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Liverpool, England.
13,091 Posts
Discussion Starter · #1 ·
There has been so much going on in the city in the lifetime of SSC, that it is easy for me to forget that I first got interested in redevelopment back in the 1960s, when a massive rebuilding of the city centre was in progress.

As a ten year old, I remember my uncle showing me the huge steel frame of the Littlewoods JM Centre (now the Plaza) under construction and taking me to see the giant model of the city centre when it was on display in the Walker Art Gallery, complete with Inner Motorway and other never realised marvels such as the huge apartment blocks planned for the back of James Street and Lord Street.

The Sixties were a time of unrestrained optimism, which was reflected in a ruthless desire to tear down the past and build a bright new future. That attitude was understandable. For some thirty years there had been little or no new development due to first the Thirties economic depression followed by the battering of the Second World War and then a decade and a half of post-war stagnation. Liverpool had a lot of smoke-blackened relics of the Victorian era but little to reflect modern aspirations.

The desire to build a new city meant that a large number of buildings from previous eras did not survive. We still mourn the loss of the Cotton Exchange, the Sailors Home and Central Station, that were swept away in the name of progress and I think for that reason, as much as any other, there has been a reaction against the buildings of the Sixties, which has seen many buildings of that decade meet an often untimely end.

Just as Sixties planners often failed to appreciate the value of Victorian era buildings, I think that we are prone to repeat the same mistakes by not valuing buildings of the Nineteen Sixties. Often that comes about because of a failure to appreciate what these buildings represent.

So, I've chosen ten Liverpool city centre buildings of the Sixties and have tried to explain why I think that they are worth a second look. One or two were not completed until the Seventies but I consider them to belong to the Sixties building boom.

No.1 Old Hall Street (Corner of Chapel Street and Old Hall Street)

Buildings such as this had been built in Continental Europe between the wars but this was a fairly new departure for Britain and certainly for Liverpool.

It is a building that represents the Modern Movement of the post World War I era in that it is completely devoid of any ornament and uses an engineered frame to support the floors whilst the walls and windows are simply hung off the frame.

This building technique was not new in the Sixties, in fact the Three Graces and many of Liverpool's interwar buildings use steel or concrete frames. However, architects of those eras felt the need to provide massive masonry walls ornamented with columns and arches to give the impression of structural strength even though the frame did all of the work.

No.1 Old Hall Street shows that by the Sixties, architecture had caught up with engineering. The building demonstrates that with modern construction techniques, light and airy structures are possible, which is emphasised by the recessed lower story.

I believe that the original plan for this building was for it to be extended so as to front onto Fazakerly Street and Rumford Place. Of the existing buildings on the block, only Yorkshire House would remain. The building was built back to a new line, which was first adopted when Yorkshire House was built.

Silkhouse Court (Tithebarn Street)

This fifteen story block built in the late Sixties was one of Liverpool's first 'skyscrapers'. Again, it shows the lightness of construction that can be achieved without masonry cladding and the only concession made to ornament in the building is the two indents on the Tithebarn Street elevation.

The lack of ornament was not seen as a way of saving money so much as cleansing the building of any pretentious add-ons that tried to conceal its simple function. It was the era when Mies Van der Rohe's dictum 'Less is More' was taken very seriously.

The need to get away from the formalism of the past often led to architects being very wary of symmetry, which was seen as belonging to traditional classical architecture. For that reason, entrances were often placed away from the centre of the building and not emphasised. Fortunately, the architect of Silkhouse Court placed the entrance slap bang middle of the Tithebarn Street elevation - just where you would expect it to be - and even provided a flight of steps.

Silkhouse Court is also interesting from an engineering point of view. The building was constructed right over the dock branch of the Mersey Tunnel. To avoid crushing the tunnel, bored piles were sunk either side of the branch with felt linings to prevent stressing the rock. The pilecap on which the building was constructed is two metres thick.

The Cotton Exchange (Old Hall Street)

Lovers of Liverpool's traditional architecture will never forgive this building as it's construction involved the demolition of the grand portico of the old Cotton Exchange, flanked by two towers. However regrettable that was, the replacement needs to be judged on its own merits and the Sixties building shows what can be done with precast concrete units. Again, the adoption of a frame construction with cladding panels has led to a very light and airy building which fits into the streetscape very well. The continuation of the structural frame above the final story is probably more a way of ornamenting the building, whilst pretending not to, than a structural requirement.

Internally, there is a courtyard with the same precast concrete units to the rear of the fronting block. Possibly as an apology for the demolition of the Cotton Exchange, some of the eroded statues from the facade have been retained.

