to wane. Key to ongoing positive change stemming from such initiatives is the genuine involvement of local people in an in-depth way. The Bradford One and Heidelberg actions were both begun by people who already had a stake in the local area, while 2up2down/Homebaked in Anfield began as an external provocation from Liverpool Biennial. However, all of these projects ultimately took the time to win understandably sceptical people over from outside of their own circles and become rooted in local desires, rather than just agendas imposed from outside. Also vital though, is that such projects moved on from their initial creative perforations and formed organisations, sought funding, liaised with regulators, engaged wider publics and communicated with media and academia. Thus they created a momentum that became sustainable, even through inevitable setbacks and ups and downs.

So, having begun to develop initial provocations into projects with positive outcomes for communities, the question becomes, what next? How does the spark of an alternative become something sustainable or even a new way of doing things in postindustrial areas? The rights of the urban resident of the twentieth century were gained through practical action, engaging, even if aggressively, with the prevailing system and demanding a share, as well as through the development of solid alternatives that functioned effectively, even if these existed within a wider capitalist framework. Bodies from the Cooperative movement founded in Rochdale in 1844 to the early housing associations formed in 1960s Liverpool, determined that inner-city housing had a future, and so it remains today.

Having successfully fundraised via Kickstarter to open its bakery, 2up2down/Homebaked now seeks to establish a co-operative housing scheme13  as part of the wider redevelopment of Anfield, which is centred on a new stadium for Liverpool Football Club. In Bradford, the Save the Odeon campaign has formed into the constituted Bradford One organisation, which is developing proposals that, if successful, will see the historic structure transformed into a multi-purpose cultural venue and centre for creative enterprise. This will include an ‘asset lock’ ensuring that the Odeon’s future use will always benefit the people of Bradford.14  In Detroit meanwhile, the Heidelberg Project is planning to expand into neighbouring properties as part of a broader ‘cultural village’ concept for the area once the site has been secured from recent damage.15  The project’s development committee now includes senior staff from Detroit and Michigan local authorities, demonstrating quite a change from when Guyton spent much of his time fighting officials who wanted to shut down the project. His case was no doubt aided by the Heidelberg’s increasing popularity and global visibility.16

While global big business is probably here to stay, it seems that local control, whether it is of new business start-ups, arts centres, housing co-ops or bakeries, offers the best long-term sustainability for communities. Yet for this to happen, local people must be able to take control. The will must be there in the community for such initiatives, but provocations such as the above, by highlighting alternatives and breaking open new ideas, can have transformative effects, bringing people on board who never imagined they could ever have a voice or play a part in the future of their area.

However, controlling authorities also need to have the desire, or at least the will, to hand such power to communities. So will states grant such power to localities and will local authorities in turn divest power to their citizens? Even if this happens, will it descend into counter-productive factionalism? Perhaps in some cases, but as the examples above show, plenty of projects can exceed even the wildest hopes of their founders, if they are given the opportunity. It may be the case though, as projects such as these have demonstrated, that the only way to gain power is for such organisations to be formed, take the initiative and demand it, creating legitimacy though raising awareness and encouraging action. Equally vital is that the authorities provide the required financial support for such projects at the relevant time. David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ idea of community solutions quickly fell on its face because of a lack of money, something even acknowledged by the academic who came up with the phrase.17  If you hand the levers of power over to people, but with no capital to be able to use them, positive effects will always be limited.

Creative perforations, such as those listed above, are in themselves valid, as a way to speak the truth to power, show an alternative and imagine new possibilities. However, if they are to have lasting effects, they need to change, morph and engage with the prevailing systems of power and money in order to achieve wider goals. This may require compromise, but such compromise will have much stronger social benefits in deprived areas than any academic treatise denouncing failures in the system from a faraway university.

Finally, can these projects be more than interesting perforations, a few gems standing out in otherwise troubled cities? Can they actually become new ways of organising postindustrial urban environments? If this is possible, such initiatives cannot exist in a vacuum. Power brokers need to be engaged and convinced that the system needs to shift and absorb these new ideas. In undertaking such engagement, projects like these may risk losing their outsider power, but they gain the potential to change many more lives and even of becoming new orthodoxies. That is, of course, until the need arises for the next perforation from outside of the prevailing order.

This piece was published in the Stages Journal #2 published by Liverpool Biennial in September 2014.

Footnotes

1  See, for example, S. Zurkin, Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1982.

2  Richard Florida, ‘Cities and The Creative Class’, http://www.creativeclass.com/richard_florida/books… (accessed 24 April 2014).

3  M. Haber, ‘Meet The Makers: Rebuilding Detroit by Hand’, Fast Company (2013). Available at: http://www.fastcocreate.com/1682411/meet-the-maker… (accessed 20 April 2014).

4  T. Alberta, ‘Refueled: Domestic Automakers Poised to Lead Detroit’s Revival’, National Journal (2014). Available at: http://www.nationaljournal.com/next-economy/americ… (accessed 25 April 2014).

5  Liverpool Economic Briefing 2013, Liverpool City Council, 2013, p.9.

6  B. Gleeson, ‘John Syvret commits future to Cammell Laird’s’, Liverpool Echo (2014). Available at: http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/business/john-… (accessed 1 May 2014).

7  I Cole & B. Nevin, The road to renewal: the early development of the housing market renewal programme in England, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York, 2004, pp.9–17. Available at: http://www.jrf.org.uk/system/files/1859352707.pdf# (accessed 22 Apr. 2014).

8  ‘2Up 2Down, a Community Land Trust and Co-operative Bakery for Anfield’ (2014), http://www.2up2down.org.uk/ (accessed 25 April 2014).

9  I. Qureshi, ‘Why does Bradford care so much about a derelict cinema?’, The Guardian, (2012). Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/the-northerner/2012/… (accessed 1 May 2014).

10  About Us, Bradford One (2014), http://www.bradfordone.com/faq/ (accessed 1 May 2014).

11  The Heidelberg Project – Great Public Space (2014), http://www.pps.org/great_public_spaces/one?public_… (accessed 1 May 2014).

12  A. Goldbard, ‘Public Art as a Spiritual Path’ Forecast Public Art (2014). Available at: http://forecastpublicart.org/public-art-review/201… (accessed 1 May 2014).

13  Homebaked Community Land Trust, 2Up 2Down (2014), http://www.2up2down.org.uk/about/egestas-elit/ (accessed 1 May 2014).

14  Our Plans, Bradford One (2014), http://www.bradfordone.com/bradfordone-news/our-pl… (accessed 1 May 2014).

15  S. Welch ‘In wake of fires, Heidelberg Project rethinks goals, halts capital campaign’, Crain’s Detroit Business (2014). Available at: http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20140330/NEWS… (accessed 1 May 2014).

