Shaft! (The Queensway Tunnel, Merseyside)

Art Deco is sexy. It oozes glamour. It’s the background to Hercule Poirot’s ongoing TV investigations and the misadventures of servants and masters in Upstairs Downstairs (sadly cancelled after going quite over the top in the last series, but that’s another story).

Would you like to see one of Britain’s most overlooked group of Art Deco buildings? Then direct your attention to Liverpool. No, not the famous (well, not famous enough, if you ask me) Littlewoods building by Wavertree Park. Instead, head down to the banks of the River Mersey.

In the early 2000s, Liverpool held a competition to design a “Fourth Grace” to stand alongside Liverpool’s existing Three Graces on the north bank of the Mersey – the Royal Liver Building (the one with the Liver Birds on top), the Cunard Building, and the Port of Liverpool Building. The competition was won by Will Alsop (whose work you might know if you have ever stopped to admire North Greenwich Underground station in London) with a plan for a building called The Cloud. The Cloud was never built; it was abandoned amongst some degree of controversy over acceptability of the building and changes to the plan for the waterfront of which The Cloud was a part.

If you ask me, Liverpool City Council didn’t need to have a competition for a Fourth Grace. It’s already got one: the ventilation shaft and office buildings for the Queensway Tunnel. It sits right behind the Port of Liverpool Building, and has been doing since 1925-34, when it was built, as part of a scheme to link Liverpool with Birkenhead via a new road tunnel.

It’s a splendid Art Deco edifice, gleaming white, with a rusticated ground floor and niches containing bronze figures (says English Heritage in the building’s Grade II listing details). For it, we have Herbert J Rowse to thank, as architect of this lovely building.

Ventilation shaft and offices for the Queensway Tunnel © Paul Harrop and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

It has friends, too. On the south side of the Mersey in Birkenhead there are three more air shafts for the Queensway Tunnel, also by Rowse, and also Grade II listed. While the northern shaft is finished in gleaming Portland stone, the ones in Birkenhead are plain brick, and enhanced with bands of chevron and scallop decoration (says the listing – see the stuff I learn writing this blog). I can’t quite decide which of the four I like best. The northern shaft is like one of those three-dimensional folded paper greeting cards, and is almost blinding on a sunny day. The southern ones go even more unnoticed than the northern one, but I like the warmth of the brick and the massing of the blocks on the shaft at Taylor Street.

Queensway Tunnel ventilation shaft, Taylor Street, Birkenhead © Peter Craine and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Yes, they’re airshafts. They ventilate the Queensway tunnel. They let dirty air out and clean air in. There’s no need for them to look nice. But what the hell, thought the builders of the Queensway Tunnel, we’re proud of our tunnel, and even the airshafts deserve to enhance the built environment. So they do.

The Queensway Tunnel airshafts aren’t the only beautiful ones in the country. Oh no. There are quite a few I’d like to feature in future entries. But in the meantime, as a contrast, here is one of the airshafts built for the recent High Speed 1 rail link under London (thank you Google Streetview). Oh dear.

Channel Tunnel Rail Link ventilation shaft building, Barrington Road, London. © Copyright David Anstiss and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Channel Tunnel Rail Link ventilation shaft building, Barrington Road, London. © Copyright David Anstiss and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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