The new Museum of Liverpool, the largest national museum built in Britain in the last 100 years, opens next week. Designed by Danish practice 3XN, the site occupies a pivotal and dramatic location on the city’s iconic Pier Head overlooking the famous River Mersey. It is located next to a noble trio of neo-Baroque and neo-Classical buildings affectionately known as the ‘Three Graces’. These are staunchly revered local landmarks and they sit within a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. So depending on how you look at these things, inserting a new contemporary building into such a heavily symbolic location presents either a host of opportunities or a plethora of problems.
Recent history suggests that the latter condition has tended to win the day. The notorious ‘Fourth Grace’ project was launched in 2002 as part of Liverpool’s successful bid for 2008 European City of Culture. However Will Alsop’s winning ‘zoomorphic’ design invited widespread derision and was eventually scrapped in 2004. Belfast-based Hamilton Architects fared better when their £10.5m Liverpool Ferry Terminal Building opened in 2009 directly in front of the middle ‘Grace’. But this too attracted instant criticism and was promptly named as the winner of the Carbuncle Cup for that year. So how does Liverpool Museum match up to its neighbours and its site’s tempestuous recent past?
The £70m museum cuts a low-profile against the waterfront and is conceived as a chamfered rectangular block crowned by a series of splayed, mono-pitched roofs. Significantly, these inclined roofs do not face out towards the river but are inclined towards the Three Graces to the north and the famous Albert Docks to the south. Large glazed openings open out on to each of these prospects, framing dramatic views of the city beyond. The result of this arrangement is that the museum appears to have been squeezed onto an edge, a fitting enough metaphor for a waterside building but one whose primarily and unforgivably blank riverside elevation seems strangely reluctant to celebrate its proximity to the river.
With its splayed angles and inclined planes, the museum cuts an unapologetically asymmetrical and dynamic geometric form. It therefore retains an undeniably contemporary character, in direct contrast to its classical neighbours. This however is a bold and worthy gesture and the low, stealthy massing of the new building ensures than in scale at least, it does not overshadow its neighbours.
In fact, it accords them far more deference than some of the more apocalyptic earlier Fourth Grace proposals and is certainly more sympathetic than Brodaway Malyan’s horrific Mann Island Development regretfully hurtling towards completion behind it. Clad in limestone panels folded into 3XN’s signature triangulated modules, it also relates well to the robust, hard-edged texture and materials found throughout its local context.
What ultimately undermines the museum therefore is not style but intention. Although built at different times, the original ‘Three Graces’ are happy to conform to the principle of an ensemble composition, each playing its role within a stately waterfront sequence and yet exerting strong individual architectural identities of their own.
The Museum of Liverpool certainly achieves the latter but it does so at the expense of the former. There is a recurring narcissistic quality to this building, it seems so keen to stamp its own mark that it appears to have fallen into the familiar trap of so-called ‘iconic’ architecture and forgotten that it is only one cog in a well-established urban set-piece.
This is certainly not an argument for submissive or pastiche design and in fairness to the museum, achieving a finely-honed balance between empathy and assertion has been a perennial challenge when designing within historic contexts for centuries. Nevertheless, the fact remains that for all its undoubted sculptural presence and dramatic profile the Liverpool Museum cuts an isolated figure that feels detached from its neighbours and wary of the river. Impressive yes but it is not so much a Fourth Grace as an autonomous one.