A Dying Breed?

There have been a couple of recent reports in the media that resonated with me due to a set of pictures I took on my recent travels in Liverpool.

The first related to a threatened withdrawal of the city’s UNESCO world heritage status.  The international organisation usually describes sites as at risk when they are in civil war zones, or in countries run by regimes that might actively destroy its heritage.  In Liverpool’s case, it is a proposed development that is feared will completely unbalance the cityscape, dwarfing the “Three Graces” beneath soaring towers inspired by the Shanghai waterfront.  Responding to criticisms, the development director responsible was quoted as saying

“Unesco status is a badge on the wall, but we cannot afford to fossilise our city.”

The second report was reviewing the impact of the decade since it became illegal to smoke in enclosed workspaces.  One of the charts described the decline in the number of British pubs in that period.  Thousands have closed, and I regularly see evidence of this on my travels.  I’m sure some photographer will soon produce an art book of monochrome prints detailing this decline, but for now here’s my contribution.  Five former hostelries whose day has certainly passed and all within the same route from the city centre out towards Bootle.

What interested me about these buildings is that despite their obvious decay, there was attention to detail in their original designs.  These were never great cathedrals, but to the working man they were important.  In fact their very existence strung out along the same route tells a story.  A story of dock workers thirsty from the hard physical labour of loading and unloading shipping needing a place to quench that thirst and share stories that belied the dangerous work they undertook.  With the move to container shipping many of those dangers have gone, but so have the jobs, which is why this stretch of road lies derelict along the canal and railside.  Social and economic factors rather than the smoking ban.  Some of the land has already been reclaimed for housing, but there is a huge opportunity for more.

My first pub is the Athol Vaults, which looks to this Sunderland native like a former Vaux Breweries pub.  Though the least ornate, even here there are mouldings on the woodwork.

There’s the Melrose Abbey, probably the most recent closure of the group.  Grimy now, but in its day that coloured brickwork would have been a nice touch.

Not to be confused with the Melrose Abbey, is the Melrose, whose imposing tower has a real touch of the Scottish Baronial style of architecture.  Decorated with intricate terracotta tiles that even the residents no longer notice, this has been converted into apartments.  One tenant spotted me taking pictures and invited me in, but if there was ever an equally grand interior all trace has been lost now.

My fourth casualty is The Knowsley, well-sited on a busy corner and with lots of decorative detail.  Referred to as “The Round House” for obvious reasons, it’s now a low-budget B&B.

Which brings me to my final victim.  The Royal.  Even its proximity to Bank Hall railway station hasn’t brought it customers and now it’s roof is crumbling away.  Another structure whose tower makes something of a statement.

It seems to me that this is an area ripe for the influx of the development money that is planned to destroy the character of the waterfront.  If only the developers took as much care as the designers of these humble watering holes.

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A Church Within a Church Within a…

I was probably spoilt by my first visit to Piazza San Stefano in Bologna, for two reasons: first it was a Sunday and so the flea market was in full swing, and second it was in a cafe here that I first tasted “tortellini in brodo” so the memorability of the afternoon is guaranteed.

The irregular space of the piazza was home to all manner of stalls selling rugs, antique furniture, military memorabilia, paintings, glassware and more, and there was such a friendly and relaxed ambience arising from a blended sound of the busking musicians and the banter of the traders across the space between displays.

I would have been happy to have visited the square even if I hadn’t ventured into the church that gives the place its name, but then I would have missed out on a real treasure.

Actually to say that San Stefano gives the square its name is a little misleading for the monastic complex here has a number of names to spare; the clue is in the name of the cafe where I dined, or to be more accurate caffe!  Sette chiese means seven churches, for San Stefano once comprised this number, though as a result of some inconsiderate remodelling by the citizens of Bologna in days past there are now only four.  Even so the contrasts they provide makes for a worthwhile visit.