The Metro Tower (Old Hall Street)

One of the later buildings of the Sixties building boom and not completed till the early Seventies. Whilst the building has no traditional ornament, the use of tiled fins emphasises the building's verticality and the combination of the angled fins and bronzed glazing reflects the setting sun when seen across the Mersey.

The location of the building on top of the Post and Echo printing works tends to diminish its impact but the recent addition of a glazed atrium has greatly improved the setting.

The Plaza (Old Hall Street - formerly Littlewoods JM Centre)

The most imposing of the Sixties office towers and, until the construction of the Beetham apartment towers, the building that denoted the northern edge of the city centre.

This building apparently resulted from the rejection of an earlier scheme for a thirty storey tower due to planners height limitations. However, the recent recladding and reconstruction of the ground floor has given this building a more comprehensible entrance arrangement and it is now one of the city's most sought after office locations.

State House (Corner of North John Street and Dale Street

At only ten storeys, State House is hardly a skyscraper but it does have a central Manhattan feel about it - possibly due to the set-back of the main tower.

The black granite cladding on the lift and stair tower emphasises the corner of the block whilst the lower podium aligns with adjacent buildings to continue the street line.

Possibly the least noticed feature of State House is the way that the setback of the tower allows views of both the Royal Insurance Building and the North John Street Mersey Tunnel Ventilation Tower - giving the lie to the idea that Sixties buildings did not respect their setting.

Some of the fins on the lower podium block were designed to be removable to accommodate a walkway for the city walkway system.

The Atlantic Tower Hotel (Corner of Chapel Street and Newquay)

One of the most popular of the Sixties building, the shape is often taken to represent the prow of a ship. It complements the gothic tower of St Nicholas to frame the entrance to Chapel Street.

As with State House and the Metro Tower, there is the use of a podium block with the tower set back from the road frontage, in contrast to the Unity office tower behind.

What this building really demonstrates is what can be achieved with new construction techniques. The central core of the tower was slip-formed and the floors cast at ground level, one on top of the other around this core. The floors were then jacked up to their final location and locked onto steel columns.

Both the shape of the tower and the articulation of the cladding give this building a timeless quality despite it being over forty years since construction.

Eight Water Street (Water Street opposite India Building)

Not an easy site to build any office building flanked by the historic Oriel Chambers and the Fifth Avenue magnificence of India Building.

However, without attempting to replicate the adjacent buildings, the architect has used precast concrete units to give a modern interpretation of the oriel windows that give Oriel Chambers its name. In so doing, it continues the pattern of fenestration that enlivens the street frontage of Water Street.

No doubt white concrete units were chosen as they are closest in appearance to the Portland Stone of India Building but, after forty years, some cleaning appears to be required.

The above photo shows one of the least popular features of the building - the blank wall facing onto the car park behind the Pig and Whistle. After forty years, still nothing has been built there.

St John's Beacon (Houghton Street / St John's Precinct)

With the exception of the Metropolitan Cathedral, this has to be the most prominent Liverpool building of the Sixties.

Ostensibly built as the flue to the precinct heating system, the tower represented Liverpool's attempt to build a great modern landmark. The 'crows nest' once had a plush French restaurant, which revolved to give a full view of the city. This was closed as it was deemed a fire risk and for many years the tower was empty, until taken over as a radio station by Radio City in the late Nineties.

The alterations made to accommodate the radio station - principally the addition of an enclosed floor where the former observation deck had been - did improve the appearance of the tower but this was let down by the steel advertising hoarding frame, which appears now to have been unsuccessful.

The appearance of the tower probably never recovered from the decision made during construction to dispense with the 70' tall mast, which would have made it look less like a chimney. Maybe, a future reconstruction will put right that oversight.

The CN tower it isn't but St John's Beacon does illustrate the pioneering spirit of a lot of Sixties architecture.

The Playhouse Extension (Williamson Square)

Some of the best of Sixties architecture was fairly small scale and the Playhouse extension comes into that category. The intersecting drums of the extension with their glazed curtain walls have proved a more than fitting complement to the existing building and have benefitted from a recent restoration by the original architect.

This building demonstrates what can be done with reinforced concrete and how it allows structural forms unthinkable with traditional materials.

The circular form reflects not only the domes of the Playhouse but also the curved vehicle entrance to St John's Precinct (now removed) and, probably, the shape of the Beacon towering above.

So that's that. I would like to add more buildings to this list - the Metropolitan Cathedral is an obvious contender - but I think that the ones above show off a wide range of building types.