16  G. Anglebrandt, ‘Expansions in the works for Heidelberg, MOCAD’, Crain’s Detroit Business (2011). Available at: http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20110421/DM01… (accessed 22 April 2014).

17  P. Blond, ‘David Cameron has lost his chance to redefine the Tories’, The Guardian (2012). Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/oct/… (accessed 24 April 2014).

A Culture of Participation

By Kenn Taylor

When it was announced that Liverpool had been chosen to be the 2008 European Capital of Culture, there was an outpouring of emotion in the city. After so many years of being the UK’s pariah city par excellence, the importance of the accolade to Liverpool’s collective psychology and how it was viewed externally cannot be underestimated.

Beyond the city itself though, of greater importance was how, whilst hosting Capital of Culture, Liverpool became the focus of intense debate and a subsequent sea-change in the way that many people think about concepts of culture, community, participation and regeneration.

Long before 2008 of course, Liverpool had a strong cultural output despite, or perhaps because of, its continual economic struggles. Even Liverpool’s bohemian enclaves are only a short walk from the most grinding poverty and this has always lent something of a DIY and a socially and politically aware spirit to arts in the city.

Arguably the first ‘arts centre’ in the UK was Liverpool’s Bluecoat, founded at the turn of the century in an abandoned school by rebellious spirits called the Sandon Studios Society, unhappy with the then traditional arts establishment in the city. Sixty years later a group of idealistic Liverpool University students set up the Everyman theatre in an abandoned chapel. They wanted to create a space for drama that would reflect ordinary lives and take radical perspectives, in doing so helping to pave the way for socially concerned writers like Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale.

In another abandoned chapel, a group of radical creatives set up The Great Georges Community Cultural Project in 1968, arguably the UK’s first ‘community arts’ project, now still operating as the Black-E. Later, in the 1970s a group of photographers ignored by the art establishment set up shop in an abandoned pub. They called part of it the Open Eye Gallery and helped bring photographers of everyday life such as Martin Parr and Tom Wood to attention. Whatever public money was spent by the city itself on the arts in the post-war era was nearly always through the lens of ‘what will it do for the community?’ and ‘how will people connect to this?’ long before audience participation was a section on every Arts Council application form.

It was into this tradition that the UK’s choice of host city for the 2008 European Capital of Culture came into view. The hope in Liverpool was that winning the title would celebrate the city’s cultural achievements, so often forgotten or ignored, and also that it would help attract investment and create much-needed jobs. It was very much in line with pre-Crunch era Blarite ideas of turning post-industrial areas into centres for the ‘creative economy’ that the city’s bid went in. Liverpool was arguably the starting point for the application of such ideas of cultural regeneration in the UK. After the 1981 riots, the regeneration schemes in the city initiated by the then Conservative government included the opening of Tate Liverpool in 1988 in the city’s abandoned docklands. This long before London’s Tate Modern and Gateshead’s Baltic also turned redundant riverside industrial space in centres for culture.

Ultimately Liverpool was to beat favourites Newcastle/Gateshead to the Capital of Culture title. The judges who made the decision said it was Liverpool’s strong cultural heritage, future plans and most of all, the sheer enthusiasm of the city’s population for the bid that won the day. Yet, as that faithful year got closer, more and more people began to ask, what is it for and who will it benefit?

The criticisms tended to be two-fold. The property boom which was already engulfing the UK was accelerated significantly in Liverpool by the title. Soon grassroots music venues and artists studios began to be displaced by luxury flats. Capital of Culture it seemed was indeed helping to re-make the city’s fabric, but was it in a good way for its cultural scene? Secondly and perhaps more fundamentally, many people had objections to what they felt was too much focus on bringing an ‘international’ culture aimed at attracting tourists to the city and not doing enough to encourage local creative expression and involvement.

Accusations of the Liverpool Culture Company, who were tasked with running the year, being remote and lacking understanding of the local arts community were rife, if sometimes unfair. With art it is of course hard to please all of the people all of the time. However, these criticisms were perhaps summed up when a popular local Banksy work on an abandoned pub was covered over with Capital of Culture branded hoardings, something which even made Newsnight.

A whole swathe of independent fringe projects sprung up alongside the official 2008 cultural programme, often using creativity to highlight the above issues. In a city with such a tradition of DIY, rebellion and politics in art, this was perhaps inevitable. As time went on, more and more people began questioning the whole idea of the then dominant mode of cultural regeneration. With these issues highlighted by activists in Liverpool, national critics who had previously praised the cultural regeneration of Britain’s Northern cities began to write of their wariness of the ‘dropping in’ of art from on high to change things in post-industrial areas. There was a realisation that such initiatives were not necessarily bringing benefits to deprived communities, that in some ways they were making things worse and were perhaps ultimately unsustainable.

For a time, it seemed the whole Capital of Culture project was heading towards disaster. In the event, sterling work by all involved pulled it back. Ultimately delivering a programme that was varied and popular, ranging from experimental electronica to a Gustav Klimt exhibition and a play about Liverpool FC. Most local people felt, by and large, that it was a successful year, but also that how the city did culture in future would have to be different.

Yes, culture can bring up the visitor economy; witness Liverpool’s huge growth as tourist destination since 2008, recently nominated by Condé Naste Traveller as its third favourite UK destination after London and Edinburgh. Yet if the same type of art is available in London and New York, why go anywhere else? Uniqueness is what attracts visitors, culture they cannot consume elsewhere. Gaudi’s architecture brings many more people to Barcelona than the works in its contemporary arts centre, for example. More fundamentally, there was also a realisation of the need for a change in how cultural services interact with local communities. That publicly funded culture should not be just imposed from the top down, it should be developed with thought given to how different audiences can connect and become involved at different levels. In Liverpool this was perhaps just a return to the way things were done before, back to the era of the founding of the Black-E, the Open Eye and Everyman, but such thinking is beginning to embed itself within wider cultural policy and thinking.

Liverpool of course didn’t do this on its own, but the city has played a big role in debates about culture, participation and the urban environment over the last thirty years. A line could be drawn from the opening of Tate Liverpool with its ‘international culture’ coming North and its luxury flats next door, the beginning of the property and ‘new economy’ boom and the speeding up of the international art world to Capital of Culture and the Crunch and onto today’s greatly changed arts landscape, with funding reduced and audience criteria higher than ever.

