Lead by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) NW Branch.
Albert Dock on Liverpool’s waterfront is one of the UK’s most popular visitor attractions. It comprises the UK’s largest group of Grade I listed buildings and forms an integral part of Liverpool – Maritime Mercantile City, a Unesco world heritage site. But for most of the second half of the twentieth century Albert Dock lay neglected and under threat of demolition.
The story of how Albert Dock was rescued and brought back to use is told in a series of professional lecture events that will run for five years up to 2021, when the 175th anniversary of its opening in 1846 will be celebrated.
Ten half-yearly lecture events will focus on different aspects of this exemplary heritage-led regeneration project that saw the redundant, bomb damaged Albert Dock transformed into a successful cultural and commercial hub.
The lectures will consider the contribution made by built environment professionals to Albert Dock’s regeneration and to its ongoing development. They will explore how the influential Merseyside Development Corporation project inspired other waterside and post-industrial regeneration projects not only in the UK but also across the world.
The launch event on 22nd September 2016 focused on the role of town planning in Albert Dock’s regeneration.
Paul Sheppard, a planning director at IBI Group, took an overview of Albert Dock’s fortunes, from its grand opening by Prince Albert in 1846 and subsequent working life, to its nadir in the 1970s and 1980s, its restoration and subsequent reopening by his descendant Prince Charles in 1988. The many obstacles, challenges and triumphs along the way were discussed within this historic context.
Wendy Morgan, principal conservation officer at Liverpool City Council, discussed Albert Dock’s continuing strategic and economic importance to Liverpool, and the likely impact of the Liverpool City Centre Strategic Investment Framework (SIF), a fifteen-year plan that aims to improve connections to the rest of the waterfront and the city centre.
Mark Osborne, director of Bristol-based Alec French Architects, drew comparisons with the regeneration of Bristol Harbourside. He showed how a port city with a similar history but a different approach to Liverpool’s undertook its waterside restoration. He explained how Bristol’s experience of architectural ‘statement’ waterfront buildings shaped its development.
In the late 1970s Liverpool’s waterfront consisted of little more than the Pier Head and a series of derelict and inaccessible docklands. Albert Dock had been the centrepiece of the South Docks complex, an outstanding example of mid-Victorian dock engineering and construction, but although recognised with a Grade I listing for its architectural and historic significance as far back as 1952, it faced an uncertain future.
Damaged during the May Blitz of 1941, and bypassed by containerisation in the following decades, by the 1960s and early 1970s Albert Dock was largely unused. At one point its owner, Mersey Docks & Harbour Board, had even considered demolishing it. When the South Docks were finally abandoned and left open to the River Mersey in 1972, Albert Dock quickly silted up.
It’s hard to believe that these unpromising circumstances were the beginning of the hugely successful waterfront regeneration project that created the award-winning spaces now centred on this unique historic complex. In many ways Albert Dock’s neglected state at the time reflected the national mood in a country beset with rising unemployment and social unrest under Margaret Thatcher’s combative Conservative government.
Albert Dock was designed and built by Jesse Hartley (1780-1860), the Liverpool Docks’ Yorkshire-born engineer. Hartley was appointed as Civil Engineer and Superintendent of the Dock Estate in 1824. Opened in 1846, Albert Dock was his masterpiece, a revolutionary system of fireproof warehouses grouped around the quayside to facilitate direct loading from ships. The nearby Dock Traffic Office (now National Museums Liverpool’s Martin Luther King Jnr building) opened in 1848, with the Piermaster’s House and Cooperage (also now part of National Museums Liverpool) following in 1852.
One hundred and forty-two years later this royal visit had a happy echo when Prince Charles celebrated Albert Dock’s reopening in 1988. But the intervening years saw its – and Liverpool’s – fortunes rise and then dramatically decline. For fifty years after its opening, Albert Dock had a successful life as “an Aladdin’s Cave of wool, cotton, rubber, tobacco, wines and spirits” trading with the Far East, India and the Americas. However, the dock was designed for sailing ships and it could not compete with the much larger steamships that were becoming widespread. The world moved on around it.
The docks and their supporting industries and services had been a major part of Liverpool’s employment base during Albert Dock’s working life. But recession, two world wars and the social changes of the twentieth century saw Liverpool’s population almost halved in the decades after the Second World War, falling from 800,000 to 516,000 by 1981, and to 463,000 by 1990. Between 1979 and 1984 the city lost a staggering 44,000 manufacturing jobs. Unemployment rates in the city had more than doubled, from 9.2% in 1975 to 20.2% in 1981 (UK unemployment rates were 3.2% and 9.3% respectively in these years). An exodus from the city ensued, leaving a dependent community of older and less skilled people as Liverpool soared up the multiple deprivation index.
In 1981, three million people were unemployed nationally. Liverpool’s employment base shrank from 260,000 jobs in that year to 217,000 by the end of the decade. There was little market interest in any sector, and certainly no market for anything on the waterfront. Alan Bleasdale’s 1982 TV drama Boys from the Blackstuff, where characters eulogised the vibrant port of the past at the now silted-up Albert Dock, symbolised the character and challenges of the era.
