By Dan Russell
When this article about the Liverpool International Garden Festival was conceived, I had a clear notion of how it would unfold: I’d describe the flash-in-the-pan Utopia created in 1984, something I presumed to be the last throw of the dice by a socialist council whose city had been decimated by a ruthless Conservative government. I’d then of course go on to bemoan the lack of a legacy, the wastefulness of letting the Festival site decay and the short-sightedness of the model of regeneration that never thought, “but what next?”. In the timespan it covers we have seen one complete cycle — bust to bust. The city’s regeneration boom, neatly bookended by two tourism-centred initiatives: the Garden Festival and 2008’s Capital of Culture. I was hoping to be cynical about this.
Unfortunately, I was wide of the mark. Thankfully, my lines of enquiry blew open my closed opinions.
Firstly, I spoke with my Scouse family. Like many Liverpudlians, they are vehemently anti-Tory. Had my Auntie Edna known she was to die in middle age, she would have gladly taken out Margaret Thatcher first and spent her last joyous days in prison. As such, it was with great surprise that I learned that they had a lot of respect for one of Thatcher’s ministers. Yes, it was in fact Michael Heseltine who decided something must be done to halt the decline on Merseyside when his own party wanted to simply cut it adrift.
Secondly, I talked to local writer and self-confessed “Liverpool anorak” Kenn Taylor. Both he and my relatives were as unanimous in their praise for the Festival as they were disparaging of the Derek Hatton-led Labour council of the day.
I’m aware that the 1980s aren’t famed for their modernism, but they are still a part of the Twentieth Century story. In my opinion the futuristic Buckminster Fuller-esque geodesic dome and huge, ARUP designed space-bullet of the Festival Hall just about scrape it into these pages by aesthetic virtue, and the philosophy of top-down Shangri-La creation by visionary outsiders gets it in on ideological merit.
Heseltine wanted to ease the memory of the Toxteth riots of 1981 and turn Boys from the Blackstuff-era Liverpool into a destination for visitors and investment. Alongside saving and developing the Albert Dock, cleaning the Mersey Basin and creating new technology parks at Wavertree and Brunswick, it was determined that a Garden Festival, based on the German Bundesgartenschau — a bi-annual regional development initiative originating in Hanover in 1951 — was to be organised.
The site, a sludgy former oil terminal, was dredged and infilled in the largest urban reclamation project ever executed in the country. Two hundred and fifty acres of parkland, sixty ornamental gardens, and numerous pavilions and artworks were created.
My granddad was bought a season ticket and went almost every day, such was local love for the Festival. Celebrities of the era, Acker Bilk, Worzel Gummidge, and SuperTed were all in attendance. For nine months Liverpool attracted over three million tourists, people who previously wouldn’t have dreamt of visiting. There was pride in the city again.
In time the Festival ended and then… nothing. A pamphlet had proclaimed that the Festival Hall was to become “the centrepiece of a planned housing, business and leisure development, for use as a multi-purpose sports and leisure centre”. Unfortunately the only sport and leisure that took place on site was quad-biking and dogging. Not forgetting the ill-fated Pleasure Beach amusement park that lasted from the late 80s to 1996.
Despite failing to use the land itself, all was not lost. Two vital things had come from the Garden Festival: the symbolic gesture that Liverpool wasn’t dead; and a model for leisure-led regeneration. Whilst the Festival site languished, other Garden Festival Cities such as Stoke and Glasgow implemented the next phases of their development, and places like Manchester and Birmingham Urban-Splashed their way to success by adopting the development template that in some ways was pioneered in Liverpool.
It wasn’t until it was gearing up for the Capital of Culture bid that Liverpool belatedly caught up with the style of cultural regeneration it had previously experimented with. A chain reaction had been catalysed that in turn has led to the events of 2008, alongside what Taylor calls “the single biggest thing to happen to the city in the last twenty years” – a shopping centre on a grand scale: Liverpool One. Although it pains me to admit it, cities are built on commerce, and in the absence of new industry the fact is that developing a huge shopping experience on privatised city centre land has helped Liverpool to draw level with its peers. At least it is reasonably architecturally interesting.
Far from merely framing the sequence of bust to bust, Liverpool, and in particular the Garden Festival, has arguably provided a direct model for the culture-led regeneration of the UK’s cities. It’s just that where the Garden Festival itself occurred was not where this happened. This boom of regeneration was the face of the supposedly limitless growth that certainly caused the recent bust, but we might now be in a position to ensure that the “what next” for the city — post Capital of Culture and Liverpool One — isn’t the same as what happened to the Festival site.
I was interviewed by Manchester-based artist and designer Dan Russell for this piece he wrote on Liverpool’s 1984 International Garden Festival for The Modernist magazine.