Liverpool’s biggest cultural event since Capital of Culture was The Sea Odyssey Giant Spectacular in 2012 and it demonstrated some of the changes that had taken place in the way the city went about its cultural programme. Delivered by renowned French street theatre experts Royal De Luxe, the project was several years in the making. Much time was spent developing the story so that their giant marionettes, which have been seen around the world, had a local connection, in this case via Liverpool’s links to the Titanic. The procession also took in a route that encompassed Anfield and Everton, two of the city’s most deprived wards, not just the shining regenerated city centre and waterfront where so much of the 2008 programme had taken place.

Plenty of opportunities were given for local people to be involved via a Wider Participation Programme embedded from the start of the project. The Sea Odyssey Spectacular included volunteer roles ranging from ‘local advocates’ who promoted the event in the community to people actually operating the marionettes. In addition, much partnership work was undertaken so that local cultural organisations, community groups, schools, colleges and businesses could interlink their own initiatives to the event. For example, there was an accompanying festival in Anfield’s Stanley Park arranged by local partners. Consequently this event is much more fondly remembered in the city than the not dissimilar La Machine from 2008.

Similarly, while the Liverpool Biennial festival had always worked to encourage participation and engagement, for the 2012 event more focus was given to creating in-depth participatory projects. This included the Homebaked/2up2down initiative in Anfield, led by Dutch artist Jeanne Van Heeswijk. Over a period of two years, the project worked to embed itself in the local community and developed the ultimate aim of re-opening a closed-down bakery and restoring abandoned housing in the area. For the period of the Biennial itself, the group that had been formed around the project also created a tour for visitors based around meeting local people which highlighted what had happened to the area in recent years with the failure of various regeneration schemes. Thus the project helped to bring abandoned space back into uses that benefit the community and tell local stories to visitors.

Similarly the Biennial commissioned Los Angeles based artist Fritz Haeg to work with the local community on creating a new garden at the stunningly-sited but somewhat rundown Everton Park. Both the Anfield and Everton Biennial projects had aesthetic outcomes, but ones which also addressed real local issues and needs whilst still working with international artists in an international context. Indeed, these ‘community’ projects attracted as much if not more national press attention than some of the ‘mainstream’ art shows in the city centre held at the same time.

Thinking about culture in the city is also increasingly turning towards sustainability. As a legacy from the Biennial initiatives, the bakery hopes to be fully re-opened by the end of 2013 and plans are underway with the local community for the further development of Everton Park, including a new pavilion.

Liverpool as a city appreciates the power and importance of art and culture, but knows that it can not sit in rarefied isolation from reality and shouldn’t just be dropped in and expected to improve a community by its mere presence. This isn’t to say that all art must be totally instrumentalist; as much as Sea Odyssey had regeneration ideas behind it, it was also something that was in and of itself fun and interesting to watch, but with just changing how things were done a little, it became much more than that.

A culture of participation is healthy and necessary, especially as funding cuts continue to bite and publicly funded arts organisations are more than ever responsible to and reliant on their audiences. Projects such as these undertaken in Liverpool can show the way. That it is possible to commission and create work that benefits local people, entices visitors and excites the art world all at the same time and in doing so, create the possibility of changing lives and communities for the better.

This piece appeared on Mailout.co in April 2013.

Liverpool Waters, a brighter future?

Liverpool Waters masterplan

Liverpool Waters masterplan. The project includes apartments, hotels, bars and a new cruise terminal. Photograph: Rust Design

By Kenn Taylor

After nearly a year of waiting and without warning, it was announced this week that Eric Pickles, the communities and local government secretary, would not be calling a public enquiry into the huge Liverpool Waters redevelopment of Liverpool‘s central docks area.

To an extent this was always something of a foregone conclusion. With the coalition Government obsessed with economic growth and the regions ‘standing on their own feet’ it would have been hugely damaging for them to have been seen to be blocking the development. This was especially true with the plans having such strong support locally and the Government having already awarded the area Enterprise Zone status. This despite the concerns of English Heritage and UNESCO who have suggested that the plan could jeopardise Liverpool’s World Heritage Site status.

Of course in this 30 – 50-year project, the builders will not be moving in tomorrow, but the announcement was still greeted largely positively in Liverpool. The support for what is unabashedly a capitalist scheme in the city’s more deprived areas seems to have surprised some national commentators – to the point that some seem to be patronisingly suggesting that ‘those poor provincial folk, they don’t know what’s being done to them.’

On the contrary, people living next to the central docks know better than anyone what a general eyesore they have been for most of the last 40 years and the desperate need that Liverpool has to gain more jobs and a stronger economy, especially in the face of devastating public sector cuts.

To recap, Liverpool Waters is a massive redevelopment of Liverpool’s dockland between the city centre and the still active modern port. It is huge in scale, up to 1,691,000 square meters, which it is planned will include offices, homes, cultural facilities, retail and leisure provision and a second, larger cruise ship terminal. It has been suggested it could create as many as 17,000 jobs, have up to 23,000 apartments and four hotels on what is presently, for the most part, flat Brownfield land. Its centrepiece would be the ‘Shanghai Tower’, at 55 stories the tallest building in the UK outside of London.

With a scale like that, there are legitimate concerns about who will fill that huge amount of space. Especially when there is a fair amount of unused Victorian office buildings in the city and when Liverpool has a relatively poor, if slowly improving, economy. The developer Peel’s argument is that the sheer scale of the plans will attract foreign direct investment in a way that piecemeal development would not, and that many of the older buildings in the city are not suitable for modern office accommodation.

Artist's night impression of designs for Liverpool Waters

Unesco has got a bit wobbly at this sort of image. But Peel has a decent heritage record. Photograph: Rust Design

Similarly heated debates were made about the Liverpool ONE retail development, with many commentators suggesting that Liverpool’s poor retail market could not stand any more units and that Liverpool ONE would destroy the city’s existing retail areas. While there are indeed empty units in Liverpool, as there in most of the UK’s cities and towns, the destruction of the older retail areas hasn’t happened and the critical mass of the transformative development shoved the city back into the big league of UK retail centres, from 14th to 5th place in three years. New occupiers continue to move in, even in the current depths of retail recession.

What has also been consistently ignored by critics dazzled by the glass towers in Peel’s admittedly brash artists’ impressions is the solid economic development work underway in relation to it. A huge new container shipping terminal is being built in Peel’s modern Seaforth docks just north of the scheme. It will be the first one in the north of England capable of handling the new, larger container ships that will fit through the widened Panama Canal from 2015. With road transport costs increasing and the UK’s markets shifting from Europe to the wider world, there’s huge potential for the city to reclaim its place as the north’s premier port and create a large number of jobs in the process. A new Maritime College is already under construction on part of the site to help train young people for this.

