Monday, April 10, 2017

Water Street, Liverpool


Blowing bubbles

The third of my Liverpudlian trio is Oriel Chambers, an office block in Water Street that has been catching eyes since 1864. It was designed by Liverpool architect Peter Ellis (who did the equally striking 16 Cook Street and a number of other, less notable, Liverpool buildings) and it has always fascinated me.

What’s striking at first glance is the amount of glass, and its arrangement. Dozens of similar oriel windows protrude from building’s two street facades. They have very narrow glazing bars, so the effect is almost like a series of glass bubbles. There are no structural outer walls. This is a framework building, and the frame is of cast iron, although the material is concealed from the world by a thin cladding of stone.

So, how very modern, one thinks, for 1864: a tall, metal-framed building with a ‘curtain wall’ of glass, like a 20th-century skyscraper. And yet, also, how old-fashioned: the metal is covered with stone, and the skyline is punctuated with pinnacles that look almost Gothic. The oriels themselves have little finials too. So it’s a mixture, this building, and no less fascinating for that.
When it was built, the press disliked it. Building News thought the oriels looked as if they were ‘trying to escape from the building’ and called it ‘greenhouse architecture gone mad’. A Liverpool critic in a satirical magazine called The Porcupine called the building ‘this vast abortion’ and said that ‘the plainest brick warehouse in the town is infinitely superior, as a building, to that large agglomeration of protruding plate-glass bubbles.’ They didn’t much bother about the back of the building, which is even more remarkably modern, as the video below about Oriel Chambers and Ellis’s Cook Street block, reveals.

There used to be a lot of speculation that Ellis’s career was derailed by the contemporary criticism he received for Oriel Chambers. But historians Robert Ainsworth and Graham Jones* have researched the architect’s life and work, and have found a man quietly thriving as an architect and surveyor – and pursuing new directions, which I hope to cover in a further post. Meanwhile, we can, I think, admire Oriel Chambers as a fascinating building that looks forward to modernist architecture while also glancing back towards tradition: not a bad way of working, to my mind. His building is an asset to Liverpool and deservedly famous.

With many thanks once more to Joe Treasure for the pictures of Oriel Chambers.


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* Robert Ainsworth and Graham Jones, In the Footsteps of Peter Ellis (Liverpool History Society, 2013)

1 comment:

bazza said...

The building is a fascinating mix of Victorian Gothic and the Modern. I think many innovators in all of the creative arts are not necessarily appreciated in their own time. We can now look back and see how forward-thinking Oriel Chambers was.
Incidentally you may be interested in my new post about Wanstead House.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s unlikely Blog ‘To Discover Ice’