Architecture: A river city is reborn

A bold scheme masterminded by Norman Foster and Terry Farrell is to regenerate the once great, now sadly run-down city of Hull. By Nonie Niesewand
Kingston upon Hull fell on hard times when the fishing, on which its prosperity had been based, collapsed in the Seventies and Eighties. But now the River Hull Corridor programme for the old town and Kingston- upon-Hull council, in partnership with big business, has signed up two international names, Norman Foster and Terry Farrell, to give them a masterplan for both the east and the west sides of the city and an iconic building in each.

Hull is about to have its heart put back again by that international pacemaker, Norman Foster, who is to build a complex covering 29 acres. And on the waterfront, Hull will harbour an oceanic tourist attraction by Terry Farrell, designed to make the city a stopping-place rather than a jumping-off point. At present there is nothing to hold people in Hull. Ferryloads from the Low Countries rush up the gangplanks and on to York or Leeds.

Hull can now claim to have commissioned Britain's largest city-centre development from Foster with London & Amsterdam, the developer that has worked with Foster Associates on Nimes cultural centre, the Reichstag, Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok airport, the Commerzbank HQ in Frankfurt, and Stansted airport.

In outline on the masterplan their Hull project looks as if a Stealth bomber has crash-landed over a site that will hold a 200-bed hotel, a health club, shops and offices, cinemas, the Hull Truck Theatre and Albemarle Music centre. A 1.25-acre-long boulevard runs diagonally through this complex, roofed with a glass javelin, 280 metres long and 30 metres broad at its widest. Foster designed this gigantic canopy to represent "a fish, for many years a symbol of Hull".

There is no escaping its history. Built on the confluence of two rivers, the tiny Hull and the mighty, two-mile wide Humber, Hull still smacks of the fishing fleets upon which its prosperity was founded. "Ships up streets" is how the poet Philip Larkin, librarian at Hull's university, described the strange, estuarine landscape. Fingers of the dock push through the city, dry docks stand empty and the pier has perished, but the gulls still circle yachts in marinas and container barges.

Through its buildings as well as its poetry - Andrew Marvell was its MP; Stevie Smith wrote of "Not waving, but drowning" here - Hull's history is revealed in its spires and cupolas and narrow-fronted waterfront houses. The medieval footprint of the city has cobbled lanes named after sea shanties. Stolid, redbrick 18th-century mansions are dressed up like Wedgwood vases with classical friezes and Doric columns, to stand alongside staid, late- 19th-century spires and domes of civic pride. There are Victorian and Edwardian sea captains' houses, moneyed and magnificent with out-of- scale porticoes and pediments, with balconies and oriels stucco-patterned and painted to resemble flocked velvet. The adventuring spirit that made Hull a seafaring city produced a vernacular style that could be a post- modernist's dream.

"Hull is a fine city fallen on hard times, but it's sufficiently removed from other cities to have a greater sense of identity," says Terry Farrell. His master plan for the riverfront seeks to link what another literary resident, John Osborne, called "this Janus-faced city". The west side is a hideous commercial development pockmarked with car parking rentals on old bomb sites, where the nearest things to water are the liquidation signs. The east is the wistful waterfront of brine and bridges, tidal mudflats the colour of plaster skim.

Farrell's plan keeps cars out of the city. Instead, he plans to park them in a rocky outcrop near his pounds 36m tourist attraction, the oceanic exploration centre called The Deep, and keeps pedestrians moving across a new cycle path and footbridge. Like all of Farrell's buildings, The Deep is designed to dominate the skyline. Rising 30 metres at its highest point, it will be a crag-faced Eiger of a building rooted in stone on the docks; it bellies out in steel, topped with a titanium nose-cone, and fissured with blue glass designed to let blue light dance upon the interiors like a Hockney swimming-pool. Its chief executive officer, Ossie Hall, says that The Deep is "as important for Hull as the Opera House was for Sydney. Some call it a shark, others a ship dynamically thrusting into the harbour. I think it's fantastic." However, they still need another pounds 1.9m to match the pounds 14.8m lottery funding for the building.

Farrell's recipe for a city in the 21st century is pragmatic: "Eighty per cent good steady buildings, 10-15 per cent of buildings of greater prominence, iconic buildings if you like, and an infrastructure. If Bilbao had done everything else - Foster's metro, Calatrava's airport - but not built the Gehry museum for the Guggenheim, I doubt Bilbao would now be on the map."

City Visions pushed the boat out to tap into EU and lottery funding to kick-start a pounds 1bn renaissance for a demoralised community, but what happens in Hull could become a blueprint for the rest of Britain - not least because their current MP is the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott. In October the Government's White Paper on urban planning will tackle the issues highlighted in the Urban Task Force report presented last month. The head of the task force, Richard Rogers, took John Prescott to Rotterdam to learn about model towns. In turn, John Prescott took Richard Rogers around his housing estates in Hull. The gables on tall, narrow waterfront houses in the historic old town are a reminder that Holland is closer to Hull than London. And it's cheaper to reach, too.

For some time Barcelona has been held up as the model of urban regeneration; now it is the Netherlands' turn, with The Hague and Rotterdam singled out by Richard Rogers. Terry Farrell has a word of advice for John Prescott. "Proceed with great confidence and certainty. There is an urban renaissance; it's not the time to weaken. So often politicians settle for soundbites, and sometimes media attention can be an end in itself. Really, the work has got to be done and the Government hasn't done it yet. Put resources and energy into it and show that you really mean it."