Meanwhile, over the river Mersey, Liverpool Waters’ sister project, the Wirral Waters redevelopment of the Birkenhead dockland is also significant. It’s actually even larger in scale than the Liverpool plan, but with it not being in the World Heritage Site, has attracted a lot less media attention. About to begin construction there is the International Trade Centre, a new business start-up hub for foreign inward investors that is the first of its kind in the UK and one of the biggest in Europe. It alone has vast potential to attract new investors from growing countries such as China, India and Brazil which are looking for a route into Europe. Once they become more established, they’re likely to require more space and suitable accommodation, leisure and retail space to support their facilities, and the Liverpool and Wirral Waters plans offer that. More recently, also at the Wirral Waters site, Peel has announced a manufacturing park, with plans to capitalise on the booming motor industry on Merseyside and possibly also expanding manufacturers in the energy and railway rolling stock sectors.

The heritage arguments against the plans are something that many people local people have struggled to understand when most of the development site is literally flat. The main argument from UNESCO seems to be that the new buildings would detract from the older ones up the river, much has also been suggested with London’s Shard. This may be true, but I haven’t seen the queues for the Tower of London getting any shorter recently. The other crux was the archeology of the site, where they have a stronger point. Yet without development, the archeology will remain there unexamined until someone comes along with the money to dig it up. To leave the site in its present state because of what is possibly buried underneath it would be folly.

No doubt the architecture critics will be sharpening their knives to criticise the scheme. Again, they may have a point. MediaCityUK and The Trafford Centre, Peel’s successful developments in Greater Manchester, are not beautiful. Yet they did restore redundant industrial land to productive use and have created thousands of jobs. And that will carry more weight in the deprived parts of Liverpool than hand-wringing about aesthetics by a few people who live far, far away.

However, Liverpool is a city that loves its heritage and most citizens will hope that Peel will keep its promise that what historic structures there are in the development site will be restored and re-used. The group has a decent track-record in this already, spending money in the last couple of years to restore the historic but unlisted Bascule Bridge and dock police hut on its estate, which had been left to rot for decades by its predecessor, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company. It remains to be seen if they will restore more. I have no doubt though that both the council and Peel will fight to retain the World Heritage status alongside the development if they can, not least for the pragmatic reason that it adds significant marketing value to the area.

So, when is all this going to happen? That’s the big question. Those suggesting that the whole thing is pie in the sky should consider why Peel would have spent several years and millions of pounds on planning and preparation in the middle of the recession if they didn’t have serious intentions. It is true, however, that the time scale is a long-term one.

trafford centre

A vulgar dome of commerce; but the Trafford Centre in Greater Manchester has been a runaway success. Photograph: Aidan O’Rourke

Almost certainly the first elements will be the ‘business generator’ ones on the fringes of the developments. The post-panamax terminal and the International Trade Centre are under construction or about to commence. I would expect a start on the manufacturing park in Wirral as well soon, and with Liverpool’s cruise business growing, the second cruise terminal could start in the next few years. With these in place, then we can expect the first leisure and retail development to support the area and the first offices going up in the central part of Wirral Waters and just north of Liverpool city centre. All this will probably take at least 10 years to complete. The ‘second cluster’ of tall buildings further north, which was the real bone of contention with UNESCO, not the Shanghai Tower as some commentators have suggested, are unlikely to be built within the next 20 years.

An International Festival for Business is being held in Liverpool in 2014, a large part of it on these very development sites. This will no doubt see a big investment push by the city and we may see the breakthrough of the first few key deals in relation to these schemes. Certainly the citizens of Liverpool will be hoping so.

Now, the ball is in Peel’s court to prove they can deliver. The city council, the Government and the majority of people in Liverpool have endorsed the plans. Peel Holdings, it’s up to you to show the city that you can do more in Liverpool than create shiny pictures of a better future.

This piece appeared on The Guardian in March 2013.

Liverpool Resurgent

Lewis’s department store, Modernism, destruction and restoration

By Kenn Taylor

Standing prominently on the corner of Ranelagh Street and Renshaw Street in Liverpool, the huge former Lewis’s department store is currently enveloped in plastic sheeting. Soon it will re-emerge as part of the Central Village development, but for now, what was formerly Liverpool’s grandest shop, and its unique Modernist features, remains covered up.

The store, no connection to the John Lewis Partnership, was founded in Liverpool by David Lewis in 1856 and expanded to Manchester in 1877. Lewis was known as a philanthropist and, after his death in 1885, his will paid for the David Lewis Theatre and Hostel on the edge of Toxteth in Liverpool and in Manchester, a centre for people with Epilepsy, whose successor still bears his name.

After David Lewis’s heirs, the Cohen family, took over, Lewis’s expanded rapidly, opening stores across the country in first half of the twentieth century. The Liverpool store was rebuilt and expanded in 1923 to a design by Gerald De Courcey Fraser, becoming one of the biggest in the UK. However, Lewis’s forward march was to be halted by the Second World War. On 3rd May 1941, during Liverpool’s infamous May Blitz, the store was almost entirely destroyed, part of the aerial assault that would see Liverpool become the most bombed city outside of London.

Post war, Lewis’s was keen to regain its position as the grandest store in Liverpool. De Courcey Fraser designed the replacement for his previous building, beginning in 1947. The store apparently began to trade again prior to construction being completed – there are stories of shop staff clambering over rickety scaffolding between sections in pre ‘health and safety’ days.

Only the furthest part of the building down Renshaw Street, the ‘Watson Building’, which at one point housed a car showroom, was retained from the older, more decorative 1920s building. The remainder was completely rebuilt of steel framed construction, clad in largely flat and imposing Portland stone; the Lewis’s name carved into the side and picked out in gold.

To mark the reconstruction, Lewis’s commissioned sculptor Jacob Epstein to create a new artwork for the prominent corner section of the building between Renshaw and Ranelagh Streets.  A pioneer of Modernism in sculpture, Epstein had once been a controversial figure, causing scandal in 1931 by exhibiting a statue of a pregnant woman called ‘Genesis’ in Liverpool’s Bluecoat Arts Centre. The curious, some 50,000 of them in four weeks, paid sixpence each to see it. By the 1950s though, Epstein was something of an elder statesman in the arts.

However, this didn’t mean he had lost the power to shock. On 20th November 1956, the statue commissioned by Lewis’s to symbolise “the struggle and determination of Liverpool to rehabilitate itself after the grim, destructive blitz years”. (Evening Express, 1956) and entitled ‘The Spirit of Liverpool Resurgent’ was unveiled. It was a large naked man standing up on the prow of a ship. Apparently the sudden sight of the naked statue caused some people to faint and a war of words for and against its artistic merits and morality began in the newspapers. Locally meanwhile, the statue quickly gained the nickname ‘Dickie Lewis’.

