Brock Carmichael

Cunard House: Celebrating the future, in tribute to the past

28 June 2016

There’s nothing more satisfying than knowing you’ve been able unlock the potential of a project, while retaining everything that made it special in the first place. This is why when it comes to conservational architecture, there are so many things to consider.

liverpool_architects_brock_carmichael_cunard_houseAnd this was certainly true of our work on the prestigious ground floor conversion of Cunard House on Liverpool’s Pier Head. From a technical and functional standpoint, the task was to plan a 550-occupancy restaurant for Living Ventures Group that would be the latest addition to its Australasia brand. But at the core of every decision, no matter how small, we reflected the life and heritage of the building itself, considering the historical, aesthetic and communal legacy that seeped from every pore of Cunard House.

As principal designers and technical coordinating architects for the project, Brock Carmichael provided guidance on everything from design and lead co-ordination of specialist inputs to internal services and bar and kitchen equipment. We supported on Heritage and Listed Building Conservation matters and worked closely with Living Ventures interior design specialist Michelle Derbyshire to draft a proposal that balanced the planned future of the Grade II listed building carefully with its rich, fascinating history. And the very detail of this history would even provide the backbone of the proposal.

Completed in February 1914, The Cunard Building served as the UK headquarters for the Cunard Line shipping company from the day its doors opened in June 1916 right up until the company split its operations between its Southampton and New York offices in the 1960s. The elegant and now iconic building was one of a trilogy of Edwardian structures that lined the Liverpool waterfront, which included the Royal Liver Building (completed 1911) and the Port of Liverpool Building (completed 1907). Known collectively as The Three Graces, the trio sat on the already disused George’s Dock, which had been closed and drained by the Liverpool Corporation in 1899, allowing Water Street and Brunswick Street to be extended with suspended roadways.

From the day it was erected, the historical value of The Cunard Building was reflected in its tenants and association with British industry and culture. During the Second World War, its sub‐basement level acted as an air raid shelter, with additional reinforced steel joists fitted in case it needed to cope with a direct hit. Today, the building also enjoys status as part of the Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City World Heritage Site, which was added to the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organisation in 2004. Here, the World Heritage Committee referred to it as a ‘supreme example of a commercial port at the time of Britain’s greatest global influence’.

The aesthetic value of The Cunard Building is reflected in its architectural design mix, which combines Italian Renaissance and Greek Revival styles. However, its concrete frame construction faced with Portland Stone and carefully detailed masonry also takes cues from American Beaux‐Arts buildings such as those in New York, inviting comparisons with the work of US practices such as McKim, Mead & White. And yet, while all of The Three Graces were always intended to command attention, all manage to boast their very own architectural style and presence – though this seems somehow enhanced when they are viewed as a collection from the River Mersey.

In terms of communal value, the lasting impression of the city The Cunard has left on its many visitors over the last century has been augmented by more recent celebrations that have once again highlighted its beauty and significance. Most recently, this included the 2015 sailing together of The Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth to mark Cunard’s 175th anniversary. Using the spot from which Samuel Cunard began his transatlantic line in 1840, The Cunard Building and Pier Head provided a focal point that formed part of a seven-week programme of celebrations that attracted 1.6 million people between May and July of that year. The subsequent television, print and social media activity around the event served to galvanise even further the importance of the Cunard Building and bring it to the attention of a whole new generation.

All of these values – historical, aesthetic and communal – were central to Brock Carmichael’s planning process. Our Heritage Assessment Drawings began with drawings based on historic record that showed the original historic layout of the building at Lower Ground and Ground Floor level, as well as how the demands of its lease to the Living Ventures Group and its Australasia brand restaurant would affect its future life.

We feel this robust approach is not just essential to creating a plan that satisfies our clients and local planning authorities, it’s also the responsible thing to do for the future lives of the buildings we are involved with and the people who will enjoy them. Conservational architecture is much more than just repurposing a space to accommodate a new tenant; it’s about celebrating its heritage and allowing it to continue to leave its mark on a more modern landscape.

Michael Cosser