Due to its music scene and architecture, Liverpool can be considered as the most ‘American’ of Britain’s cities…
If the Atlantic Ocean is seen as a conduit and not as a barrier between the United States and Britain, then it explains why Liverpool, once a focus for Britain’s international trade and European emigration to the New World, was considered the most ‘American’ of British cities and a centre for the exchange of ideas between the two countries. Although the more famous expression of this cultural dialogue has been in music, mainly through the Beatles, it has left an equally strong architectural legacy in the city.
The story of Oriel Chambers and the Liver Building, two of Liverpool’s most innovative buildings, trace the early story of this exchange which continues to this day, together they show the flow of ideas was two way.
Architect Peter Ellis (1804-1884) is known only through two buildings, both in Liverpool, one of which is Oriel Chambers, the first metal-framed glass curtain wall building in the world. American architect John Wellborn Root, who went into partnership with Daniel Hudson Burnham, studied in Liverpool during the American Civil War and it’s likely he would have seen Oriel Chambers. With its cast-iron frame bearing the weight of the building, Ellis could free the façade from supporting stonework and replace it with more glass, enabling the interior of Oriel Chambers to be filled with natural light. It was these ideas that can be seen later in the work of Burnham and Root, who would go on to design some of the tallest buildings in the world and begin the modern obsession to build upwards. Completed in 1864, Oriel Chambers is 150 years old this year.
In the 20th century, the scale and vigour of American buildings began to change the way British architects were designing. The Liver Building, designed by Walter Aubrey Thomas and completed in 1911, was both Britain’s first reinforced concrete building and first skyscraper. Despite its heavy Edwardian features, the influence of American skyscrapers can be seen in its scale and construction. An elevated electric train line ran once along Liverpool’s waterfront and next to the Liver building, something that would have been equally at home operating between the urban blocks of Chicago or New York.
The story of American influence in Liverpool continued into the interwar period with the building of giant office blocks, smaller cousins of the great skyscrapers of America’s east coast, such as Martins Bank and India Buildings on Water Street, both designed by local architect Herbert James Rowse. Direct architectural links were maintained by the Liverpool School of Architecture, under the leadership of Professor Charles Reilly between 1904 and 1933, when its students were sent over to the USA to work in the practices of leading architecture firms. One of those students was Rowse.
After World War II, new ideas were coming from the USA and Europe. Neoclassical and Art Deco styles and Beaux Arts ideas were replaced by Modernism, resulting in new icons which modernised the city and changed the way Liverpudlians lived. The architecture of this corner of Merseyside is not of the British Isles, but one which has long looked to America and the world.
Find out more:
Discover more about the history of this cultural exchange by attending the next RIBA talk Trans-Atlantic Exchange – British Architecture and the ‘Special Relationship‘ at 66 Portland Place, 6.30pm Tuesday 8 April 2014 (tickets £9 / £6.50 concessions).
References (available in the British Architectural Library, RIBA):
- Royal Liver Building. Architectural Review, 1911 October, pp.209-215
- History: Oriel Chambers. Architectural Review, 1956 May, pp.268-70
- Fraser, M., 2007. Architecture and the ‘special relationship’ : the American influence of post-war British architecture. London : Routledge