However, ‘Liverpool Resurgent’ wasn’t the only Modernist feature of the new Lewis’s and the company’s desire to embody the post war optimism. The interior of the store was filled with cutting edge design features, none more so than in its catering facilities situated on the upper floors of the huge building.

Lewis’s Liverpool store was a complex in itself, with around 1,300 staff at its height. It contained its own bank, pet store, hair salon and travel agency alongside the usual department store fare, and the scale of its catering facilities reflected this. There were several eateries, each aimed at different ‘classes’ of shopper and each containing striking Modernist features, the likes of which must have been a rare sight to the war-battered austerity Liverpool of the 1950s.

Perhaps most notable was the self-service cafeteria. This contained large tiled murals designed by Carter’s of Poole, which later became the famous Poole Pottery. The murals featured bold and abstract designs of food, crockery, cutlery and kitchen utensils. Added to this were geometric light fittings with hints of the atoms and space themes that were so popular in the 1950s, and vibrant colours throughout. These designs apparently all inspired by the restaurant at the 1951 Festival of Britain, an event which is credited by many with ushering Britain into the Modern age.

However, the cafeteria was not alone. For the middle classes there was The Mersey Room waitress service restaurant. This contained etched wooden panelling depicting the history of Liverpool, created by the influential Design Research Unit, the outfit behind such design classics as the British Rail logo and a key player in the Festival of Britain. The grandest eatery of all though, was the Red Rose Restaurant, which was silver service and aimed very much at the wealthiest of Lewis’s patrons. This featured a striking bronze sculpted screen depicting the Wars of the Roses created by Mitzi Cunliffe, perhaps best known for her design for the BAFTA Award statuette.

With the opening of these eateries, Lewis’s was at its peak, in an era before internet shopping, supermarkets and out-of-town retail parks. Generations of Liverpudlians have strong memories of its huge range and good service. Perhaps most of all, many people remember the grand Christmas grotto and meeting future wives and husbands under Epstein’s ‘statue exceedingly bare’.

For employees, there are memories of a benevolent employer that provided ‘a job for life’, where whole families would work together, and that even paid for its own sports fields on the edge of town. By the 1960s Lewis’s even owned London’s Selfridges and opened a Modernist tile-fronted store on the Blackpool waterfront in its continued expansion.

By the 1970s though, the company’s fortunes began to wane. For all their investment in cutting edge design in the 1950s, Lewis’s subsequently failed to adapt to changing markets. One by one its branch stores closed and the floorspace began to be reduced at its flagship Liverpool site. When the Red Rose Restaurant was closed in 1986, its bronze screen was acquired by Cunliffe and reinstalled at her home in Seillans, France. However, the remaining Modernist features in the building were sealed up and forgotten, the disused floors being used for storage.

In 2008 photographer Stephen King entered the lift of the slowly dying department store and was greeted by the attendant (yes, in Lewis’s they still had lift attendants). They sparked up a conversation and King was told about the abandoned upper floors still containing their original 1950s interiors. King made it his mission to explore and photograph them, his project culminating in a book and exhibition entitled ‘Lewis’s Fifth Floor: A Department Story’.

As fate would have it, the opening of the exhibition in 2010 coincided with the final closure of Lewis’s after 150 years and the show became a focal point for former staff and customers to reminisce about what had been the greatest store in Liverpool, if not the UK. Luckily, during one of Lewis’s pervious crises in 2007, the building had been Grade II listed, meaning its historic features were protected.

The Lewis’s building is now being incorporated by developers Merepark into a huge scheme called Central Village, opening in 2013. This will see the creation of shops, offices, hotels, eateries and a cinema, as well as a rebuilt Central Station. The overall façade of the building is being retained, including the Epstein statue, and, though internally it will be largely unrecognisable as the old Lewis’s, its remaining Modernist features will be restored. Most prominently, the former cafeteria with its tiled murals and geometric lights will become the Breakfast Bar of the Adagio hotel, while the panelling from The Mersey Room will be refitted to one of the hotel’s corridors.

It’s ironic perhaps that it was the decline of both Lewis’s and the Liverpool economy that saw these features preserved. Elsewhere, the building would have long been completely stripped for a new use before listing would have even been considered. Lewis’s is sorely missed, but at least elements of its proud history are being retained in a development that symbolises Liverpool, if not resurgent, then at least looking again to the future.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to everyone who worked on ‘Lewis’s Fifth Floor: A Department Story’, especially Stephen King for the use of his images, and Merepark for the information on the current development.

This is an extended version of a piece that appeared in The Modernist magazine in December 2012. 

Stephen King Photography – Lewis’s Fifth Floor.

Bread and Houses

The Anfield Home Tour

Commissioned by Liverpool Biennial

 

By Kenn Taylor

It’s rather surreal to be taken on a tour of a city you live in, but then this is quite a different tour. We start conventionally enough, by the Edwardian splendor of the Cunard building at the heart of Liverpool‘s regenerated waterfront, but soon we will be heading to the other side of the city – and the other side of Britain.

After we pile into the minibus, our tour guide Carl “with a C not a K, that’s just weird” Ainsworth announces that we’re heading for a district in the north of the city, Anfield. The word for many means solely the home ground of Liverpool FC, but Anfield is also one of the city’s oldest residential districts.

Welcome to the Anfield Home Tour, part of the Liverpool Biennial, the UK’s largest visual arts festival. The arts in Liverpool have always had something of a social conscience, and the Biennial is no exception; we are not heading to Anfield to look at football stadia or recently restored Stanley Park, but to learn some things about housing, community and regeneration.

Our first stop is Everton Park, where Carl tells us a story that sums up the British urban landscape in microcosm. From the top of the hill above the Mersey, there are amazing views across central Liverpool as far as the mountains of Wales on a good day. It was this view which led rich merchants to build fine houses here in the 18th century, some of which remain. With the expansion of nearby docks and industry, however, speculators built hundreds of densely packed terraced houses in the area, described by Carl as a “tidal wave”.

The merchants then moved further out, and a tight-knit working class community was formed on streets so steep that is some cases they had railings to help people climb them. Then, from the 1930s onwards, there were successive ‘slum clearance’ programmes, culminating in mass demolition in the 1960s. Many people were moved to overspill estates and new towns on the edge of the city. Others meanwhile lived out Le Corbusier’s vision of ‘a machine for living in’ at huge new high-rise blocks of flats. Some enjoyed scaling these new heights, and those old ‘tight-knit’ streets also often meant horrible conditions, but the dream soon turned sour. Carl reveals that some of these ‘new visions’ in housing were demolished fewer than ten years after being built.

