Built initially as a revolutionary docking system in the 19th century, Albert Dock in Liverpool has a lot of historic ‘firsts’ under its belt. But its transformation in the past 30 years is what really puts it, and Liverpool, on the UK’s Arts map.
At 1.25 million square feet, Liverpool’s Albert Dock was an ambitious project when it was first conceived. Taking five years to build, construction started in 1841 before Prince Albert officially opened Albert Dock in July 1846.
Several ‘firsts’, in maritime and engineering terms, can be claimed by Albert Dock.
At a time when most warehouses proved a massive fire risk, Albert Dock was revolutionary in that it was built as an enclosed, non-combustible warehouse docking system – the world’s first.
Another first was its combination of building materials: in Britain, Albert Dock was the first structure to be made entirely of cast iron, stone and brick.
Further, by 1848 Albert Dock boasted the world’s first hydraulic warehouse hoists.
Despite all this, within half a century of its construction Albert Dock was obsolete. It had been built to accommodate large sailing ships, but by the 20th century this type of ship was barely in use for transporting cargo, and so Albert Dock fell into disuse before suffering extensive damage during the second world war. It finally closed in 1972.
Ten years later, a subsidiary company of the Dock’s owner started putting together plans to renovate the silted-up dock and the derelict warehouses. Building work was begun in 1983 and the first phase opened to the public in 1984. Albert Dock as it is today was officially opened by the Prince of Wales in 1988.
It’s almost 30 years since the new Albert Dock was opened, and in that time it’s become home to a number of Arts-related organisations of many types.
The Tate Liverpool gallery and museum opened in 1988 with a major refurbishment in 1998 adding more gallery space. Further building work in 2007 provided improvements to the foyer and cafe.
The ITV morning magazine show, This Morning, was broadcast from a studio inside Albert Dock from 1988, famously putting weatherman Fred Talbot on a floating map of Britain every day for his forecasts.
In 1990 Britain’s only Beatles-themed visitor attraction, The Beatles Story museum, opened at Albert Dock.
But Albert Dock is just one part of a massive regeneration scheme in Liverpool that has seen the city’s fortunes, as well as its physical appearance, change for the better.
From a city that was in such a bad way in 1981 that a “managed decline” was proposed in the aftermath of the Toxteth riots, Liverpool has blossomed into a world-famous centre of the Arts – even being named a European Capital of Culture in 2008.
The University of Liverpool now has a dedicated School of the Arts, which brings together five existing disciplines and is deeply engaged with the city’s culture, arts and heritage scene.
The award-winning Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, formed in 1840, is the UK’s oldest continuing professional symphony orchestra and the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall is one of the UK’s top arts and entertainment venues.
National Museums Liverpool curates a vast number of collections at several venues, including the International Slavery Museum, the Museum of Liverpool and the Merseyside Maritime Museum, as well as the Walker and Lady Lever art galleries.
And as for Albert Dock itself? In addition to being Liverpool’s top tourist attraction, with over four million visitors a year it’s also (excluding London) the UK’s most visited multi-use attraction.
In just a few short decades, Liverpool’s fortunes have improved drastically. A cosmopolitan, beautiful and culturally-rich city has risen from the ashes of war, poverty and social turmoil, putting an excellent case for the importance of role of the Arts in urban regeneration.