Albert Dock’s grand opening by Prince Albert on 30 July 1846 described how “the quays round the dock and the warehouses above were lined with people in gay attire, whilst from every window, roof and point where they could be displayed, there floated to the wind banners, flags, and streamers, of every colour and device”.
Against a background of the Falklands War of 1982, the miners’ strike of 1984-85, and a recession disproportionately affecting post-industrial northern areas, Liverpool’s reputation and image plummeted. The Toxteth riots of 1981 preceded a Militant Labour council that locked horns with national government – and its own party – between 1983 and 1986. Later in the decade Liverpool would face the football tragedies of Heysel and Hillsborough.
Yet the Albert Dock was restored during this tumultuous decade. In 1976 the Albert Dock Conservation Area had been declared and several schemes were proposed to bring new uses to the waterfront in the 1970s and early 1980s. Suggestions included a museum, a polytechnic and a car park. Although these all failed for one reason or another, the buildings were still robust and substantial and they deserved and demanded better treatment that reflected their heritage and architectural significance.
Introducing New Town-style corporations into the UK’s most needy inner cities to tackle economic and social problems had been mooted in the 1970s, and eventually the government acted to halt the decline. The 1980 Planning and Land Act enabled the formation of urban development corporations. The Merseyside Development Corporation (MDC) – the first of its type – was set up in March 1981, quickly followed in July by the London Docklands Development Corporation. MDC brought an end to the decades of uncertainty and decline for Albert Dock.
The new organisation – spearheaded by the secretary of state for the Department of the Environment Michael Heseltine – took the view that a supply-led solution was required. The constant cry of sceptics and critics had been that “there is no market”. But the MDC’s response was consistently: “then we’ll create one”. MDC’s remit included facilitating the physical shell of restoration to attract private sector interest.
MDC’s whole regeneration strategy was focused on a very small area, but it was at the heart of the city – an area which in many ways had been its beating pulse – and this was to prove key to its success as a catalyst for further regeneration. MDC had wide-ranging roles as landowner, development agency, grant giver, planning authority and specifier for the physical works, and this control ensured the focus stayed on delivery and partnership.
MDC aimed to use Albert Dock’s architectural and heritage assets in a way that had been seen in dockside regeneration projects such as those in Boston and Baltimore in the United States, and at St. Katharine’s Dock in London. At Liverpool, the aim was to turn a specific part of the privately owned run-down dock into a public playground and visitor destination, with tourist elements, residential areas, shopping and commercial uses – this was mixed use before the concept (and the term) became widely used.
The multi-disciplinary approach of applying a New Town-style integration of disciplines (including planning, architecture, engineering and property) within the same organisation was also key to its effectiveness. Crucially, planning was at the heart of this new-style urban development corporation approach. The strategy was to target three ‘flagship’ projects within a broader spatial strategy: the restoration of the water space in the South Docks; the redevelopment of 140,000 sqm at Albert Dock; and the transformation of a contaminated riverside site at Otterspool that became the International Garden Festival in 1984.
This was a massive challenge in the early 1980s, but restoring the water space in the South Docks provided the environmental and infrastructure context within which regeneration could move forward. The other parts of the project would not have progressed without this broad planning-led approach.
Partnership was also a fundamental dimension. Property developer Arrowcroft was appointed to co-ordinate the fit out and activities inside, and a local management agency, Albert Dock Company, was set up to manage its interests. Long-term agreements with Tate Liverpool and National Museums & Galleries on Merseyside (later National Museums Liverpool) were vital to securing active end users. These partnership elements of urban development corporation, development company, management company and occupiers working together kept the project moving forward by addressing the wide range of economic and physical regeneration challenges.
The aim was to create a new sense of place around the water space and wider dockland setting, but one that respected its history. Leisure would be the mainstay of Albert Dock’s offer – creating a pleasant public realm in an unrivalled historic heritage setting. Two anchor tenants were secured: the Merseyside Maritime Museum, which moved to Albert Dock in 1986 and Tate Liverpool, which opened in 1988.
Attention to detail on conservation and urban design, materials, landscaping and signage was never compromised, but mere preservation was avoided – the bright blue and orange signature colours of Sir James Stirling’s Tate Liverpool, for example – a choice that caused mutterings of disapproval at first – are now an integral part of the building’s visual character and popularity, and still used in its marketing materials.
Today, Albert Dock has a diverse and constantly evolving range of restaurants, bars, cafés and coffee shops. The commercial and retail offer includes speciality shops and coster carts, office developments and hotels. Upmarket river-view apartments in The Colonnades provide the residential offer. Granada TV, which hosted its flagship breakfast show This Morning was an anchor tenant between 1988 and 1996, and brought media companies and a profile to the waterfront and the city at large.
All this took place by stages, and the project was not without its obstacles and frustrations. MDC was not universally popular. When the first warehouse blocks were completed at Albert Dock, and particularly when the International Garden Festival opened in 1984, some people were sceptical, believing that the project was superficial and a potential white elephant at time when Liverpudlians were desperate for jobs.