In the 1980s, from the rubble of tower blocks came Everton Park , a green space on wasteland; but one with little thought given to its integration into the local area. Carl says: “Many former residents of the area come here to have picnics right where their houses used to be. You’d think from all that history, the powers that be would have learned.”

We find that they did not. Anfield was one of many areas in the UK subject to the Housing Market Renewal Initiative (HMRI). Despite the housing boom from the 1990s onwards, there were areas of the UK that stagnated, mostly in the north of England. The then government took up a report from Birmingham University’s Centre for Urban and Regional Studies. They decided what was needed was demolition, en masse, and new built homes, en masse. The process became the HMRI.

We arrive in Anfield to an area of new homes built by Keepmoat Construction. There’s been criticism from some that such houses in HMRI areas aren’t as ‘nice and neat’ as the terraces they replaced. However, as Carl points out, they do have gardens, off-street parking and modern levels of insulation and damp proofing, things denied to many though not all f the old houses. The tragedy of these homes, one often lost broadsheet debates about aesthetics, is that many people who owned the demolished homes did not get a good enough price for them under compulsory purchase orders to buy one of the new ones. They often had to take out second mortgages in old age to be able to buy somewhere to live. New homes in a community are all very well, but not if the community has to get into debt to buy them when they owned their old homes outright. With the cancellation of HMRI by the present government, we are told it was even touch and go if these new homes would be built or just wasteland left in their place.

As Carl points out, the biggest problem with HMRI was in its title: market renewal, not community or neighborhood renewal. This was of course, pre-crunch, when the market appeared to have the answer to everything; it just needed to be helped on its way. Speaking of markets, in my favourite part of the tour Carl passes two bricks around the bus, one from the new building site and one from the demolished homes. The new brick we are told is worth 30p, the old brick £1. Apparently bricks from the demolished homes are being exported to building sites around the UK, even abroad. Carl tells us: “There’s about 20,000 bricks in an average terrace, whole streets demolished, you do the math.”

As we drive down Granton Road, one of the ‘tinned up’ streets awaiting demolition, Carl plays a recording by Jayne Lawless, a former resident, recalling how just a few years ago, every house in the street was occupied. She speaks of the “controlled decline” under HMRI, which saw people pushed to leave, one by one, until the last residents left in despair. She says: “They said we were deprived, don’t remember being deprived.”

However, Anfield isn’t all dereliction, although newspapers have been full of emotive photos of empty homes. That is one reality, but just round the corner is another. Skerries Road is a traditional terraced street renovated to looking almost new by residents who refused to move. It shows how a different approach can succeed.

Then another local resident, Bob, gets on the bus as we drive past the house where he lived for 50 years. Now it sits empty, with abandoned properties all around. Yet this wasn’t a HMRI street. When former council houses were sold under ‘right to buy’, many ended up owned by landlords who rented to whoever they could get. Bob says this saw an increase of “unruly families” moving in, and with them anti-social behavior, crime and then often abandonment. Bob is a regular on Liverpool’s pub singing scene and gives us a rendition of ‘This Old House’ by Rosemary Clooney, before we move on.

We finish the tour at the former Mitchell’s Bakery, a local business for over 100 years which closed in 2010 and has now become a community hub, the centre of a two-year plan worked up between artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, on a Liverpool Biennial commission, and a myriad of other participants and project partners.

When they began, they had no idea where the idea would lead. The answer is a long-term plan to re-open the bakery as a cooperative, offering local people jobs and training and a Community Land Trust (CLT). If the city council lifts the current clearance order on the building, the CLT hopes to buy it and refurbish the bakery’s former living accommodation. Architect Marianne Heaslip and a group of local young people have drawn up the plans. In the long run the CLT would like to take on more buildings in the area and renovate them for not for profit re-occupation. The bakery has now been refurbished internally and with community members undergoing training, they hope to start trading soon.

Then, a surprise: over tea and cakes, it is revealed that Carl is actually actor Graham Hicks, but that all the stories we have heard are true. Britt Jurgensen, who directed the tour and co-wrote its script with Graham and local novelist Debbie Morgan, adds that many in the community were reluctant to get involved with this project. They had been let down so much by outsiders in the past. But this external spark brought people together who were frustrated by waiting for others to make decisions for them and has acted as a new impetus for residents to become stakeholders in their neighbourhood.

“This is our future,” says Britt, a theatre professional who lives locally and is a member of the CLT and the bakery cooperative. Progress will be slow but from the ground up, not a grand vision imposed from outside. The catalyst may have been the Liverpool Biennial, but local people are now taking things far beyond the ideas of any curators or artists. She says: “I hope we will be able to sustain ourselves as a group and know when to pass responsibilities on to new people. I hope we will be courageous enough to admit when we make mistakes and adapt our plans when it is appropriate. And I hope we will continue to enjoy ourselves whilst we do all that.”

As we munch cake, there is much discussion within our tour group, many of whom have never met before, about the injustice, the problems, and the potential solutions for Anfield and elsewhere. Overall, the feeling is one of energy, of something good coming out of a mess and of things finally, slowly, heading in the right direction.

In the hierarchy of needs in austere times in deprived areas, art may come pretty low, but if art can help regain food and shelter, pride and spirit, then it has a purpose both practical and ephemeral. This was a story that could have been complex, technical, dull and aggressively ideological; instead it has been brilliantly reduced to its actual simplicity: what has been done to a community, and what needs to be done to repair the damage.

The Liverpool Biennial has often struggled to define itself apart from all the other art festivals in the world. Given Liverpool’s weather, it isn’t necessarily going to attract the crowds that head to Venice, Lisbon or Miami. With more projects like this though, it can express itself as something unique in the world.

The Anfield Home Tour is a fine art work. It may also be a fine bit of sociology, entertainment, architecture, history, politics, and cake, but it is an art work. And it is one that should be compulsory consumption for every government minister, every housing association director, every town planner, student of architecture and social affairs correspondent. Its message is simple, and one we should all have learned long ago: The people who know what is best for communities are communities themselves and they are the only people who can truly regenerate an area.

The success of the Eldonian Village, a self-organised community that began in Liverpool in an area of urban blight in the 1980s, just a mile or so from Anfield, is testament to what can be achieved if the support and will is there. Anfield clearly has the will. It remains to be seen though, if those powers that be, whatever coloured rosette they happen to wear, will give them the power and the financial resources to build on this creative start.

