Liverpool and Stonehenge will thrive, with or without Unesco
26 July 2021, Paul Finch
The decision by Unesco to remove ‘World Heritage’ status from Liverpool, and its threat to de-list Stonehenge, tells us more about the institutional problems of Parisian panjandrums than it does about the reality of a city which is thriving and a monument which may finally get the relief road tunnel it deserves.
Unesco is a keep-it-in-aspic proselytizer which admires the Paris model, whereby shanty-town slums surround it are regarded as an acceptable price to pay to avoid ‘tainting’ the city with contemporary development. That has to be limited to the quarantine zone of La Défense, that anonymous zoo of anything-goes commercial modernism.
The love of redundancy is a hallmark of Unesco’s attitude. When it impertinently threatened London with removal of heritage status from the Tower of London, it cited the fact that you would be able to see tall buildings from it, which would therefore irredeemably wreck the feeling of history it claimed needed protection.
Unesco-sceptics (me definitely included!) responded by pointing out that since the Tower had survived since the 11th century, including substantial additions and alterations in the 19th century, it scarcely needed Unesco to say it constituted a piece of world heritage. It is what it is. Second, the idea that economic growth and concomitant construction, should be banned anywhere near a heritage site is to treat heritage as though it is such a tender flower that it cannot survive without a gigantic dead zone around it.
The reality is that world heritage, whether the Tower of London, the old Liverpool docks or the Pyramids, is more than capable of standing robustly alone, subject to the protections of its city and country.
A third concern about the Unesco attitude is that protection is required not simply of the building or area in question and the views of it, but that protection (and threatened sanctions) concern views from the heritage asset. We heard this nonsense in relation to views of proposals from the Palace of Westminster, and St Paul’s Cathedral.
The logic is that you can’t build anything that can be seen from such a site without the approval of unelected and unaccountable bigwigs ruling the roost in declining Paris – or at least declining until its recent volte-face and the identification of development zones to combat the decay.
Ignorant comments about Liverpool’s ‘decline’, which will allegedly be accelerated by the loss of heritage status, ignore the terrific job in recent decades to revive the city, to encourage (successfully) the return of its inner-urban population, to re-create urban links and a sense of the civic, to create docking facilities for the world’s biggest cruise-liners, and to attract tourists and other visitors in increasing numbers. Moreover, the real non-heritage docking and port facilities now generating far more trade and revenue than at the height of its prosperity in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In short, the city went through a rough patch for several decades but has come through it. The new buildings which Unesco finds so offensive are evidence of a city that has come back to life, not one which is content to sit and rot in decadent redundancy.
This is not to say that everything that has been built is remarkable architecture. Yes, there have been failures. But there have been great successes, particularly the Liverpool One regeneration project. In any event, the failures scarcely dent the urban magnificence of a city which has re-found its swagger.
Instead of moaning about the contemporary, Unesco would do better to offer positive advice on how, for example, the magnificent heritage of Birkenhead on the other side of the Mersey could be celebrate, exploited, and developed. It needs to stop being so achingly negative and abandon its anti-European strategies to show it is being ‘fair-minded’. If you think that ‘inappropriate’ developments that can be seen from a world heritage site should result in a loss of that status, you might wonder why the Pyramids haven’t been taken off the list. Have you seen some of the stuff being built nearby?
As for Stonehenge, imagine if the tunnel already existed and the transport authorities suggested it should be supplemented by a new road along the route of the A303. Quite rightly, there would be public outcry. Unesco would join in. As it is, they seem to think the existing situation is satisfactory. It is nothing of the sort and the sooner the tunnel is built the better.
Latest RIBA ‘crisis’ needs to be laid to rest
The reputation of the RIBA has taken a hammering during the presidency of Alan Jones, who will leave office at the end of August – not before time. His parting shot has been to walk out of the trustee board which is responsible for the institute’s management and well-being.
What the institute needs is outward-looking strategies, maximum communication with both members and public via digital technology, and a focus on improving both the confidence and where necessary the competence of a profession under scrutiny following the Grenfell Tower fire.
The incoming president of the institute, Simon Allford, is a first-class architect, successful co-founder of one of our biggest and best practices, and an individual who has proved he can revive a failing architectural institution (the Architecture Foundation) through leadership and shrewd financial management.
He is inheriting a mess, mitigated by the fact that the RIBA has a large amount of money in the bank as a result of the sale of its publishing arm. Things can only get better.