All This Useless Beauty
We have, in Hamilton Square and others, some of the country's finest public squares. So why have we abandoned them while other cities are rediscovering theirs?
Why don’t we do squares very well around here? As new year was counted down in the cities of the world, one thing struck SevenStreets: our city’s squares were all rather under-utilised. They were setting fireworks off in village, town and city squares from Tobermory to Tromso. Ours? Well, we don’t know, we weren’t there. Were you?
Kettled in by the stuccoed facades of Brussles’ Grand Place, Barcelona’s Plaza Mayor or Havana’s Revolution Square, rather than the police barriers of Concert Square, citizens of the city, tourists and traders experience the shared sensation of celebration and camaraderie that punctuate any world class city’s calendar.
But forget the fireworks (waste-of-money cat-botherers anyway), and, year round, city squares still have a major role to play as decompression zones: places where the city can pause, relax and socialise. A place where all roads meet, where office workers, lunching ladies and map-wielding tourists collide at coffee shops, pavement cafes or cultural centres.
At least, that’s the theory. So why have ours become silted up and sidelined?
Most city squares started life as market places, surrounded by grand civic buildings. An at-a-glance status report of a city’s wealth and ambition. It’s a job our cities usually leave to John Lewis these days. But, the squares remain – even if the markets and public proclamations, the balcony waving and the public flogging have long gone. Shame.
These days, we tend to gather at the foot of the steps in Liverpool ONE (at least, when Gok Wan’s prancing about, forcing dinner ladies into lycra), or down by the river.
But we have some fine squares, in Hamilton, Exchange Flags, Abercrombie and Williamson (have we missed any?) – squares that are easily the match of Manchester’s, Glasgow’s, Newcastle’s or Bradford’s.
But, whereas Manchester’s Albert Square remains the city’s natural muster station, Glasgow’s George Square is host to year-round concerts and events, and Bradford’s Centenary Square has seen a multi-million face-lift turn it into a social hub, with the city’s gorgeous Town Hall as backdrop, Birkenhead’s Grade One listed Hamilton Square is as hushed and deserted as the Echo’s printing floor, and Liverpool’s Exchange Flags, currently undergoing some sort of rebirth, isn’t what you’d call essential viewing. Kudos to Coffee Republic and Sakura for trying, though. We’ll wait and see what UK Land and Property, the square’s current developers, have up their sleeves.
Bradford’s Centenary Square (pic r) is a good example of what, with a little joined up thinking, a good public-private bed-in can bring. Developers want to built apartments. The Council lets them, with the proviso they create street-level retail, leisure and landscaping for the rest of us to enjoy, and to ensure the space doesn’t become, like so many of our ‘new’ squares (such as the chilly St Paul’s, off Old Hall Street), a dead-zone of me-too apartments, and light sleeping residents complaining about noise in the, er, city centre.
The result – a once grand civic quarter is reborn. With mirror pond, colonnades and pasta. And the city has a new place to stop and smell the coffee. And, potentially, give Gok Wan a good dunking, should he start up with his needy, boob-clutching histrionics.
Hamilton Square – second only to Trafalgar Square in London for having the most Grade I listed buildings in one place in England, fact fans – was actually modelled in the graceful geometry of Edinburgh’s New Town: a place with more squares than a Moleskine geometric jotter. Lively ones, too. But the architect’s vision of a place where ladies and gentlemen would take the air, amid rose gardens, slender poplars and elegant town houses is some way off the mark these days.
The only ‘trade’ going on after dark here is one that you most definitely can’t claim back against expenses.
Shame. Cajobah gave it a good stab: a wholefood cafe, textiles gallery and art shop. It was fab. But, buffeted by increased parking prices, the grand maisonette flats let to… let’s just say a demographic not overly familiar with felt tapestries, and the closure of Birkenhead Town Hall, and Cajobah is no more.
The Hamilton Partnership has tried to save the Town Hall, with ambitious plans for a John Peel Centre: an art and culture meeting point, with galleries, venue space and permanent home to Peel’s extensive musical archives.
The Council? A year after the proposal, and they’re still dithering, while another winter’s rain pours through the building’s ruptured ceilings.
Their minutes suggest that, rather than support the Hamilton Partnership’s scheme to commemorate one of the borough’s own, and give a much needed jolt of life to Birkenhead’s only potential tourism quarter (MerseyTravel’s excellent U Boat Story is just down the road at Woodside), they need to weigh up whether it might be better all round if the building was ‘mothballed’. It would, they say, be cheaper, at just £10,000 a year. It’s true, it would. But at what ultimate cost?
The Hamilton Partnership wants the Council to spend around £1million to repair the building’s roof, and grant them a three year lease to test whether their proposal can be viable. Fair enough, we’d say: the proposal looks thoroughly sensible, and their projections too. Bring more tourists into town and everyone – Council too – gets to share the spoils. Maybe some of the town’s workforce will be able to work there, too. There’s a thought.
Yet, despite all this, hands up who suspects the dust sheets are already being unfurled?
As we said, there’s something of the square basher in our nature.