Supporter's Column: Emily Priest

A conversation between the original critique of the Tate Liverpool published in the Architect's Journal and 6a's new understanding of the Stirling building.

Extracting Sentences

At the start of working on Tate Liverpool, 6a queried the building’s archive material almost as much as its existing fabric. We spoke to people working in the gallery, scoured image archives, sifted through specifications, listened to BBC recordings and read journals. There was one particular article that held a vast amount of architectural and cultural information, the Building Feature of the Architect’s Journal, number 27, volume 187 from 1988. The issue cost £1 and its featured building was Liverpool’s Tate of the North.


The AJ A4 cover image has a blaze of orange-framed, blue enamel panels. At the centre of each is a porthole window reflecting Albert Dock, the ‘perfect plaza of water’ as described by Stirling. What had been a boom port of the nineteenth century - the article tells - is now a reassuring setting for the consumption of surplus time. On the cover, a freshly painted white cast iron beam runs along the horizontal datum of the bright new blue and orange façade. It carries chunky illuminated letters. They say TATE.


We found the building feature amongst a stinging attack on the London Docklands Development Corporation, and a Restauration project on page 12 to convert Chichester’s grade II* listed Corn Exchange into a McDonalds. Only a stuccoed ‘M’ on the pediment was permitted. There is debate over Newark’s town hall, as the Georgian Group objectsto a new accessible ramp. Refurbishments run alongside adverts for brickwork cladding brackets, Compact Perkomatic door closers and instant acoustic floor. A market of standardised, faster, (non-recyclable) composite materials right here on the page for us to tear off the corner, write in and enquire.


A 5-step technical guide to cabling on page 51 marks the rush of information technology. On page 57, Inflation has increased by 3-9 per cent. On page 7, there is a new Temple on the Thames. John Outram’s splendid new pumping station has landed. And on pages 32-49, sandwiched between Think Wood and Worldwide Dry Group adverts, the Building Feature: Stirling Statement for the refurbishment of the Liverpool Tate. Stirling is a little larger than statement and follows a series of similarly anecdotal AJ titles such as Stirling Work, A Stirling Effort and sadly, No Sterling for Stirling.


Focusing on Richard Weston’s section, the feature introduces dock engineer Jesse Hartley’s Albert Dock as the finest group of warehouses in Britain. Four-square buildings, with their ample cast iron columns and grand crane arches. Symmetry and permanence that is massively present. The warehouses are decidedly Stirlingesque and what Stirling himself likes to call ‘monumental’. The writing is pithy, as well as patriotic towards Liverpool’s architect and port culture, its comparisons and anecdotes belonging to its own time.


The building is first described by structure: a basement and six floors of open fireproof construction. We measure the height of the building in our minds. Extra layers of detail are added: massive external walls, a forest of cast iron columns and gently arched beams supporting brick-vaulted floors. We gather the Victorian setting in which the refurbishment has taken place. Stirling’s approach was to locate the main stair directly opposite the entrance, which is entered past a delightful new double circular column à la Villa Mairea. The deceptively simple organisational strategy creates a thick zone behind Hartley’s spine wall to make way for services. Stirling’s details are detail-less and have been handled economically and elegantly.


The junctions between floors are compared to the precise pen lines of Big Jim’s celebrated axonometrics. But Weston is more critical of the façade, claiming the entrance screen is the least successful element of the space, despite it being in most of the photographs and as a full-page detail drawing. A row of lights forms an oddly crenelated profile and the recessed soffit above the orange drums of the revolving doors clashes awkwardly with the existing structure. 6a have often referred to this drawing for its clear detailing. The façade continues to be a topic of debate and long discussion, as we work towards readdressing the entrance so it is accessible and responsive to Liverpool as we know it now.


Arriving in the entrance hall, Stirling swells into Hartley and we are told more of Stirling’s conspicuously nautical touches. The new book and coffee shop form an ample buttocks of some colossus reposing on the mezzanine - it is difficult to tell whether this is endearment or critique - and there are liquorice layered benches in slate, copper and stainless steel at the entrance. Weston plays off material with taste as we read of details and description, concluding that Stirling has designed a fine gallery completed under budget, but notes that perhaps something less respectfully deferential was needed.


The AJ Building Feature articles began in 1985 and invited acclaimed writers to review recently completed projects. Covering around 8–10 spreads, features described buildings through carefully configured photographs, redrawn drawings and succinct writing. Weston operates between awkward junctions and beautifully laid sandblasted bricks to build a full picture for readers; one that remains vivid and useful, as a resource from which we have been carefully extracting when adding a new contemporary layer to Tate Liverpool’s history.


Emily Priest is a member of 6a Architects.