My favourite Liverpool building is an outdoor sculpture gallery in the heart of the city. It’s home to some of the our best examples of 20th century sculpture and is, in itself, an architectural triumph.
I use the term ‘our city’ as a happily adopted outsider who came to study architecture at the Liverpool Architecture School, where one of my favourite lectures was The History of Architecture with David Thistlewood. David was a beacon of passion and intelligence (sorely missed) in what had become a relatively mediocre architecture school at that time.
In David’s lectures, I loved learning of the ‘Futurists’. They were the most barking mad modern art and architecture movement of the 20th century, or indeed any age. Driven by conflict as a means of progression, they loved notions of speed, noise, movement, cities and travel.
If they’d have realised an architectural project in our city, the Futurists wouldn’t have dreamed up the French Renaissance-style Lime Street cinema named after them (en route, we hope, to being protected) but something altogether more contemporary, youthful and vigorous.
They’d have erected something very similar to the soaring art deco monolith of the George’s Dock building on the Strand, to the rear of the Port of Liverpool building.
Look closely, if you haven’t already, at the exterior of the building and you’ll discover a series of sculptured gems tucked in recesses, or scaling its vertical white cliffs.
Built between 1925-34, the building emerged during that heady time when the major movements in modern art and architecture rejected the old rules, and wrestled towards striking new forms, not to mention impressive new names: Voritcism to Precisionism, Cubism to Constructivism.
At this time, Liverpool’s skyline was being transformed, with the Liver Buildings, the Cathedral and the office buildings of Water Street all attracting global attention. But for me the George’s Dock Ventilation Building is one of the best sculpture galleries anywhere in the world. Sorry Hepworth, Miro, Moore et al, I do love you all, but this is in another league.
Two sculptors; Edmund C Thompson and George T Capstick, students of George Herbert Tyson, collaborated with the architect Herbert J Rowse (seems using middle-name or initials was quite the fashion at the time) to create this graceful, exciting and kinetic temple to speed, travel and the future.
My personal favourite of the building’s sculptural features is ‘The Modern Mercury’, on the building’s western face. With pilot glasses and leather hat, the subject accelerates skyward, as a modern day messenger of the Gods emerging from the Portland stone facade. Look up at the peak of the tower and you’ll spy winged reliefs reaching for the sky, reminiscent of an Egyptian pylon (Egyptology was a hot trend following the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922), or the unrealised works of Antonio Sant’Elia (an architect associated with the Futurists).
Walk the perimeter of George’s Dock Building and you’ll discover further reliefs on the south side, including two goddesses armed with pneumatic jack-hammers, and a memorial to those who died making the tunnel below. Flanking the doorway beneath The Modern Mercury to the south, carved in black basalt, are the Night and Day statues, beautifully formed figures that evoke the 24 hour life of the tunnel.
These statues in niches are at a height you can touch and feel, without any ‘don’t-touch’ signs or rope barrier. There is so much more meaning, creativity, love and passion oozing from these compact Egyptian-esque sculptures and the reliefs that adorn this building than the acres of glossy stone that clad the crass black diamond apartment buildings at Mann Island across the way.
Notions of this building as a sculpture-park continue to run through the core of its being. Take a look at cross-sections of the building on Google. What you see above ground is the tip of the iceberg. Extending into the subterranean world below, this building is an engineering goliath, forming the iron lungs that pump millions of litres of fresh air into the underground highway that is the Queensway Tunnel.
The sculpture, the building and the engineering come together as one, a living, eating and breathing temple to speed and travel, running twenty four hours a day. And it’s as thrilling – and futuristic – now as it must have been when the fans started whirring beneath the city streets 80 years ago.
Steve Threlfall is head of Liverpool design studio, Team a go-go.
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pic 3: © Liverpool Museums