Not everyone is going to like buildings of the Sixties but my point is that they need to be valued along with buildings of all eras and not dismissed because of the particular architectural era that they represent.

Quite a few of the buildings I have shown would benefit from some fairly major restoration - but that is not uncommon in buildings that have been around for over forty years. What needs to be considered is that even the most expensive restoration is unlikely to cost a tenth of the cost of demolition and rebuilding.

They were built in days when environmental interest was not as keen as today and would benefit from double glazing, improved heating and air conditioning and better insulation - however, that is surely preferable to demolition and the loss of embedded energy.

One drawback of buildings of this era is that they lack headroom for the raised floors of modern computer based office systems. However, as we are now in the age of Wi-Fi, this is becoming less important.

If this were Central London, then many of the buildings built in the Sixties would have been replaced in the Eighties and those replacements may now have been replaced. That is possible, if not particularly environmentally friendly, when office space rentals are high. However, in Liverpool we have a stock of serviceable buildings that can be brought back into service. (Of course, many buildings of that era are still in use and attracting good rents).

I think the main thing though is to realise that many of the buildings of the Sixties are as good as those from any other era and begin to value them as we now valued Victorian and Georgian buildings.

Liverpool, England.
13,091 Posts
Discussion Starter · #4 ·
Excellent post, Martin. I agree entirely about the demonization of sixties architecture. Yes, we suffered a lot of crap, most of which as gone already (bar St John's Precinct) but we also did quite well in this city in having some quite decent stuff and it tells a chapter in the story of Liverpool.

I think a photo of the Metropolitan Cathedral really needs to be put up here as it's probobably the most interesting and revered example of sixties architecture that this city has...

That is a lovely photo Gareth, thanks for posting - saved me a trip up the hill at least.

The Metropolitan Cathedral is no doubt the most iconic building of the Sixties in Liverpool (and one of the most iconic in the country) and I think it shows what was both good and bad about Sixties architecture.

As with the Cotton Exchange, many people will never forgive the Gibberd design because of the (proposed) building that it replaced. However, Lutyens magnificent domed cathedral was not only never built but would have been almost impossible to build in the economic conditions following WWII.

There was an attempt at a scaled down version of Lutyens by Giles Gilbert Scott, architect of the Anglican Cathedral, but even that would have been way too expensive. What was needed was a modern building that would be a radical departure from the previous designs and one that looked forward to the future rather than to the grandeur of the past.

I often think that the problem with the Metropolitan Cathedral is that Gibberd got too carried away with the radical design and didn't pay enough attention to detail.

The use of modern materials such as plastics and resins in construction was a costly failure and necessitated a major reconstruction of the building within thirty years of being built.

Also, some of the architectural details could have done with a bit of refinement. For example, I think that the building proportions were not properly thought out - the lantern tower should be taller and narrower (it is interesting that the photo seems to distort the proportions of the building to make it look more dramatic).

The structural ribs of the building are one of its most iconic features. They start below ground level (at one location, a rib punches through the wall of the podium), continue up to the lantern tower, continue through that tower and then end as the pinnacles forming the 'crown of thorns' on top of the cathedral.

That is a great idea but could have done with some skilled detailing. The junction between the ribs of the main cone and the lantern tower, both inside and out, seems to have been designed by a structural engineer. The line of the ribs suddenly terminates in a concrete ring beam rather than flowing to the top of the tower.

All in all though, I think that this is a fantastic building and I certainly don't support the idea that I have heard on this site of demolishing the 'wigwam' to replace it with another attempt at Lutyens. The building is now as much a part of Liverpool as the Liver Buildings.

As for St Johns Precinct, I would have to have a few double whiskies before I could say anything very complimentary about that except that some of the simplicity of the original building features has been lost in subsequent rebuilding. The glass-enclosed Elliott Street elevation may be more weather resistant but the earlier slender column design (similar to Euston Station) looked more stylish in my opinion.


Liverpool, England.
13,091 Posts
Discussion Starter · #10 ·
Martin, can't agree wiith the proportions weren't thought out. A narrower spire/tower would look ridiculous imo. The tower/spire proportions are just right, that is, if you take the nave as a tower, topped by a spire then it roughly equal, (150ft/150ft) they are the classic proprtions for spire and tower.
I wouldn't make too much of this proportion issue - just a feeling that the lantern tower should be that bit taller (say around 10%) to make it more dominant. It is very difficult to judge this from photographs as the proportions will vary depending on the focal length of the lens and the position of the photographer. If Gibberd did use classical proportions, then perhaps the fact that half the height of the lantern tower is made up with openwork makes it less dominant.

