How many tourists do you think Liverpool receives because of its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site? I’m gonna take a wild stab in the dark here and guess. Zero.
Obviously, I’m not counting the self-appointed UNESCO heritage police, who come over periodically to wave a clipboard in our faces and give us a really threatening stare. Nor the rarified upper echelons of the members of SAVE or the Victorian Society, who all live in a land draped with antimacassars, and are transported about the town by a mahout.
But tourists? Real money-spending tourists. When would any real human being say “Damn, I was thinking about taking you to Chicago, darling. But I’ve got terrible news for you – the city doesn’t have a single UNESCO World Heritage Site. And it gets worse. San Francisco’s a cultural desert too. And Seattle. And Dublin. And Copenhagen. But you’re in luck. Pack your bags. We’re off to Luxembourg city.”
Because the theory, expounded emphatically by Professor John Belchem, Pro vice chancellor of Liverpool University, that it would be a “dreadful embarrassment” for the city should it be stripped of its coveted World Heritage status, assumes we live in such a UNESCO-centred universe. Only eating at Michelin starred restaurants, and staying in Relais & Châteaux-approved hotels. Real people know that lists are for losers and exist to prop-up a thriving subculture of NGOs and jumped up taste-arbiters. Every cool chef knows Michelin’s days are numbered. The world’s moved on. So have the world’s best cities.
Blasting the latest Lime Street developments in this issue of the Architects Journal, Professor Belchem doesn’t pull his punches. The development is ‘crass’, the council is “insouciant, placing profit above any concern for design and heritage, lucrative Beatles commemoration apart,”
In his world view, our UNESCO badge is the single most important credential we possess when it comes to what he calls ‘sustainable visitor attraction, cultural tourism and urban regeneration.
Really? You want to do this now, John? Have you looked around the city recently? Yes, our heritage is important – but to fret about the roads adjacent to it is to condemn the city to a future as some kind of dusty diorama.
Lime Street might not be the most inspired new proposal being forwarded in the city. But we got news for you – it’s way, way, better than many others. And, last time we looked, no one had anything else on the table: because make no mistake, Lime Street is something of a poison chalice. A real curate’s egg (do you like how we flagrantly mix our metaphors) of a site: with absentee landlords, a complex footprint shifting up a floor to the rear projection, and a bookended terminus of buildings which either have to stay (The Crown), should stay (The Vines) or that developer Neptune haven’t been granted purchase rights (that sunbed place).
And, sorry to break this to you – but the Futurist, by any sensible measure, is fucked. Would it have been nice to save it? Yes, of course. Is it the most important, significant or beautiful at risk building in the city? I don’t think so. Should we have done something about it twenty years ago? Of course. But we didn’t. So what is this posturing now, if not some unseemly way to assuage our complicity in its downfall?
Sometimes things become totemic, don’t they? They stand as a proxy for a bigger truth. And that’s often a worthy, brilliant thing. But sometimes, totems can obscure the truth. And the truth is that Lime Street isn’t a particularly excellent example of anything much. Not like Josephine Butler house’s desecration, or the ruination of the last remaining full and complete Victorian street in the city, to make way for the Doubletree Hilton. Not, unfortunately, like so many of the acts of vandalism we’ve seen meted out over the generations.
But Lime Street? Really? The street is being asked to take on the trappings of something it really isn’t, by people who, by and large, never go there. And Lime Street just isn’t that street. The people who use Lime Street? What do they think? Are they fighting for some idealised vision of a city that helps the Victorian Society sleep soundly on their goose down mattresses at night? Do they fret and bother about the street’s purpose as buffer zone – a fucking buffer zone – to, what, protect the fragile beauty of St George’s Hall?
Streets like Lime Street aren’t buffer zones. They’re places where real people work, and live and let off steam. And it’s patronising and arrogant for a Professor – chances are he wasn’t a regular in McHales’ Irish American Bar – to bestow upon it some elevated, regal attributes that threaten to keep the street in stasis and deny it a lifeline that it deserves.
Let the development happen. Get Lime Street working again. And let’s keep our powders dry for other, bigger battles ahead.