The 1980s and early 1990s were difficult and politically volatile years, and it took time for Liverpool to shake off its undeserved poor image. London-based developers and investors had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the city by Heseltine. Links with the city centre remained poor, and consequently the market was sluggish. Albert Dock’s long-term sustainability needed careful nurturing.
But visitor numbers gradually increased from 2m in 1985 to 5.6m in 1995. Of these, 48% were from Merseyside, 42% from the UK and 10% from overseas. Over 50% also visited the city centre, indicating that Albert Dock was beginning to be seen as part of the city and not as a separate destination.
Although it was always intended that Albert Dock would play an integral part in the wider waterfront regeneration, adjoining development took time and effort to get going. In 1987, for example, the King’s Dock waterfront development consortium announced plans for a 9,000 sqm multi-purpose ice arena, a multi-screen cinema, an IMAX film theatre and 7,300 sqm speciality shopping and restaurants. But support from the government was lukewarm, investment was not forthcoming, and it took another twenty years for the Echo Arena to materialise!
Slow progress highlighted the need for Albert Dock to consolidate and adapt in order to take the waterfront regeneration onto the next stage. Some initial operators failed, but by the early 1990s the initial tenants were bolstered by such visitor attractions as the Beatles Story, the Mersey River Festival, the Tall Ships’ Races and the infamous Yellow Duckmarine. Regular water sports are now operated within the dock complex and on the River Mersey from the nearby Liverpool Watersports Centre at Queens Dock.
Conservation was absolutely fundamental to the restoration of Albert Dock. Rather than a narrow preservation approach, it was conserved through a balanced mix of restoration and new elements such as the Tate’s frontage and colour scheme. In 1986 the European Gold Medal for the Preservation of Historic Monuments was awarded to MDC. And Albert Dock was a key contributor to the Liverpool – Maritime Mercantile City World Heritage Site status inscribed in 2004.
MDC spent around £42m on dock restoration, quaysides and external refurbishment of buildings, generating a greater sum from the private sector over subsequent years. In weighing up success, impact and value for money is difficult to judge. There are all sorts of economic analyses of money spent and numbers of visitors, but ultimately Albert Dock’s success can be measured in the hundreds of thousands of people flocking to the waterfront to see events such as the Cunard Three Queens in May 2015, to a sell-out show at the Echo Arena, or the thousands of people spending time there day in, day out, as visitors, residents and workers.
Albert Dock was never seen as a stand-alone development, but the first fruits of a Liverpool waterfront programme that paved the way for further waterfront regeneration. Progress was indubitably slower than originally hoped, but there would have been marginal market interest in developing sites either side of Albert Dock if the dock had itself remained untouched.
Moreover, the regeneration of Albert Dock provided a reason for new and restored links to the city centre, forming one end of the pathway from the existing retail centre and Liverpool ONE. It boosted Liverpool’s image and investor confidence, which in turn led to improved land values and rental levels. It established a quality threshold and demonstrated that “something good can come out of Liverpool”. And it signalled a more purposeful approach to public-private partnership.
In the decades since Albert Dock reopened, Liverpool has gone from strength to strength. Albert Dock helped to kickstart the city’s regeneration in the 1980s by bringing the waterfront back to the city and the city back to the waterfront. In the 1990s, its consolidation was matched by wider city centre regeneration. In the 2000s massive European Union investment spread out through the rest of the city.
Mature partnership working led to the 2008 European Capital of Culture being awarded to Liverpool, and the success of the waterfront as a location for major events. The same decade also welcomed the retail centre Liverpool ONE, the Echo Arena & BT Convention Centre, and the Pier Head facelift including the Liverpool Canal Link that extends the Leeds and Liverpool Canal into the heart of the city to Albert and Salthouse Docks.
Regeneration beyond the city centre also benefitted from Liverpool’s newfound confidence, including for example, the expansion of John Lennon Airport to handle the rise in overseas visitors. The 2010s has seen the continuation of the North Docks’ regeneration, and new landmark waterfront buildings including the Museum of Liverpool, the Exhibition Centre, a cruise liner facility and hotels, with the promise of more to come.
Throughout all this, Albert Dock has also continued to change, and must continue to do so. It cannot stay crystallised – that is what successful transformation through good conservation and planning constitutes. Perhaps most importantly, the message taken forward and demonstrated by the people of Liverpool is that they have the capacity to change things.
‘If you seek his memorial, look around you,’ exhorts Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph in St Paul’s Cathedral. Likewise, for Jesse Hartley, the man who started it all in 1846, his headstone is surely the magnificent Albert Dock.
1 Memorials of Liverpool Volume 1 by Sir James Allanson Picton, Longmans, Green & Company, 1873
After nearly two decades of successful regeneration starting in the early 1980s, the Albert Dock’s floorspace was almost fully occupied. But as development continued around it, the flagship complex was starting to look a little dated. Retail practice, business technology and building construction and design had all moved on in the intervening years, and by the end of the 1990s a rethink for the twenty-first century Albert Dock was needed.