Liverpool, England.
13,091 Posts
Discussion Starter · #11 ·
Eyeam said:
I'd love to see State House refurbished.

Can't stand Silkhouse Court and hope that one bites the dust eventually.
Some top buildings there, my favourites are:

Silkhouse Court, great shape and colour, a few more floors would of enhanced it

Atlantic Tower, brilliant shape and cladding, however the top is a little shit, and it should been another 5-10 storeys high

State House, not sure, but I like it, beautiful polishes granite? does need some tlc

Tinlings Building, not in the pics above, but a rather pretty corner building with a bit of character when you take a closer look

Old Hall street is low quality shit, including the Cotton Exchange

What about the new Spar on Dale/Castle Street, its an amazing building

Will try and think of more
Interesting different thoughts on Silkhouse Court. I guess the problem with it is that it is not a terribly interesting building and is very dominant. Maybe it would be better if it were surrounded by other buildings of similar height. Still, it is now over forty years old and looks in pretty good condition - that exposed aggregate concrete cladding has lasted well.

I think that a few of the taller buildings could have done with some more storeys, particularly the Littlewood Building. Not too sure that the Atlantic Tower is one of them. The site is right opposite St Nicholas's Church and a taller Atlantic Tower might have been too dominant.

Agree that State House needs some t.l.c. I think it dates from the early to mid-Sixties and I doubt that it has had any major refurbishment in almost fifty years. Still, judging by the reflection of the Royal Insurance building in the polished granite, it is still in reasonably good condition.

I do like the Old Hall Street buildings (although I think that Metro Tower would have looked better without the podium block). I think that many buildings of that era look cheap because they used very simple designs to contrast with the embellishment of previous eras.

I plan to get some more photos to cover some of the other Sixties buildings, including the Spar (former Midland Bank) and some others in the Castle Street area.

Liverpool, England.
13,091 Posts
Discussion Starter · #13 · (Edited)
Some more buildings from a photo tour I did yesterday:

Moor House (James Street)

A former office building built around and above the James Street station entrance building. The Victorian building (similar to Hamilton Square) was destroyed during WWII and a temporary concrete building had replaced it.

Up until a few years ago, a pedestrian walkway ran through the building and across James Street.

The style is very similar to the adjacent Wilberforce and Mersey Houses, which front onto the Strand. The building is completely stripped of any ornament and makes a very profound contrast with the adjacent White Star building.

Moor House is now being converted into a hotel, which has involved refurbishment of the cladding and glazing. However, except for the substitution of full pane windows, very little external change has been made.

Wilberforce and Mersey House (the Strand)

Mersey House, to the right, shows the original architecture of the two buildings but Wilberforce House has been completely transformed with new cladding and glazing and the construction of a penthouse to make it into Beetham Plaza. This radical reconstruction, preserving the structure but not respecting the original architecture, is debatable but is surely a better alternative to complete demolition and reconstruction.

The bucket fountain in the enclosed square is an original feature (although the blue water is new):

Mersey House is most imposing where it fronts onto the enclosed square. This building appears not to be occupied:

I came across an old rendering from the Daily Post which showed the proposed rear of Moor House. The space was originally intended as a public space but was completely taken up by this car park which was built not long afterwards. The restored rear of Moor House can be seen to the left with Mersey House ahead and the 1950s Corn Exchange to the right:

The Midland Bank Building (Dale Street)

This building occupies a prominent site by the Town Hall and caused a great deal of controversy when first erected due to its complete contrast with the adjacent historical buildings.

The justification for the unusual cladding was that it would reflect the surrounding buildings - which it does, up to a point.

The bank function has now been replaced by the new HSBC on Lord Street and the building has just reopened as a Spar supermarket.

Equity and Law Building, Castle Street

This building is much more respectful to its setting in Castle Street and was admired when constructed for that reason. Gone is the stark simplicity of Moor House or the architectural flamboyance of the Midland Bank. The use of oriel windows and double height supporting columns reflects traditional buildings, although this is still clearly a very modern building and quite timeless in its appeal.

Watson Prickard Building (corner of Cook Street and North John Street)

I think that this is the closest that a Sixties building got to the pastiche of later decades. The use of traditional stone facing and arched windows respects its role as a high class gents outfitters although that role has now gone and the ground floor is a Slug and Lettuce.

