Our maritime heritage is the subject of endless fascination, but has architecture developed a language appropriate for it? Thom Gorst investigates.
The developed world was built upon its control of the sea. Nowadays it’s not. The photographer and scholar Allan Sekula argued that ‘our gaze moved away from the sea’ when the New York Times ceased publishing the shipping reports in the 1970s. Or, you could equally argue, when the London Docks closed, or when liners stopped regularly crossing the Atlantic. We no longer see ships or docks; we just pine after them. In their place we have grown a very special kind of nostalgia that ties together a sense of lost national grandeur with a romantic remembering of jolly jack tars and their haul-the-bowline shanties.
It’s a nostalgia that is underpinned by myth, and fuelled by popular consumption – look for example at the maritime knick-knacks for sale at the Albert Dock in Liverpool. Neither the myths nor the knick- knacks are especially concerned with historical accuracy, despite some recent developments in maritime museum curatorship that deal with real-life issues such as slavery or homosexuality at sea. But for most of us, the realities of life at sea remain hidden: try to find out where the crew lives on a modern cruise ship; they work through their contracts sharing viewless cabins behind rigidly policed boundaries, where the carpets come to an end.
Institutionalised maritime heritage has been with us since the National Maritime Museum (NMM) opened its doors in 1937. In those early days its curatorial policy was preoccupied with the display of static artefacts from Nelson’s navy. The opening to the public of Nelson’s flagship Victory and the Cutty Sark soon followed, and by the 1980s a thriving industry had grown up. This now includes nearly 50 restored ships, a few of which you can still go to sea on, and a number of new maritime museums – most notably in Falmouth and Liverpool – all of which have a voracious appetite for increasingly scarce funding. The contemporary heritage ‘attraction’ is therefore a completely different place to what the NMM used to be. It seeks to popularise history by ‘telling a story’, and it needs to attract corporate support, in the form of donations, and through offering hospitality facilities.
This all demands a new architecture. Whilst the NMM could ease itself into the architecture of Wren, and the Merseyside Maritime Museum into the muscular classicism of Jesse Hartley’s restored Albert Dock, more recent new-build attractions have turned – in varying ways and with widely varying degrees of success – to evoking the forms of the sea and docks.
It is an architecture that might be called ‘maritimism’ (a similar word, ‘maritimity’ is becoming recognised in the world of marine archaeology). It is an architecture which at best understands the disciplines that underpin the design of ships, and applies them creatively to the design of buildings. Wilkinson Eyre’s stylish National Waterfront Museum in Swansea (2005) is an excellent example.
However, maritimism can also embrace the showy and the vulgar. This tradition is well established: what is that most iconic of maritime buildings – the Royal Liver Building in Liverpool – other than a showy and vulgar evocation of the architecture of the American cities the port’s ships were trading to? And how very appropriate and powerful it remains, even if over a century old.
Less convincing is the maritimism that has landed recently in too many British towns and cities that have even a slight whiff of salt in the air, where they might put up a fake mast and rigging on a roundabout and call it an evocation of the local maritime heritage. As Peter Quartermaine has suggested in his book Building on the Sea (a rare attempt to consider the design of ships as architecture), the critical understanding of the referencing of ships in land architecture is too often reduced to the level of spotting visual maritime features on modern buildings. Clearly the maritime needs to be much more thoroughly understood by architects: think of its influences on Le Corbusier and CIAM and the ‘functionalist tradition’, as well as the contributions made to the design of new 1960s liners by architects such as Basil Spence and Hugh Casson. The connections were there throughout the twentieth century, so sloppy quotations of the maritime are as unforgivable as sloppy understandings of any other architectural tradition.
What then are we to make of the most recent examples of British maritimism? Two newly-opened examples – one in Southampton, the other in Belfast – both trade heavily on an enduring fascination with the Titanic, with which both cities share a connection.
The Titanic is of course the maritime myth par excellence. In 1995 – shortly before James Cameron’s eponymous film – the philosopher Paul Heyer pointed out that the growing myth surrounding the sinking of the Titanic paralleled the narrative of Noah’s Ark, in which a flood had been sent by God to punish a world guilty of excessive corruption, violence and wickedness.
