Finding a Taj Mahal on Merseyside

It is not impossible to compare a 1959 Ford Zodiac with a Donatello sculpture

ONE OF the starting points for my own fascination with everyday design was in a Manchester seminar room nearly 30 years ago: trademark Mancunian drizzle, industrial grisaille and traffic.

A tutor was droning on about, I forget what precisely, but either late- Roman consular diptyches, Mexican baroque iconography or the attribution to Masolino or Masaccio of portions of the Brancacci chapel frescoes. Looking out of the window, I thought something like "this is all very well, but why on earth is nobody telling me about why a great Northern city looks the way it does?".

But chance favours the mind that is prepared and, just a few years before, I had bought my first copy of Nikolaus Pevsner's Pioneers of Modern Design in a Liverpool bookshop. Pevsner and others soon confirmed my schoolboyish observations that this was a city of astonishing and powerful architectural character: now I could put a name to the architect of the world's first iron-framed commercial building (Peter Ellis's Oriel Chambers), and the greatest neo-classical building on the planet (Harvey Lonsdale Elmes's St George's Hall, also the first building in the world with mechanical air management).

So somebody who went to school in Liverpool and university in Manchester was exceptionally interested by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's inclusion of Salford and Liverpool's waterfront in a list of candidates for World Heritage sites. There had never been any doubt in my mind that the very best of British High-Victorian commercial and public architecture was at least the equal of the Taj Mahal or St Peter's: it was only the snobbismo of conventional art historians (who preferred research trips to Tuscany over research trips to Lancashire) that said any different. Equally, I have no doubt that in terms of artistic value it is not impossible to compare a 1959 Ford Zodiac with a Donatello sculpture.

But then I think: hang on a minute. There's something disingenuous about Chris Smith's World Heritage offensive, something which betrays a lot of the catchpenny posturing which defines his government's attitude to every issue from global conflict to the place of BritPop in The Great Tradition.

First the issue of branding. Given any opportunity to apply a logo, glue on a sticker, or open up a phony war on philistinism, New Labour does so. No great harm may come from nominating buildings or sites for World Heritage status, but few people in my counselling group want to see Dutch tourist buses further incentivised, even if they will be welcomed by the itinerant salmonella merchants who feed them. Besides, Liverpool needs the business.

The real problem is the emptiness of the apparently lofty gesture. It is much easier for a lazy minister to say "Salford is now a World Heritage site" than for the same minister to think up any culturally or economically useful way of Manchester securing the means to maintain its astonishing heritage of the past, and at the same time to build a heritage of the future.

And then again there is the question of the judgement of quality. While I certainly don't repudiate the Ford Zodiac-Donatello argument, there is, beneath the bright surface of this welcome initiative to acknowledge quality wherever it is found, something more dark and sinister waiting to develop. The unwritten, but universally acknowledged codes of Cultural Correctitude, do not allow firm critical judgements about the quality of art for fear of making a politically sensitive mistake. The scattergun condemnation of contemporary comment is the word elitist, spat more often than whispered.

We are asked by officials to believe that we live in a valueless miasma of junk where popular acclaim is the sole criterion of value, and EastEnders is as good as Shakespeare because it's on the telly. So while it is genuinely thrilling for people like me who have argued that Liverpool's Pier Head is as good as Manhattan's (for reasons that are checkable and verifiable) to find this case being made "official", it is only a short mincing step for our Minister of Culture to nominate the terraces of Toxteth as rivals to the Escorial. That would be nonsense.

An argument for our own architectural self-respect has been won, so that is good. Some of the prejudices of art history have been buried. But what a pity it has taken so long. Misbegotten government development policy has for 50 years pumped money into Liverpool in the forlorn hope of creating an industrial centre where no industrial traditions existed. Like Venice, Liverpool is long a dead city, but a very beautiful one. Unlike Venice, a lot of that beauty has been wantonly destroyed. Liverpool should have been made a tourist attraction long ago.

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