Tinlings Building (corner of Victoria Street and Crosshall Street)

I've included this building because Dreamer mentioned it but I think it dates from the Fifties. As Lathom points out, Sixties buildings tended to avoid using traditional stone facing. I also think that the bolder architects of the Sixties would have avoided any form of ornamentation such as the patterned tiles to the lower storey. Still, this is a very modern building in a very traditional setting.

In the last few years there have been plans to reconstruct the building with new cladding and the addition of wind turbines. However, I would just like to see it refurbished to preserve its identity.

Liverpool, England.
13,091 Posts
Discussion Starter · #15 ·
Martin –

A fascinating initial post. I’m always impressed that you keep on trying to raise the level of discussion. And I particularly appreciate that you try to give reasons for your preferences, not just issue them forth as if anyone else is interested whether you ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ something.

Two things you say are worth emphasizing: that sixties (and 70s) architecture had some reasoning behind it and wasn’t just cheap and thoughtless, and indeed that it frequently sought to invoke or defer to context. But where it didn’t, its ambitions are interesting even when they were flawed. I’m thinking of the walkway system and the architectural responses it produced. The ‘New Hall Place’ area in Old Hall Street, now obliterated, was one area where (when there were enough people around, which was seldom) you could get a sense of the multi-level city planners were aiming at. From this point of view the location of the former ‘Metropolitan House’ on a large podium makes sense.

The other is your environmental message. This should really be appreciated by those who talk about knocking down buildings and replacing them by something taller and shinier as if they were pieces on a chessboard. Mind you, that’s just chatter: the real problem is developers who do this for real. That offices such as Broadgate in London, built with all the extra space for cabling that was demanded in the 1980s but is now (as you say) becoming redundant, are now themselves threatened with demolition is pretty appalling.

I think you are spot on regarding Silkhouse Court, which I agree is one of the best buildings of the era. It’s almost a classical building, such is its emphasis on symmetry: two pavilions flanking a tall element, and the vertical indentations work like reverse pilasters. Did you ever notice that some experiments on painting it had been done round the back? Thankfully these never came to anything.

Fifties architecture is worth a look too. It tended to be less ambitious and more deferential, with much use of Portland stone, essentially continuing the art deco themes of Herbert Rowse and Charles Reilly, and thus extending a distinctive Liverpool architectural tradition: good examples are the Corn Exchange and Merchant’s House, Lord Street (I think it’s called). Possibly the Tinlings Building (a quite elegant building, though it suffers from an inactive ground floor) is of this era also, which indeed might well creep into the early 60s, as the 60s does the 70s.
I take the point about 50s 60s and 70s buildings Lathom. Its almost as if we have a blind spot for those eras. I know that I have had a tendency to dismiss buildings as 'sixties rubbish' and just going round and having a closer look has rekindled in me some of the feelings that I had when I saw them being built.

I'll have to have a look for that painting on Silkhouse Court. I'm never too keen on painted concrete as it often doesn't look right and seldom lasts (although some protective coatings are good in that they prevent deterioration of the concrete).

I normally trust your posts but I had to check on what you said about Broadgate. I was just amazed that such an iconic development that was only completed in the early 90s could be facing demolition. I suppose it makes economic sense if it means that bankers will be tempted to stay in the City rather than migrating to Canary Wharf but I just couldn't excuse the waste of buildings that with reasonable maintenance should be able to last into the 22nd century. Just think of all the design and construction hours, the expensive materials and the lorry loads of demolition debris - it doesn't bear thinking about.

The irony is that the more successful a building is in attracting high rental tenants, the earlier it pays off its construction costs and the more economical it is to demolish and replace with new. Looking around Liverpool city centre, it is obvious that we have a lot of unused office space and, whilst it is great to see new developments such as Mann Island and St Pauls Square come on line, there is a pressing need to attract more people to occupy space in the centre.

Liverpool, England.
13,091 Posts
Discussion Starter · #16 ·
Theres the office near the Ship and Mitre, which is used by the museum on Dale Street, I really love this building.
Is that the eight (?) story tower just to the north side of the tunnel entrance? I think that used to be occupied by Threlfalls, the brewers. I like the building next door to that as well - Blackburn House - which has the shallow dome on the roof - I think that must date from the 30s.

Reminds me that the Byrom Street flyover, which partially obscures those buildings is another part of our Sixties heritage.

Liverpool, England.
13,091 Posts
Discussion Starter · #17 ·
As an aside, does anybody know whose crest this is above the entrance to State House? I've tried googling it but came up with nothing. I guess it belongs to some shipping line.

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