The two great anchor tenants, Tate Liverpool and the Merseyside Maritime Museum, remained unchanged, but the smaller retailers and occasional market barrows along the internal corridors were all replaced. Dockside-facing units acquired new frontages with Planar glazing so that the original open ground floors could still be appreciated despite the loss of the internal horizontal flow through each warehouse. Granada TV studios moved on and freed up the Dock Traffic Office in the southwest corner of the complex, and its offices on the dock itself.
Investment into Liverpool surged after 2003 when the city’s winning bid for the 2008 European Capital of Culture was announced. This was a challenge as well as an opportunity for Albert Dock. The Echo Arena to the south, Liverpool ONE to the east and the Museum of Liverpool and the new look Pier Head to the north became the latest attractions. It became apparent that Albert Dock, squeezed in the middle, would have to work hard to keep up.
Improved access and new signage helped. And the change in the general direction of services, from retail outlets to café culture, has meant that Albert Dock’s status as one of Liverpool’s premier business attractions has not diminished.
The Liverpool City Centre Strategic Investment Framework (SIF), which outlines the plans for the city centre for the next 15 years, was published in 2012. The SIF aims to play to and enhance the city’s competitive strengths, and although it is too broad to be treated as a material consideration in planning policy terms, its strategic priorities can affect the detailed planning policy at micro level through the masterplans and the new draft local plan published in September 2016. The Albert Dock’s future is placed in the context of improved connections to the rest of the waterfront and the city centre.
The SIF divides the city into seven sections: the knowledge quarter around the universities and the hospital at the eastern edge of the city centre; the cultural quarter consisting principally of the two cathedrals and the Georgian area around them; the creative quarter which is the area known as the Baltic Triangle (named after the Baltic pub), where small innovative businesses are taking off; the main retail area of Liverpool ONE; the business area with its new commercial developments immediately to the north; the historic downtown, a term used to describe the Victorian former commercial centre; and the waterfront, which contains all the surviving docks along the river including Albert Dock but excluding Stanley Dock and those beyond.
Albert Dock lies at the centre of the waterfront area and is a key element in Liverpool’s success. Strategically, it is a strong part of Liverpool’s economic sector, driven by its culture and its visitors. These two aspects, along with the city’s finance, business, knowledge and creative sectors, are what will grow the city in the next 15 years. The contribution already made by the Albert Dock is well recognised, and the SIF seeks to capitalise on its distinctive profile and its exceptional brand image.
Albert Dock is also a key element of the Liverpool Maritime Mercantile World Heritage Site, which is currently on Unesco’s list of world heritage sites in danger. Negotiations are ongoing to reverse this very serious decision. Whatever the outcome, the international significance of the Albert Dock will not change. The SIF recognises that the waterfront is Liverpool’s major asset, and has no intention of throwing the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to its historic waterfront architecture.
On the contrary, the waterfront and Albert Dock will continue to be one of the main opportunities to attract further investment. While recognising the challenge faced by the Albert Dock by the two growth areas immediately to its north and south, signs of recovery were noted when the SIF was written in 2012, and reflected in comments made in the local plan.
More activity and greater spend is necessary all along the waterfront for it to continue to compete globally, but improvement is always possible on top of success. The SIF has identified a number of major transformational projects. Albert Dock has already led the way with its unified signage, for example – the first waterfront development to introduce this throughout its estate, with high quality signs, information boards and totems at the entrances to mark its presence.
Only individual food and retail outlets and the two anchors have their own signs, but even here the quality is carefully managed. (For example, Tate Liverpool’s blue and orange signage, designed by Sir James Stirling, is now considered to be an important part of the listed building.) Similar information boards have also been introduced along the waterfront beyond the Albert Dock. Clarity and quality are essential, although it’s not always easy at grassroots level to persuade businesses to toe the line.
The SIF looks at ways to improve connections at (and to) the waterfront. In the nineteenth century the emphasis was on dock security and separation from the city. In the twentieth century the focus shifted to easing traffic movement by creating urban motorways – not only on the Strand but elsewhere in the city too. So it’s no wonder that the waterfront has had to work hard to establish direct links to the city to the east. Historically, the waterfront’s priority was to connect to the river, not with its immediate neighbours to the north and south or the city to the east.
The SIF acknowledges this and sets out some solutions; stronger and more complete connections are proposed. Crossing the waterspaces poses particular challenges. There has always been a riverside promenade alongside Albert Dock, but it does not go far enough north – yet. However, it can be very cold along the riverfront. If the wind is blowing hard and pedestrians want to avoid the river, but don’t want to tangle with the traffic on the Strand, how do they connect north and south?
There are some existing links, including two bridges to the south across Duke’s Dock, that enable people to cross between Albert Dock and the Echo Arena. But it’s difficult, for example, to get from the Museum of Liverpool to Tate Liverpool, and from and to the Merseyside Maritime Museum from both these sites.