This piece appeared on The Guardian in October 2012.

www.2up2down.org.uk

Images Copyright Mark Loudon, Jerry Hardman-Jones and Britt Jurgensen.

A Tate of the North

A look at Tate Liverpool as it approaches its 25th birthday with new director Francesco Manacorda.

By Kenn Taylor

Much has been written over the last few years about the proliferation of new art galleries in the UK regions, especially the north. Often this is seen to have started with Gateshead’s Baltic, which opened in 2002 in a huge converted flour mill on the Tyne waterfront. Much has also been written about the viability and role of such institutions, particularly those located in deprived areas, especially since the public sector cutbacks have ensued.

Before all of this though, there was Tate Liverpool. One the first attempts at creating a modern art gallery in a post-industrial setting in the UK, and certainly so in the north, it will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year. In that quarter century, modern and contemporary art has moved from the fringe of elite culture to something approaching the mainstream while the idea of using culture as a regeneration tool has both risen and fallen.

In an era when the Imperial War Museum has a branch in Tameside and the V&A is building one in Dundee, it might seem common sense to have a Tate gallery in a northern city, but at the time, it was a radical idea. In the early 1980s Sir Alan Bowness, then director of Tate, began formulating a plan to create a ‘Tate of the North’. Bowness later reflected, in a letter now in the Tate archive, on the project’s beginnings: “We made it clear that we wanted if possible to find some great 19th century building that had lost its original purpose, and would lend itself to conversion into an art gallery.”

Having met with positive responses about hosting the gallery from cities across the north, he visited them all, reaching Liverpool last. There he was given list of potential sites to explore by Merseyside County Council. He recalls: “At the end of a stormy and blustery winter’s day we arrived at the Mersey, had a quick look at the Liver building (not suitable) and then went into the totally derelict Albert Dock. It was immediately clear to me that this was the place.”

Pushed along by the then ‘Minister for Merseyside’, Michael Heseltine as a key regeneration project for the city in the wake of the 1981 Toxteth Riots, the idea made rapid progress and in 1985 Liverpool-trained James Stirling was commissioned to design the new gallery in the dock. His work left the exterior of the Grade I listed warehouses largely untouched, but transformed the interior into galleries suitable for the display of modern art. The building opened to the public in May 1988.

There was some scepticism about this ‘branch of the London art world’ opening its doors in Liverpool, yet in the decades since, the gallery has firmly established itself as part of the city’s cultural landscape. Under its last director, Christoph Grunenberg, Tate Liverpool developed from a relatively quiet branch to holding some of Tate’s biggest exhibitions, including Gustav Klimt: Painting, Design and Modern Life in Vienna and Picasso: Peace and Freedom. Although some visitors from London and other exotic places occasionally asked gallery staff “Why on earth is this up here?”, Tate’s presence was a factor in Liverpool winning the title of European Capital of Culture in 2008. The gallery’s hosting of the first Turner Prize that year helped to pave the way for the current system of a regional venue every other year.

At the end of last year Tate Liverpool appointed a new artistic director, Francesco Manacorda, to steer the gallery through its next phase. The 38-year-old has previously been curator at London’s Barbican Art Gallery, curated various pavilions at the Venice Biennale and ran the Artissima international art fair in his native Turin. Manacorda acknowledges the importance of Tate Liverpool’s legacy: “Tate Liverpool was a pioneer in making modern and contemporary art accessible to a wider audience outside London. The results it harnessed have no doubt provided inspiration for the creation of institutions such as Baltic in Gateshead, Nottingham Contemporary and the Hepworth Wakefield.”

He feels that it was not just the regions that were influenced by the opening of Tate Liverpool, but London as well:  “The commissioning of a prominent contemporary architect to convert a monumental piece of industrial heritage into a contemporary art venue was very successful in Liverpool. I am sure this influenced the decision to transform the abandoned Bankside power station into what we now know as Tate Modern.”

In the immediate future Manacorda’s focus is on the Liverpool Biennial, the largest visual arts festival in the UK, which opens this week. Since the Biennial’s inception under the stewardship of a former Tate Liverpool director, Lewis Biggs, the gallery has played a major part in it. Manacorda says: “Tate Liverpool’s relationship with the Biennial has been very good since the Biennial was established in 1998, and I would like to continue this. The Tate Collection is a great asset which allows emerging artists to look at history in an innovative and unconventional way.”

Tate’s contribution to the festival comprises two elements. The first is a new commission, ‘Sky Arts Ignition: Doug Aitken – The Source’, in which Aitken asks a variety of creative practitioners including Jack White, Tilda Swinton and Mike Kelley where their creativity comes from. The work is situated in a glass pavilion situated outside the gallery designed by David Adjaye. Manacorda comments:  “I think it is a great piece and it has been a real privilege working with Doug. The work makes a very important point manifest, that conversations are one of the most important sources of creativity.”

There will also be a new Tate Collection display entitled Threshold, featuring a wide range of artists from Martin Parr to Gilbert and George: “The show was curated by Sook-Kyung Lee as a response to this year’s Biennial theme of ‘Hospitality’. She took a very rigorous and imaginative approach to looking at how both inclusion and exclusion can become social, political and economic tools that manifest in a variety of, not always visible, ‘thresholds’.”

As Tate approaches its 25th birthday in May 2013, plans are already in place to mark the occasion, though Manacorda will only reveal a brief amount at the moment: “We are planning a major re-hang of the Tate Collection at the gallery to coincide with our 25th anniversary. We will be reflecting on the past twenty-five years, using the re-hang to do something different, exciting and revelatory with the collection.”

Nearly a quarter century after its inception as part of a plan to regenerate Liverpool, I ask Manacorda what role he sees the gallery playing now in a city in many ways transformed, in many ways still struggling: “Tate Liverpool was at the forefront of re-imaging the city’s industrial heritage through culture, helping people project new meaning into it. Culture has literally and metaphorically moved into the empty industrial space following the economic evolution of the North in recent decades. Tate Liverpool has a larger audience than other regional galleries, which means that while we have a loyal and growing Merseyside audience, we are also able to attract audiences from further afield. This of course is what brings regeneration effects to the city. We bring visitor spend to Liverpool and work in partnership with organisations across the city to make it a focus for cultural tourism.”

Though he sees the gallery as having a deeper role than just being a tourist magnet: “In addition to considering the economic effects of regeneration, we also consider the other beneficial effects that art can have on people’s lives. Art can speak to people and become an emancipatory tool for people to innovate, question and reinvent. Tate Liverpool’s role is to bring international, top quality practices to Liverpool, activating a conversation between the local and the international.”

