Art The Liverpool John Moores University Art and Design Academy is being utilised on the closing weekend for a conference, “Changing the World from Here” in which interested parties, curators, artists, thinkers and writers will investigate the future of the Biennial as well as a “series of focused gatherings that will explore possibilities for a post-industrial ecology, rethinking the relationship between art, urbanism and value for the 21st Century” (booklet text).
“Hello.” I said as I approach the reception. The glazed entrance hall was filled with students waiting for a lecture and I had to be shout to be heard. “Do you have any Biennial related exhibitions on right now?”
“No.” He said. He told me about Copperas Hill and how he’d heard there was almost going to be something there but there wasn’t in the end. He asked me if I’d been to Copperas Hill.
“Yes.” I said, and told him about the project, about visiting the venues in numerical order and how this was a pretty big moment because I’d reached the last of the venues on the flap covering page two of the booklet.
“Tick!” He said, making a ticking gesture.
“Tick!” I said, repeating the gesture.
“There is an exhibition.” He said pointing. I turned around.
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Although it’s not a Biennial exhibition, Saving The Century, a display from The Victorian Society has a number of tangential connections. The Victorian Society was formed in February 1958 to fight for Britain’s architectural heritage, which was being demolished at a grand scale to make way for the modernist onslaught. As the exhibition explains, before 1958, we lost what should now be some of our most iconic buildings from the Imperial Institute in South Kensington by TE Colcutt which was cleared to make way for an extension to Imperial College of Science (which probably could have successfully simply moved in) to Dawpool, the residence of Thomas Ismay, owner of the White Star Line and passenger on the Titanic.
On a grander scale, figures like Sir Nikolaus Pevsner and Sir John Betjeman who’d long campaign for the preservation of the country’s heritage gathered together fight against the onslaught of town planning in a similar way to the Biennial projects in Anfield and Everton. They experienced some early failures. The Euston Arch, the original entrance to Euston Station was lost in the 60s as was the Coal Exchange in the City of London. On both occasions the society offered viable alternatives and re-utilisations of the spaces which have become commonplace now, but were defeated by town planners and in the case of the Arch by the MacMillan government who could have intervened by chose not to.
But slowly, the Society’s reputation developed and although the exhibition and accompanying brochure are filled with photographs of gorgeous buildings now lost, look carefully and we find successes closer to home, either due to the signalling of “concern” or direct action. In 1966 a redevelopment of the Liverpool Waterfront almost led to the demolition of the Albert Dock and it wasn’t until 1983 that the Merseyside Development Corporation began the restoration that led to habitation by Tate Liverpool. In 1983, when the law courts moved out of St George’s Hall, it became functionally redundant, after lobbying from the Victorian Society it was put on the World Monument Fund’s watch list which ultimately led to its restoration.
The exhibition’s brochure actually contains the contents of the displays so if you don’t have the time to spend in the space, the exhibition closes at end of October, you can read it instead in the comfort of your home. It’s a black and white celebration of a force of will working to preserve the country’s heritage and also a tribute to Victorian engineering. Many of the buildings which replaced some of that period’s architecture have already been replaced themselves, either because of safety concerns or because tastes have changed again. Luckily, there’s a 20th Century Society to fight for that period in our history too, a period which also had its fair share of architectural achievements. The Kingsway Tunnel Vents are their building of the month.
Obviously, just as various periods of art history are reflected in our art galleries, there’s room for just the same variety in our cities. The film Blade Runner might hint towards a dystopian future, but architecturally it’s fascinating and as with the various human cultures living on top of one another, buildings from a range of historical periods can be seen from the windows of Deckard’s hover car as he flies across the city. One of the most impressive images I’ve seen this Biennial is how the “Three Graces” on the waterfront are reflected in the dark, marble surface of the Mann Island project which shows that new, cutting edge buildings can still be aware of and complement the historic buildings which surround them.