Architecture: When the Liver birds fly once more: From a heroic past to a golden future: Jonathan Glancey on Liverpool's bid to become City of Architecture and Design in 1999

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The Independent Culture
'I USED to go down to the Cazzi (Cast Iron Shore) with Mum and swim in the river,' recalls Gerry Marsden, the Merseybeat singer who, 30 years ago, gave Liverpool its anthem, You'll Never Walk Alone. 'When you took a dip in those days you came out with so much oil over you, you were more likely to catch fire than get a sun tan.'

Today, the Mersey is so clean that salmon leap past Pier Head. Hardly surprising given that Liverpool has all but lost its industrial and mercantile heart; this, and the great Cunard liners that preceded the salmon. Male unemployment is 20 per cent and 'To Let' signs line city-centre streets. Liverpool has been designated an 'Objective One Area' by the European Union. These are areas where the local gross domestic product is below 75 per cent of the community as a whole. Other 'Objective One Areas' are in Greece, Portugal and southern Italy.

If, however, like Gerry Marsden, you are inspired by the look and soul of the city, you cannot imagine Liverpool walking alone for long. It was at its most isolated at the time of the Toxteth riots (1981) when Michael Heseltine came up to gawp at hard-pressed, hard-bitten 'Scousers'. Derek Hatton and the Militant regime that ruled the city and defied Westminster for much of the Eighties did their best to create an urban ghetto.

Now, Liverpool is hoisting itself up on to the Cuban heels of its elastic-sided boots. So much so, that although the local economy has a very long way to catch up with the rest of Britain, Liverpool is bidding to become the City of Architecture and Design in 1999. Its rivals are Glasgow and Edinburgh.

The 'City of . . .' idea is an Arts Council initiative dreamt up by Lord Palumbo. Each year until the millennium, a British city is billed to promote one of the major art forms. This year Manchester is City of Drama; next year Swansea is City of Literature. The host city receives just pounds 400,000 in Arts Council funding, but, more importantly, the event draws attention to and encourages investment in the 'City of . . .'.

During the next month, a team of Arts Council-appointed judges including Sir Terence Conran and Bernard Rocher, deputy mayor of Paris and president of that city's inspired Architecture Centre, will prod and probe Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh, before deciding which city has put together the most convincing bid to win the coveted title. That it is coveted should not be in question; of all the 'City of . . .' titles, the City of Architecture and Design has drawn the most response from city councils.

Edinburgh and Glasgow are past mistresses of hosting internationally acclaimed festivals. Although polar opposites in style, temperament and wealth, both are grand cities made glorious by their architectural legacy and manifest civic pride.

Liverpool, however, occupies a special place among European cities. An industrial and trading city brought low and yet enjoying one of the most spectacular settings and some of the finest architecture to be found anywhere, it is having to transform itself fundamentally, discarding the fag-end of its previous incarnation as one of the world's wealthiest mercantile and manufacturing cities into a post-industrial city of learning, arts and entertainment. Its enthusiastic bid to become City of Architecture and Design 1999 is one of the keys promising to open the door on a very different future.

Fine words, however, butter no butties. Why should well-heeled Arts Council judges bother with Liverpool when Edinburgh is so much more refined and Glasgow the rough diamond mixing high culture with a frisson of braw street life to excite arty Sassenachs? There are two reasons. The first is that Liverpool - for all its rough edges and for all politicians, planners and the road lobby could do to demean it in the Sixties - is a heroic city. Fronting the Mersey with the braggadocio confidence of Manhattan, St Petersburg or Barcelona, Liverpool's distinct seafront causes visitors to whistle through their teeth. Some city.

From the Birkenhead ferry, the eye takes in a sweep of stupendous architecture: the Royal Liver Building (W Aubrey Thomas, 1911) topped with the legendary Liver birds flapping 322 feet into the autumn cloud, the Cunard Building (Willinck & Thicknesse, 1916), a latterday Florentine palazzo and the facade that launched thousands of tons of ships including the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, and the Port of Liverpool Building (Arnold Thornley, 1907), a Wrenaissance palace topped with a dome culled from Greenwich Hospital.

Behind are the twin cathedrals, 'Paddy's Wigwam' - Le Corbusier meets Nasa - the Catholic cathedral designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd, a Congregationalist, and the awe-inspiring Anglican cathedral, the work of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, a Catholic, which broods over Hope Street and what remains of the Georgian streets below.

Throughout the city centre, the architecture of Liverpool's zenith (1850-1910) impresses with sheer scale, sheer invention and sheer quality. So, too, do the restored Albert Docks (1841-48) built by Jesse Hartley, 'of large, bold and powerful frame and occasionally even rude, using expletives which the angel of mercy would not like him to record' - sounds like the buildings themselves and not unlike the late Sir James Stirling, who with his partner, Michael Wilford, one of the Arts Council judges, tricked the Tate of the North from one of Hartley's warehouses.

And then there are the unrivalled art nouveau pubs, St George's Hall and its attendant temples of culture, Sefton Park, the Victorian palazzi of Dale Street and the beginnings of worthwhile new architecture such as the light, bright and white Learning Resource Centre (library to you and me) at the Liverpool John Moore's University designed by Austin-Smith:Lord.

Beyond the architecture is a student life and upbeat arts culture that make the city centre boisterous and creative, yet, unlike London, rarely effete. Beyond both is the irrepressible effort being put into the city's bid to be City of Architecture and Design 1999. The city council has given its full backing to the bid and a full-time office run by Sue Carmichael, an architect, is co- ordinating the bid and a pounds 12m programme of events leading up to, including and stretching beyond 1999. Every major body nursing Liverpool to post-industrial health - The Mersey Partnership, the Merseyside Development Corporation and City Challenge among them - is involved.

Liverpool's bid is not a blueprint for fashionable new buildings (although it plans an Architecture Centre, a National Museum of Sport by Sir Richard Rogers and a comprehensive public arts programme), but a method of rethinking the profile of the city and involving as many citizens as possible. If the city fails to woo the Arts Council judges it will forge ahead with its own programme of architectural initiatives. Over the next five years, and with help from the EU, central government and what new private enterprise there is in the city, pounds 1bn is to be spent on lifting Liverpool's face (including pounds 300m on the refurbishment of 67 tower blocks).

Liverpool's Arts Council bid is forward- looking: the dread word 'heritage' appears to have been expunged from everyone's vocabulary. The city has been so battered over the past quarter-century that only a lunatic would want to knock down anything else. Now Liverpool has more Grade I listed buildings than any other British city save London. It knows and is finally proud of its heritage; now it looks to the future for inspiration. Liverpool does not want to be a city of herring-bone brick pedestrian plazas and pseudo-Victorian litter bins.

The past has failed Liverpool. Its future lies with other progressive maritime cities such as Antwerp, Hamburg and Barcelona. Its potential status as City of Architecture and Design at the turn of the century could only help it on its way. As Gerry Marsden and the crowds at the Kop would have it, 'At the end of a storm, there's a golden sky.' Or at least gold under a stormy sky.