Attempts have been made to improve the links. Waterfront Connections, an unrealised 2007 project, aimed to build a series of pedestrian bridges across the east ends of the two Canning graving docks immediately to the north of Albert Dock, and between the end of Canning Half Dock with its listed structures. This failed, but the SIF still recognises these connections as important ambitions and also highlights other ideas such as water taxis and boat tours.
Links from the waterfront to the city are also problematic. The Strand is not just one of Liverpool’s great streets, but arguably the most important street in the city – it was, after all, the historic waterfront that marked the reach of the river. It’s important to remember that everything beyond the Strand on the waterside is man-made.
But in the mid-twentieth century the Strand was part of the brave new world’s transport network, a tailor-made urban motorway. The SIF describes it as having high levels of vehicle movement and a scarcity of good quality convenient crossing points for people on foot. That’s something of an understatement – not so long ago it was necessary to use a footbridge to get safely across to the Pier Head.
New direct crossing points at the Pier Head and Albert Dock, with ample time for pedestrians to get all the way across, mark a forward step. But the SIF aims to go further and make these crossing points significant in themselves. They will become specific points linking east and west, providing points of orientation, meeting places and vistas along the Strand, making valuable additions to the city’s infrastructure. This could be achieved in a similar way to the pedestrian-friendly Exhibition Road concept in London, or the Big Dig – a highway project that has transformed a six-lane urban motorway in Boston, US.
Traffic reorganisation will take time. It’s clearly ambitious but it can be achieved, and progress has already been made. This can be illustrated in the link created along Thomas Steers Way from John Lewis in Liverpool ONE towards the river, with opened up sightlines to the Martin Luther Jnr building (formerly the Dock Traffic Office). Complementary lighting strategies also provide a way to draw visitors to the waterfront at such points in winter.
Liverpool’s waterfront and Albert Dock have been made easy for visitors to reach and find their way around with good signage, but it’s also important to offer as much as possible for people to enjoy once they are there. Albert Dock and the Pier Head are now arguably full to capacity, but the SIF suggests extending the offer by animating the waterspaces.
The SIF’s strategic action to ‘fill the gaps’ in Liverpool is not only about letting vacant space to increase income, but also about looking at empty spaces between the buildings, which at the waterfront can mean the waterspaces themselves. There are docks with room for activities other than the manoeuvring and mooring of larger vessels, which takes place mainly in Canning Half Tide Dock and Canning Dock.
Moorings and facilities for smaller boats have been successfully increased at Salthouse Dock with more detailed concepts in the pipeline. Being at the water level gives a different perspective to the waterfront and offers enjoyable new experiences. More could be made of watersport opportunities and festivals such as the hugely popular Mersey River Festival, which the SIF suggests should aim to become an annual international-standard event.
The detailed proposals for the waterfront and Albert Dock found in the SIF is the work of stakeholders – not only businesses, academics, administrators, and the directors of Liverpool Vision – but also of the elected members of the city council on behalf of the people of Liverpool. Liverpudlians love their city and want to see it thrive.
Fifteen years may seem like a long time for a plan, especially in these days of unexpected political and economic changes, but the city council is standing firmly by the SIF. Slowly but surely it is showing how its aims for this city can be achieved.
Bristol Harbourside, a vibrant waterfront area covering 27 hectares (66 acres), has been the focus of regeneration for several decades, from the area known as Canon’s Marsh in the 1980s to the current large-scale development area at Bristol Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone (TQEZ) and Wapping Wharf, one of the last sites on the waterfront. But progress has not always been smooth, and lessons have been learnt and applied from early planning experiences, and from those of other port cities such as Liverpool.
Bristol is a city blessed by two waterways. The Floating Harbour is a nineteenth century adaptation of the Frome and Avon rivers, created to provide a controlled level waterway, with locks at the eastern and western ends. Alongside this is the New Cut, a diversion of the River Avon. These created a vast area of level water reaching right into middle of the city, flanked by transit sheds and warehousing.
The Floating Harbour, however, saw its last commercial use in 1967, and the area was plunged into dereliction, presaging Liverpool’s dock closures of the early 1970s – a city Bristol had competed with for the tobacco trade from the 18th century. This left a collection of redundant dockside warehouses, railway sidings and gasworks on highly contaminated land. With the end of commercial shipping, Canon’s Marsh was turned over to surface car parks or sealed off in parts.
It was a site in need of redevelopment, and crucially, a clear vision. There was some early development on Canon’s Marsh in the 1980s when the site was cleared for the Lloyds Bank headquarters, but it wasn’t until 1995 that a comprehensive plan was developed. The aim was to link up the waterside with the city centre and its key civic and cultural buildings, including Bristol Cathedral and the Council House (now known as City Hall), Temple Meads railway station at the eastern end, and the route up to the Clifton Gorge and the affluent area of Clifton with its Georgian terraces at the western end.
Until the mid-1990s, the historic centre of Queen Square, a formal urban park surrounded by Georgian townhouses, had a highway running diagonally through it. This fantastically crass piece of highway engineering dated from the 1930s when such a plan was considered forward thinking and dynamic in the new age of car ownership. There was also a 1950s gyratory system at the head of St Augustine’s Reach that was notoriously difficult and dangerous to cross.
