The Respected Guardian Architecture Critic Rowan Moore Gives THE MUSEUM OF LIVERPOOL A ROASTING. http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/jul/24/museum-of-liverpool-review
The Museum of Liverpool's spiral stair: 'Like the ramp of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim installed in a Travelodge.' Photograph: Mills Media Limited
How can this have happened? How could so many positive words – "regeneration", "vision", "culture" – plus so much public and private funding, plus so much scrutiny by bodies such as the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, have led to what now stands on Liverpool's waterfront? How could so many noble titles – Unesco world heritage site, capital of culture, the "Three Graces" – have been bestowed on what is, to use a sophisticated critical term, a godawful mess?
Last Tuesday, the £72m Museum of Liverpool opened to the public, billing itself as "the largest city museum in the world" and "the largest newly built national museum in Britain for more than a century". It contains busy, impressionistic displays of the city's history and culture – the Beatles, football, Brookside, trade, wealth and poverty – that are light on original artefacts and big on videos and blown-up pictures. The pace is frantic. You hardly get a moment to dwell on the horrors of the first world war before you're on to something else. Slavery gets a single 3ft by 2ft panel, with a couple of small exhibits, there being an International Slavery Museum elsewhere in the city that goes into more depth.
The museum's tone is boosterish, albeit seasoned with sobering data about deprivation, rates of heart disease and low voter turnout. You hear much about the city's fast-talking, cheeky, gobby, independent spirit, its perseverance and endurance, its wacky chaos and madness. "In one word, I would describe the accent of Liverpool as brilliant," says one talking head. A more eloquent quote comes from Willy Russell: "The nature of the spoken word in Liverpool" is, for writers, "as the sky and the light must have been to the impressionists."
The exhibition areas are planned by the Los Angeles-based exhibition and theme park designers BRC Imagination Arts and are the bet-hedging mulch of video, exhibit, text, sound, image and 3-D mise en scène that is now standard in museums. It is like a ready-made school project, or a Wikipedia entry made flesh, a warm gloop of unchallenging information.
To judge by the lively opening day crowds, having their memories prompted by this or that nostalgic nugget, the museum's aim of connecting the city with its past is powerful and important, but those crowds deserve more provocative and insightful displays than they are now getting.
But the main issue is not the presentation of the museum's contents nor, exactly, the design of the building that houses them, but, rather, the composition, or lack of it, of the museum building, combined with other new structures that are rising around and the historic monuments that were already there. For the museum stands in a Unesco world heritage site, between the impressive warehouses of the Albert Dock and the Three Graces, the three great Edwardian commercial buildings that define the city's waterfront. One of them, the Royal Liver Building, was a century old on the day the museum opened.
The Danish practice 3XN is credited as "creative architects" of the museum, which means the company designed it, but was later removed from the project, and it has been completed not entirely in accordance with 3XN's wishes. Inside, there's a big spiral stair conceived as a social heart of the museum, which is nice enough, except that it rises towards cheap suspended ceilings that undermine its splendour. It's like the ramp of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim installed in a Travelodge. And it seems to eat space: for all the museum's boasting about how big it is, the galleries feel squeezed.
Outside, 3XN has created a dynamic twist of a building, in pale white stone, that rises at its extremities to give panoramic views of the Three Graces in one direction and the Mersey in the other. There is also a forbidding-looking slalom of wheelchair ramps and stairs at each end, with the idea that people can wander up, through and down again, choosing to look into galleries or not as the mood takes them.
This idea of casually strolling up ramps and stairs seems over-optimistic, as it's easier just to walk round the outside of the building at ground level. Overall, there's a sense of misplaced energy, with too much in elaborate circulation, and too little in the details, in the gallery spaces.
3XN's Kim Herforth Nielsen has overcome his differences with the museum sufficiently to turn up at the opening day and he claims he wanted to be "respectful" of the Three Graces and not "to compete with them, but do something completely different". So in place of their square, symmetrical, majestic repose, he came up with a restless squiggle, which he says is also inspired by both the shapes of ships and land art.
This approach was probably a bad bet, as it is possible to be different from and respectful of the older buildings without being so ostentatiously their opposite, but it might just have come off if the squiggle had been undeniably brilliant and if the other new buildings in the area had been quiet and unified, so as to offset its individualistic dazzle. But they wanted to be clever and different, too, so in addition to the museum there is a block of flats in the form of giant black crystals, by Broadway Malyan architects, and the Pier Head ferry terminal, a sub-sub-Hadid exercise in odd shapes by Hamilton Architects of Belfast. (The terminal won the 2009 Carbuncle Cup, for the nation's worst building, a prize for which the museum is this year shortlisted.)
Further off are the jerky shapes of flats on the edge of the Liverpool One shopping development. It is as if a huge incontinent dog had deposited them on the pavement, except that the latter's droppings would have had more consistency of form and texture, one to the other. There is no coherence, rapport, sense of wholeness or purpose to the ensemble. The older buildings manage to be expressive, varied, bold, dignified and unified all at once; the new do not.
There is history to the current state of Liverpool's waterfront. In 2002, a "Fourth Grace" was proposed – a public-private enterprise whereby a landmark building would house the Museum of Liverpool, some other ill-defined purposes and a money-making development. It would be the centrepiece of Liverpool's capital of culture celebrations in 2008. Leading architects were invited to suggest ideas and Will Alsop won, with a giant blob called The Cloud.
The original Three Graces were classical goddesses and if you were to imagine Canova's marble statue of them hugged by a giant, full-colour Katie Price, you would have some idea of the effect of the Fourth Grace proposals – by whichever famous architect – inflated as they were by their commercial content. The Fourth Grace plan eventually foundered, but it established the idea that the historic buildings could be honoured by blocking views of them and surrounding them with noisy new structures.
The only improvement is that what has actually been built is smaller than the Fourth Grace proposals, but this is a short-lived relief. Close by, an undistinguished, 55-storey tower is now proposed as part of a £5.5bn scheme called Liverpool Waters, which will poke its way into views of the Three Graces.
According to Building Design magazine, members of Unesco's world heritage committee have expressed "extreme concern" and are sending a delegation to urge Liverpool's city council to reject the plans. The council might finally wake up, but if so it will have to reverse a direction in which it has been heading for a decade.
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