Unesco has cancelled the ‘World Heritage Status’ of the Necropolis at Memphis and the Giza Pyramid because a Radisson Blu hotel has been built in neighbouring Cairo. That’s not true, but for a similarly absurd reason Liverpool has been de-listed from heritage Valhalla by word-mincing bureaucrats.
Not many Liverpudlians will care about this imbecilic and ignorant decision – Liverpool is the capital of itself and does not look to London, still less to Paris or Brussels. The tragedy here is not Merseyside’s status, but Unesco’s blindness. In recent years, Liverpool has demonstrated exactly the mixture of respect for the past and optimism for the future that all great cities need.
Liverpool is the equal of Manhattan and Venice in its astonishing architectural presence. That famous waterfront with the magnificent assemblage of the Liver building, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board and the Cunard building – the Three Graces – was originally identified by Unesco as the optimum expression of a mercantile port at its moment of greatest pomp and pride. Maybe today pomp and pride require trigger warnings.
The putative reason for delisting Liverpool is that the city, after prodigious efforts, is again showing that same entrepreneurial energy following many years of sad urban depression. Specifically, the bureaucrats object to Everton building a new football stadium… about a mile away from the Three Graces. Everton’s site is presently a neglected wasteland and the proposals include repair and re-instatement of the Grade II docks.
But Unesco also object to the interstices around the Three Graces being animated by new buildings. True, these are not always of an outstanding architectural character, but they are evidence of energy and proof that Liverpool is determined to escape the terrible fate of Venice: the ultimate paradox, a city of great beauty that is dead.
Why? Because Venice has refused every modern activity that would save its life while embracing the one modern activity that killed it: mass tourism. Slowly, Venetian authorities are realising that clean, high-value businesses in finance, life sciences and design will restore meaningful economic activity. Liverpool already knows that – it’s a splendid example of the resonant truth that you don’t finish a city, you start it.
The Three Graces are the star players, but Liverpool’s architectural squad has great strength in depth. Step back from the Pier Head and you will find Oriel Chambers, an 1864 iron and glass technical masterpiece that inspired the skyscrapers of Chicago. St George’s Hall is the grandest neo-classical building in Europe. And the dazzling art nouveau Philharmonic is surely the world’s best pub.
Scott’s tremendous Anglican cathedral confronts Gibberd’s retro-futurist-kitsch Catholic cathedral. The gothic revival Victoria building gave us the term ‘redbrick’ to describe a certain type of university. And the university itself was the first to teach town-planning while Augustus John taught other students the history of art. When Gropius and Mendelsohn fled the Nazis, it was the Liverpool School of Architecture that took them in.
Liverpool, with proportionally more listed buildings than London, will survive Unesco’s insult. More barbarous forces than Paris bureaucrats have attacked it. Hitler singled-out the city for a specially vicious Blitzing because, the story goes, he had been poorly treated as a mediocre art student in Liverpool lodgings in the years before the Great War.
You cannot visit Liverpool and not be affected by its emotive architectural character. I know – I grew up there and its buildings taught me whatever it is I learnt about the range of feelings between ecstasy and pathos. It is an exciting, romantic city, but one with a residual melancholy, something shared by all great ports with their memories of comings and goings. Not least, in Liverpool’s case, the comings and goings of slaves on the fearful Middle Passage whose trade so enriched the city’s sugar barons.
But if genius locimeans anything, you can find its definition in Liverpool. The sense of place is tangible and infectious – Jung dreamt in detail of the city without ever having visited. Best of all, Liverpool is an architectural reminder of that great truth of Gustav Mahler’s: heritage is a matter of nurturing the flame, not of worshipping the ashes.
Too bad Unesco does not understand that. The bureaucrats may have given Liverpool a hard day’s night, but it will be forgotten in the morning. Liverpool is a far more impressive demonstration of the human spirit than Unesco.
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