After the dock closures, the portents were not all negative. In 1970, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s great ocean steamship the SS Great Britain returned to Bristol from The Falkland Islands where she had been scuppered. She was eventually transformed from a rusting hulk into a world-class museum ship at the dry dock where she was built and launched in 1843. Despite this, the 1976 City Docks Act proposed the filling in of much of the harbour. Luckily this was rejected amid a rising tide of public opinion and wider concerns about the conservation of the city’s heritage and character.
A number of important cultural and civic buildings backed onto this extraordinary area of dereliction in the 1980s. Canon’s Marsh contained an early concrete-framed structure, now Grade II listed, and beyond this, the cathedral and the Grade II listed Council House. Eventually, in 1983, the City Docks Team was set up to explore development opportunities.
But regeneration was slow. By the mid-1980s, the threat from central government to take away control from the local authority and set up a development corporation – as it had done in Liverpool with the Merseyside Development Corporation – galvanised the city council to bring forward plans for a pioneering new waterfront development.
A series of bonded warehouses were spectacularly blown up and the circular Lloyds Bank headquarters was built on Canon’s Marsh. A number of low-rise housing developments started at the west end of the waterfront, the timidity of which reflected the cautious market at the time. After more low-density development proposals stalled, the private sector became frustrated. The Chamber of Commerce and its Bristol Initiative link commissioned three local architects’ firms: Alec French Partnership, Ferguson Mann Architects and Bruges Tozer, to develop a more ambitious plan for the area that would become known as Harbourside.
This received widespread public support and in 1993 the Harbourside Land Owners Group was formed and a private sector development facilitator appointed a year later. Most importantly, this new vision for regeneration of Harbourside included extensive public realm and three major Bristol attractions: Science World, Wildscreen World – a scheme backed by David Attenborough and the BBC Natural History Unit, which had been based in Bristol since 1957- and a Centre for Performing Arts, all served by a 500 space underground car park. The development framework for this new scheme was approved in 1995.
The National Lottery-funded Millennium Commission was set up in 1993 to encourage major cultural and regeneration projects, and Bristol Initiative instigated Bristol 2000, a private sector group with key local councillors on its board. This prepared the funding bids for Harbourside’s regeneration proposals, and with the local council and the private sector working together on the vision for the whole site, the future of Bristol’s former docklands started to take shape. The first stage bid was successful, and architectural competitions were held for Science World and Wildscreen World.
Feedback from the Millennium Commission showed that the linkages from the city to the water needed to be improved. Canon’s Marsh was isolated from the city centre by highways and the large gyratory at the head of St Augustine’s Reach. To strengthen the bid, the whole Millennium Bid area was extended right into the heart of the city, with the intention of forming a gateway to Harbourside from the city centre, and replacing the gyratory. The second stage Millennium Bid was successfully submitted and an architectural competition held for the Centre for Performing Arts. This was won by internationally renowned German architectural practice Behnisch and Behnisch with an extraordinary design for an entirely glass-clad structure dubbed by the local press the ‘exploding greenhouse’.
The concept masterplan drawn up by the three architectural firms advocated a seamless extension of the city centre, encouraging waterfront walkways and pedestrian routes with long vistas to SS Great Britain and Bristol Cathedral, and narrow streets of high-density ‘city blocks’ with active ground floor uses to replicate a city centre atmosphere. Science World (adapting the Grade II listed concrete transit shed) and Wildscreen would be located in the middle of Canon’s Marsh, north of the central New World Square. The Centre for Performing Arts would occupy a site next to Lloyds, and to the west would be a high-density area of streets and squares.
In 1996 Alec French Partnership and Ferguson Mann formed the Concept Planning Group (CPG), which was commissioned by Bristol 2000 to design the public realm ‘core spaces’ with the renowned French landscape architect Alain Provost of Groupe Signe.
CPG went on to develop the masterplan for all the Harbourside and Millennium Projects, though the Centre for Performing Arts was never realised and the site currently awaits development.
Although the funding bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for this was rejected on cost grounds, in 1998 the Harbourside Planning Brief was approved for the design and infrastructure across the wider area, with all the principles intact for the public spaces, promenades and protected views. The same year the new Pero’s ‘horned’ Bridge opened, spanning St Augustine’s Reach and creating a vital link across the Floating Harbour. The core spaces, where the main Millennium celebrations were to take place, were handed over just in time at 4pm on 31st December 1999! Science World and Wildscreen World, the two landmark projects, opened in 2000.
As the new century dawned, development plans for Harbourside underwent further revisions. Bristol City Council had commissioned CPG to prepare the development brief for private sector developer bids based on their vision for Harbourside. Unfortunately, only a simplified version was included, and the winning scheme, by housebuilder Crest Nicholson with architectural firm Arup Associates, was poorly received by the public and rejected even after amendment.