Despite being flawed in concept, design and management, RMS Titanic has become an icon of Britain’s modernity at a time when this country ‘ruled the waves’, and everything and everyone was in its right place – as were the passengers in their respective classes of accommodation. So when the captain of a modern cruise ship called for a minute’s silence on board to mark the centenary of the Titanic’s sinking – something I recently witnessed – one wondered what was being mourned: the loss of over 1,500 lives, or the passing of a perceived ‘golden age’.
Southampton has reopened its 1930s magistrates’ court building as ‘SeaCity’ with a substantial new pavilion by Wilkinson Eyre. Taking material clues from the existing building, it offers a simple clerestory-lit gallery, similar in some respects to David Chipperfield’s Turner Contemporary in Margate.
The city of Belfast has relied on the appeal of the Titanic in promoting its post-industrial regeneration. As locals will quietly admit, the city has still not fully worked through its association with the tragedy, and this immersion in it is probably a way of dealing with that. It is also good marketing. Belfast purchased the last surviving fleet-mate of the Titanic – the tiny tender Nomadic that had languished as a floating restaurant in Paris – and brought it to Belfast, repainted it, gave it a new funnel and put it on display in the new ‘Titanic Quarter’ on Queen’s Island, where the Harland & Wolff shipyard had been.
And, as the centrepiece of the regeneration area, the city has built a public attraction based on the myth: a four-storey gallery and hospitality suite that anchors the masterplan. It is loaded with metaphors: the exterior morphed out of sketches of ice crystals (how appropriate is that?), the White Star Line logo, diamond shards and the bows of ships. The interior plays on ‘the geometric confusion of a working shipyard’ and its ‘hard industrial atmosphere’ of ‘scaffolding and gantries’. Hence the somewhat overplayed maze of internal bridges and catwalks, rather like the earlier Museum of Liverpool, whose Danish architect 3XN similarly claimed to have been influenced by the shapes of ships.
Unlike other recent examples of maritimism, Titanic Belfast had little existing context within which to work. It is intended to be the central element of a comprehensive redevelopment of the out-of-town area.
Indeed, apart from the still ruinous shipyard headquarters nearby (with a magnificent drawing office that speaks eloquently of the status of naval designers a century ago), the only context is that of memory. There are many memories to choose from in Belfast, and the one they have gone with is that of a shipyard, and – more specifically – of that ship they built a hundred years ago.
The question is, whether such literal attempts to recreate the Titanic and its shipyard by layering reference upon reference will stand either the scrutiny of the connoisseur, or the changing caprices of consumer taste. Without a book of explanations, one suspects the reading that will endure will be that of an iceberg, which is like putting up a memorial to the Lusitania in the shape of a torpedo. Good maritimism need not be so saturated in explicit narrative references.
Thom Gorst teaches at UWE Bristol. A naval officer before studying architecture, he completed a doctorate on contemporary maritime ruins at Glasgow School of Art in 2011.
Belfast Titanic project team
Lead consultant/architect: Todd Architects; concept design architect: CivicArts/Eric R Kuhne & Associates; exhibition design: Event Communications; client: Titanic Foundation; d&b contractor: Harcourt Construction’ operator: Titanic Belfast; interior designer: Kay Elliott; landscape designer: Heber-Percy & Parker; funding: Northern Ireland Tourist Board, Belfast City Council, Belfast Harbour Commissioners, Titanic Quarter; structural, civil and fire engineer: RPS Consulting; services engineer: AECOM; facade contractor: Metallbau Frueh; facade manufacturer: Spanwall, EDM Products; BREEAM consultant: SDS Energy; acoustic consultant: AWN Consulting; lighting design: Sutton Vane Associates; wind consultant: RWDI Anemos; planning consultant: Turley Associates; project and cost managemer: Cyril Sweett; construction (design and management) coordinator: Hasco Europe; catering consultant: Coverpoint Catering Consultants; tourism consultant: CHL Consulting Group; commissioning manager: Williams & Shaw; client advisors: EC Harris, HLM Architects, Mott MacDonald.
SeaCity Southampton project team
Architect: Wilkinson Eyre Architects; structural and services engineer, CDM advisor: Rambøll (formerly Gifford); access consultant: People Friendly Access Consultants; exhibition designer: Urban Salon; project manager: Focus Consultants; cost consultant: Davis Langdon; base-build contractor: Kier; exhibition fit-out: 8Build.
First published in AT228, May 2012