Through the first door you enter a small and relatively unremarkable church, but for the light which streams in from the windows to the south.  A photographer’s dream.  This is the Church of the Crucifix, and appropriately enough the building is dominated by just such an artefact suspended from the ceiling._PW_3884

The unusually raised altar is built on a mezzanine to accommodate a crypt below, or given the event that the church recalls, is it supposed to represent that “green hill far away”?_PW_3896

There are differing theories about the development of the site; some claiming that each of the seven churches was meant to represent the locations of the passion of Christ, whereas other believe it to have been a purely organic development spreading from an old pagan temple that Petronius the patron saint of the city converted.  The first theory gave rise to another name for the complex – Holy Jerusalem, with some postulating that it was built to replicate the buildings that the Roman Emperor Constantine erected over the site of the crucifixion and burial of Christ.

Fittingly the pagan temple was dedicated to Isis, an Egyptian goddess appropriated by the Romans, now re-appropriated to become the Holy Sepulchre, and designed to resemble the church of that name in Jerusalem.  Whatever the theory this is an entirely different structure to the first, not so much a church as central high pulpit with a tomb incorporated below where Petronius rested before being decanted to the cathedral that bears his name.

After this the links to the passion are a bit harder to recognise.  Pilate’s courtyard is… a courtyard.  The 4th century Church of Saints Vitale and Agricola doesn’t seem to fit with the Jerusalem theory, and the other buildings all seem to medieval to be replicas of any Roman originals, which is not to say they don’t have charm; the Church of The Trinity with it’s wooden nativity scene, the frescoed ceilings by the Chapel of the Bandage, the well at the centre of the cloister, and the coloured brickwork designs of the courtyard.

There is plenty to explore here – I just need to return to the city to do it justice._PW_3938

Gotham & Gothic

One of the things that struck me on my recent visit to Dublin was that there are some wonderful old buildings and some impressive modern buildings, but that they often seem to be juxtaposed without any thought as to how they fit together. A street of old brick town houses might be interrupted by a vertical finger of glass and steel for example.

Manchester faces similar challenges, yet to my eye seems able to resolve them.

On the on hand it is a modern city whose skyline is punctuated by tower cranes and the structures they work on.  No wonder Elbow, who originate nearby, felt inclined to write a song entitled “The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver”.  Viewed from the morning tram, the city that casts its shadow into the waters of the Ship Canal is perhaps becoming Manc-hattan!_PW_0394

But for all its shiny verticality, it has a heart of stone and brick, a heart that continues to beat when many other cities would have torn down the dirty and old-fashioned, Manchester has nurtured them and found new uses for them.

Train stations become exhibition spaces, warehouses become apartments, Georgian houses become smart offices, and where the old meets new they seem to fit, even when integrating a modern extension onto a 19th century structure.

Probably my favourite part of the city is the area around King Street, formerly the banking district, where it seems that every other building is listed.  These include the former Midland Bank building which is now The Gotham Hotel, a stepped white art-deco structure which, if a little taller, would not be out of place in New York, and my favourite of Manchester’s gems, The Reform Club.

The term “Venice of the North” is applied to various cities in Northern Europe such as Amsterdam, Bruges, Stockholm and more.  The title is based solely it seems, on the qualifying criteria of having a network of canals.  In the UK the term usually refers to Birmingham, which prides itself on having “more canals than Venice”.  Not so difficult when you consider that Venice only has three!

Surely Manchester has a greater claim to the UK version of the title having both canals and Venetian inspired architecture.  Whilst not alone in adopting this style, The Reform Club building truly embraces it.  Viewed from a distance the building impresses with its turrets, oriel windows and polychromatic arches, but get closer and you see it is encrusted with finely detailed carvings of beasts both real and imaginary.

The Reform Club itself was wound up about thirty years ago, which might have spelt the end of this beautiful edifice, but thankfully not.  A number of different tenants share the building now, but perhaps none more Mancunian than the clothing emporium created by Liam Gallagher._PW_0415

For me this conservation area is truly an oasis!_PW_0401