Architect George Ferguson, former Mayor of Bristol, proposed an alternative vision that was dubbed ‘Bristol Venice’. This was much closer to the CPG’s development principles, with a new waterway added for good measure. Popular in the local press, it prompted Crest Nicholson to replace the original architect with Edward Cullinan Architects, and a new design was submitted and accepted.
Decontamination started and by 2015 the scheme was mostly completed. The architecture was not quite as CPG envisaged because it was not fully grounded in the Bristol vernacular and did not have the sense of being a seamless extension of the city centre. But it did preserve the important vista lines from the main promenade through to SS Great Britain and Bristol Cathedral.
Today it is an extremely lively place with a good mix of museums, leisure uses, offices, restaurants, bars, hotels and apartments. Millennium Square is a popular venue for festivals and events. The offices have attracted major clients including financial services company Hargreaves Lansdown and banking firm HBOS. Science World is thriving, but Wildscreen World was not successful and closed down. The building is now an aquarium. Today, only the Centre for Performing Arts site and a smaller site at the far west end await development.
With Harbourside completed, there were clearly opportunities to apply lessons to the developments that followed. These included a large area called Wapping Wharf directly opposite Harbourside, which was originally owned by Network Rail and purchased by Birmingham-based property developer Umberslade.
Sandwiched between the two waterways, Wapping Wharf has had a mixed history. It was the location of Bristol’s notorious gaol in the early nineteenth century, and remnants of that building include the Grade II listed gateway and 8m high gaol wall. After the gaol’s closure, the site was used as railway sidings and a coal depot, and later in the century a vast granary was built. This was destroyed during the Bristol Blitz of World War Two. Remnants of the gaol were converted in the 1930s into a chocolate factory for J S Fry. A former transit shed on the site is now Museum of Bristol’s M Shed.
The experience of the early 2000s ensured that when the masterplan was prepared for outline planning consent between 2003 and 2006, important buildings including relics of the old gaol were identified. Important vistas and nodes, and key access routes across the site connecting south Bristol via a pedestrian bridge to the Floating Harbour, were all carefully considered. Building heights and street widths were prescribed. The outline planning consent required the production of an architectural framework strategy to inform all of the future phases. This would ensure a common approach was taken to design and the selection of materials.
The plan focused on a residentially-led, high-density urban form with six hundred apartments above active frontages of ground floor retail, a hotel, and some flexibility for commercial space. Building heights were a major issue in the public consultation, and it was felt necessary to constrain the developer with specified heights and numbers of storeys. Work on Phase 1 started in January 2012. The masterplan allowed Alec French Architects, despite the constraints, to propose a bold roofscape of pitched copper roofs and a wharf-style character of large brick warehouses with Corten steel and timber claddings, reflecting its gritty industrial past.
The first phase of Wapping Wharf is now a very popular place, with local cafes and fully-let shop units, much crossed by pedestrians walking to and from the city centre. Cargo, a retail yard built from recycled shipping containers adapted for café and bar use, has attracted two Michelin star chefs!
Phase Two has planning consent and will start on site in 2017, with completion due in 2019. This continues the themes from Phase One, with a further three hundred apartments of similar high-density character including three-bedroom top storey units with terraces above ground floor retail. The historic gaol gate has been refurbished as a main entrance, and the old J S Fry Warehouse is to be fully restored as a studio office.
Also building on the experiences and scope of Harbourside, TQEZ is an ambitious scheme to regenerate the area surrounding Temple Meads railway station, featuring a new flexible performing arts arena. The aim is to create a superbly connected entry to Bristol and deliver a hub for creative, high technology and specialist engineering and low-carbon companies.
Bristol City Council has commissioned a detailed spatial framework for the whole site, which identifies key development requirements and constraints, and is in effect a 3D masterplan. Outline planning permissions may not be required if the spatial framework is adhered to, allowing developers to assemble and deliver their own sites. A site is being prepared for the new Bristol Arena, which has been the subject of an architectural competition and is planned to stimulate surrounding development.
TQEZ aims to attract investment from established British and overseas companies, as well as encouraging new and start-up companies by offering them a simplified approach to planning, business rate discounts and superfast broadband connectivity. Around four hundred new businesses could be accommodated in the area and up to 17,000 new jobs created over the project’s twenty-five year life cycle. These projected jobs would be delivered alongside more than 240,000 square metres of new or refurbished space, featuring offices, research and development space, new homes and retail units.
With the Bristol Arena and a redeveloped, twenty-first century Temple Meads railway station, TQEZ will build substantially on the experiences of the regeneration of Harbourside.
The successful regeneration of Liverpool’s Albert Dock has influenced many urban development projects around the world. Delegations of planning professionals, developers, architects and students have visited Liverpool over the past three decades, taking the lessons of Albert Dock and applying them in different ways in their own cities and countries. Liverpool can rightly claim to be teaching the world how to use heritage buildings as the catalyst for wider regeneration initiatives.
But it isn’t a one-way process: Liverpool can also learn from the experience of other towns and cities and the regeneration of their waterfronts and ex-industrial areas. Each of these places has new lessons and experiences to offer, and Liverpool is reaping the mutual benefits.
