The Beetham Organization certainly possesses ambition. This is a company which, from recent and relatively humble beginnings, has already provided Liverpool with the two notable developments of Beetham Plaza and Campbell Square and has now set its sights even higher. 30 storeys high, in fact. Beetham Tower, located at 111 Old Hall Street, is the first in a series of similar buildings planned for Manchester and Birmingham and represents a statement of confidence in both a company on the up and a city experiencing a genuine renaissance. The development consists of the principal residential tower (where most of Liverpool Football Club have reputedly already placed deposits on penthouses), the lower, but still massive Raddisson SAS Hotel, and a further block for commercial use to complete the scheme. The site, at the end of Old Hall Street, was a disused Eye Hospital and its development has provided a much needed physical and psychological boost to Liverpool’s business district.
All of which, in purely economic terms, is largely good news for Liverpool. The building, sadly, is not. Beetham Tower is in no sense ugly, but rather a construction of such breathtaking blandness that its scale and undoubtedly dizzying height leave almost no lasting impression. When viewed from the River Mersey, the bulk of the tower at the extreme left of the city’s built up centre does act as a pleasing visual ‘full stop’ to the waterfront vista, but its dominant and serendipitous location cannot compensate for uninspired design. The building has no discernible style, except for the vague impression it creates in its post-Thatcherite shimmering edifice that this is a money totem, a Canary Wharf Lite, the stuff of corporate wet dreams. Save for some thoughtful landscaping and interesting public art around the site, Beetham have demonstrated none of the commitment to quality in either design or materials which this site demanded. Cheap stucco and even cheaper looking plastic and metal cladding characterise the exterior of a building which wants desperately to impress but, in the final analysis, can’t be bothered. Beetham Tower has its purpose, and that is to make money from apartment buyers, 5* hotel guests and blue-chip corporate clients. The Beetham Organization may well have ambition, but height does not a great building make and, although I’m sure the development will be a financial success, it is architecturally superficial and disappointing.
I recently attended a lecture at Tate Liverpool given by Ian Simpson Architects, the practise chosen by the Beetham Organization and the Hilton hotel chain to design the company's next tower in Manchester. This time, Beetham's audacity stretches to an incredible 47 stories and offers the 'highest living space in the UK'. Tellingly, Beetham has been very keen to trumpet their choice of architect for the scheme; no surprise there, as Ian Simpson is a proven talent, gaining plaudits from all quarters for his recent work on the Urbis museum and the residential development of Number One Deansgate in Manchester. Ian cetainly does like to build tall buildings, something I quizzed him on during the lecture at Tate, although he flatly denied building tall for tall's sake and professed a philosophy of creating buildings which suit their setting. Maybe so, but I think that looking at Ian's work it's difficult to ignore the fact that his settings often apparently suit tall buildings. The real difference between the Liverpool and Manchester towers is not, however, a question of height. Yes, the Simpson building is significantly taller, but if Number One Deansgate (pictured) is anything to go by it will also be of a much higher quality with a more ingenious design. Using the three simple material motifs of glass, steel and concrete, Ian Simpson created a superlative and innovative structure. It is a massively modern wedge of a building with glass wrapped crisply around concrete to create winter gardens for all apartments and a fully transparent skin so that even passers by can appreciate the a private address in a publicly accessible way. I did once meet someone from the firm of architects who designed Beetham's Liverpool tower, but they are a small Liverpool practise, never mentioned in dispatches and never bathed in any limelight. Deservedly so. They haven't so much designed the building as fulfilled a clear brief that it must be tall. A building without an actual architect's name attached to it is always an ominous sign in my experience. Maybe Beetham has learned it's lesson in Liverpool by ensuring that it's new developments progress onto an international archtectectural level. Maybe the company didn't care enough about Liverpool in the first place to get a decent architect with an original thought in their head to design their building, I'm not sure. What's clear is that Liverpool's been left with a dud and needs new buildings, full of integrity, to detract from the infamy of the tower as the city's newest and tallest. Thankfully, these buildings are on their way and will, I'm sure, be reviewed here in the fullness of time.
What is saddening is that many of the Liverpool's great and good are clamouring for more developments just like Beetham Tower, aware of their economic meaning and broader symbolism. I do not doubt the motivation of these people, who want nothing less for Liverpool than an ambition to compete with the best. The New Yorks, Sydneys and even Londons of this world have tall buildings and are successful, so ipso facto, Liverpool apparently needs towers to achieve the same success. I question this orthodoxy. What matters most is getting the basics right, like creating an environment in which commercial and public organisations can thrive and provide quality jobs for increasing numbers of residents and graduates. Sure, Liverpool needs ambition, but that should extend from the most basic standards such as keeping the streets clean to the loftier ideals of ensuring that the city has a properly trained workforce with access to a culturally rich scene. The real Liverpool should be judged not on the height of its towers but on the wellbeing of its citizens. There are probably 1000 things the city needed before it needed a Beetham Tower.