Finally I ask, as Manacorda settles into his new role and can start influencing the programme on a deeper level, what is his vision for the future of Tate Liverpool? “I see the museum as a space for learning that provides the public with edifying experiences, critical space for reflection and access to the enjoyment that art can grant. Since Tate Liverpool is a modern and contemporary art gallery, I’d like to involve artists in reinventing how we look at history.”

This piece appeared on The Guardian in September 2012.

Stormy Waters

By Kenn Taylor

Liverpool is still one of the most deprived cities in the UK, but it does have an economy that is slowly improving. Only last week, it jumped to fifth place in the table of cities most-visited from overseas. The 1,000 new jobs at the Jaguar Land Rover plant in Halewood are another welcome boost. Yet the fact that some 35,000 people applied for those vacancies shows how it still has a long way to go.

This is why ambitious projects like Liverpool Waters, the controversial plan for new offices, homes and other facilities around decaying northern dockland, are important. The biggest planning application ever submitted in Britain, seems on a fantastically inhuman scale which naturally makes people uneasy, including The Observer‘s London-based Rowan Moore; but sometimes, especially when you’re at the bottom, you have to think big.

When Liverpool’s early leaders built the world’s first enclosed wet dock, which opened in 1715, they mortgaged their entire modestly sized town to build it. It was a big risk that paid off; so was Liverpool’s pioneering of the world’s first intercity railway, to Manchester, in the face of many who said that it would never work. Such risk-taking helped to build Liverpool, but it is something we seem to have lost over the last forty years.

There has also been a knee-jerk reaction against Liverpool Waters as a scheme of that instinctively mistrusted group, property developers, in this case Peel Holdings. This can be justified, as more often than not such organisations focus on profit above all else. Yet if property development for profit had never happened here, the historic docks that we now admire would have never been built.

The Grade 1-listed Albert Dock was not built to look nice. It was built to make money as a fireproof shed, that in 1846 was starkly modern and was criticised at the time by local historian J.A. Picton for its brutal mediocrity.

Neither would have the famous ‘Three Graces’ on the city’s Pier Head. Built on redundant dockland, the Graces were the Canary Wharf or Liverpool Waters of their day; early examples of corporate headquarters built in the latest trendy styles to aggrandise the businesses that constructed them. They were not universally popular with the critics at the time either. The Royal Liver Building was dismissed by Charles Reilly, professor of architecture at Liverpool University, thus:

“A mass of grey granite to the cornice, it rose to the sky in two quite unnecessary towers, which can symbolise nothing but the power of advertisement.”

Today’s aggressive heritage lobby and aesthete critics are fond of proclaiming Liverpool’s past innovations and achievements, with the hindsight which Reilly could not have. But they are as blinkered as he could be to the city’s need to continue to innovate and develop. The threatened loss of the UNESCO World Heritage status which covers part of the site, if the development goes ahead, would be a huge blow. However, the pluses and minuses of having the status are hard to quantify. Dresden in Germany also lost its World Heritage Site status when it built an important modern bridge, yet remains a tourist magnet.

Meanwhile such critics seem content to oppose Liverpool Waters without offering any realistic alternative plan for this huge area, not even a notional one. That would condemn the historic structures in the northern docks to continue to rot for want of money or a reason for being. Nearly all these old buildings would be restored as part of Liverpool Waters, alongside the new developments.

I believe that the Waters should be compared to Liverpool 1, the new shopping and leisure area developed by the Grosvenor Estate and opened four years ago. It too was heavily criticised during construction, but vox pop on its streets today and you would find few who would want to go back to the 1970s Moat House hotel, the wasteland car parks, concrete Paradise Street Bus station and the Argos Superstore that used to stand there.

Liverpool 1 created thousands of jobs and helped the city to leap from 14th to 5th in the UK’s retail rankings, while not, as many predicted, destroying the traditional shopping areas of Church Street and Bold Street. It has also attracted dozens of new shops to Liverpool at a time when town centres nationally are collapsing, the development creating the demand. I didn’t like Liverpool 1 while it was in gestation, but now I find it hard to argue now against its success in transforming Liverpool’s town centre for the better.

The northern docks, though, are an even bigger challenge. Yes Liverpool could do something smaller with them. Something mediocre like the call centres and car showrooms that line the former southern docks up to Otterspool, or the city could really think big, something equivalent to the scale of ambition Liverpool once had.

For all the genuine fears of ‘more Yuppy flats’ the Peel plan does have an economic basis. Their schemes for regenerating the Wirral docks with ‘Wirral Waters’ will be based on a new International Trade Centre in Birkenhead, the first of its kind in Europe, which has already attracted firm Chinese investment. The plans for Liverpool Waters meanwhile, are linked with the new ‘post-panamax’ shipping terminal that will be able to handle the world’s largest ships. These ‘concrete’ bits of economic development, unglamorous as they are, are going in before any of the proposed shiny towers.

Peel also has an enviable track record. They built the Trafford Centre, which employs 10,000 people and, contrary to what people said at the time, didn’t destroy Manchester city centre. They have also turned Liverpool Airport from a joke to the 10th biggest in the country and, their biggest coup of all, got the BBC to move north to MediaCity:UK in Salford, which has created thousands of those ‘good jobs’ in the north, with the prospects of thousands more to follow. There has been some criticism that many of these people have transferred from London, but that doesn’t account for the fact the BBC were hardly going to lay off their existing staff en-masse and ignores the prospects for future generations in the north once the BBC has settled in.

People are understandably also sceptical of the timescale proposed for the plans for Liverpool and Wirral Waters, 30 years. Yet when the re-development of the defunct Salford Docks began in 1983, if you had said then that, 30 years later, MediaCity:UK would be there, you’d be laughed out the room. Now though, we can all tune into BBC Breakfast News live from the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal.

I’m not Peel’s PR. They have some questionable business arrangements, tend to rely heavily on outside investment and often build dull architecture; but again I turn to the critics and ask: what else do you suggest? No one else has any workable plans for the northern docks. So do we go for it? Or do we forgo the risk, let Liverpool’s economy struggle along and allow a historic part of our city to rot indefinitely while wistfully hoping for something else?

Even as a supporter of the Liverpool Waters plans, I admit that I will believe it all when I see it. But I never would have believed the developments that have already happened in contemporary Liverpool were possible a few years ago. The city and the Government should take a leaf out of our history and go for it. Critics should meanwhile put pen to paper to show us they think could go in its place.

This is an extended version of a piece that appeared in The Guardian in May 2012.