Nordhavnen, a waterfront area of Copenhagen on the Øresund Sound, was developed as a port more than a century ago. Like Liverpool, the area has undergone drastic transformation over the past thirty years. Containerisation, and changes in the way goods are moved around the world, meant a new port area was created further north of the city, leaving behind large swathes of derelict land at Nordhavnen.
Nordhavnen may no longer have been fit for purpose, but a new residential and commercial area for up to 40,000 residents and the same number of jobs, will also be created. This ambitious new urban centre is modern and environmentally sustainable, with bold architecture and forward-thinking transport links. Yet the key driver for the first phase is heritage.
While Nordhavnen lacks the large bonded warehouses that are such a striking feature of Liverpool’s waterfront, there remains a series of smaller heritage buildings, and the city planners are utilising some of these existing buildings to create a new sense of place while anchoring the scheme firmly in Copenhagen’s history and heritage.
But the project also looks outwards and forwards, and transport and ‘green mobility’ is the starting point for planning. Copenhagen has one of the most advanced metro systems in the world – a driverless, fully automated system operating 24 hours a day, and this network has been extended to serve Nordhavnen.
There is a strong emphasis on public transport, including cycling and pedestrian elements. People can leave their cars when they come to Nordhavnen, but this doesn’t mean that cars are banned from the new centre. In Denmark and other Nordic countries there is a commitment to move away from the car in urban areas, but in the heart of Copenhagen’s historic city centre a new dock and waterspace with underground car park caters for drivers who don’t want or are unable to leave their cars at home.
Kvaesthus Pier consists of new cultural and commercial buildings created around an unusual public realm with the car park below the dock. Above ground is a series of gold buildings known as The Jewels, which will house different retail and commercial outlets. Modern and challenging structures are a statement of Copenhagen’s continuing intent to embrace striking design. But they also have to have function and purpose. Residents and visitors enjoy a very high quality public realm without losing car parking space or, crucially, the potential for commercial returns.
Copenhagen can also provide a lesson for Liverpool in how to use the water. Liverpool has a wonderful dockside setting and there are plenty of activities on the water but less so in the water. A common complaint in Liverpool is that the cold, wet and windy climate stops people enjoying activities in the water. But Copenhagen has a very similar climate and it doesn’t stop them introducing lidos and other ways of enabling people to engage actively with the water. Designing in the ability to partake in sports is a great attraction in itself that Liverpool could learn from.
HafenCity, the former port area of Hamburg, is another new planned environment where opportunities for creating activity, improved public realm and new cultural buildings have been emphasised. HafenCity has a very similar history to Liverpool in terms of the major changes it’s been through across a period of time, leaving behind a number of derelict buildings. Like Liverpool it is also a world heritage site, with similar buildings to Albert Dock and Stanley Dock Tobacco Warehouse.
There are always opportunities for Liverpool to showcase its successes on the international stage, but it’s just as important to listen to what those cities are doing and how they are moving forward. All parties can learn from the exchange of ideas and experience.
The Interpro lecture series celebrates the architectural and engineering legacy of Jesse Hartley’s 1846 Albert Dock. But it also reflects on the lessons learned from Liverpool’s 1980s regeneration experience, kickstarted by the Merseyside Development Corporation.
Multi-disciplinary working, especially between the public and private sectors, has been key to Albert Dock’s success and the site continues to provide a focal point to encourage built environment professionals to work more closely together. In the three decades since the start of the regeneration project, planners have continued to take on board new ideas and practices.
As the speakers have shown, Albert Dock has had to evolve and respond to twenty-first century challenges and the changing political, social and economic landscape. The main shift has been the changing focus of the buildings, infrastructure and waterspaces. From separation and security from the rest of the docks and the town centre in the nineteenth century, Albert Dock has opened out and connected to the city centre to meet the expectations of the public in the twenty-first century, both in terms of physical access and sense of ownership of the waterfront.
Planners have to consider how these spaces can continue to sustain a vibrant public realm where new cultural buildings and commercial tenants and residents can thrive.
Albert Dock acted as a catalyst for further regeneration not only along the waterfront but also in the city centre itself and beyond. Progress was often slow, but the regeneration of Albert Dock gradually built crucial levels of confidence for Liverpool to believe in itself once more, to cope with economic cycles and to keep moving forward.
Liverpool has also learned from its emulators and now looks to other cities and waterfronts to see how they are using their waterspaces and dockside buildings. With progressive ideas and high quality contemporary architecture and design, waterfronts around the world are attracting visitors and commercial clients, creating jobs, improving highways infrastructure, prioritising public transport and pedestrian routes to create better links with city centres, in ways that Liverpool can learn from.
Perhaps the most important lesson taken from the Albert Dock project is that heritage buildings are now regarded the world over as an asset rather than as a hindrance to development. Protecting and celebrating Albert Dock’s Grade I listing and world heritage site status can attract tourists and build civic pride. But maintaining the quality of new interventions and understanding how they fit within the context of their historic waterfronts is also imperative. Planners have learned how contemporary architecture can sit with much-loved old buildings to the detriment of neither.