Liverpool is a great city. It’s a place where the new and old rub shoulders, where Brutalist buildings contrast with Victorian and Edwardian architecture. The Royal Liver Building stands next to the Cunard Building – even the names send a shiver down the spine – and behind them rises the slender Brutalist spire of the beacon at St John’s Shopping Centre. The Gothic Anglican cathedral (newer than it appears) and the defiantly Modern Catholic cathedral sit at either end of Hope Street. Oh, and I was born there, so I feel a real affection for the place, even though we moved when I was still very young.
Liverpool has so much of interest for transport geeks too. Based on my experience, it actually turns people into transport geeks, though I’m basing that on a limited sample size. The city is at one end of the world’s first inter-city passenger railway, the Liverpool and Manchester. At about the same time Paris opened its first RER lines, Liverpool was doing something very similar with its loop and link lines under the city centre, long before London (pshaw!) re-opened a tunnel between Farringdon and Blackfriars to create Thameslink. Down by the Royal Liver Building is the offices and ventilation shaft building for the 1934 Queensway road tunnel under the River Mersey, the subject of one of the earliest articles on this website. It is one of five Art Deco/Modernist shafts which ventilate the Queensway. Just as with the rest of Liverpool, old and new ventilation buildings rub shoulders. Just down river is a later tunnel, the Kingsway. It sports another pair of Merseyside landmarks, its own ventilation shafts, completed in uncompromising Brutalist style. The Kingsway links Liverpool with Wallasey (with a ventilation shaft in each) and it opened in 1971.
I’ll never make you love Brutalism if it leaves you cold. I struggle with many of its buildings myself. But there’s something very right-looking about the Kingsway ventilation shaft buildings. These are industrial buildings, and their brutalist form suits them particularly well.
In silhouette, they share a remarkable likeness with the outline of Liverpool’s Catholic cathedral, with sloping sides leading up to a taller central section. The central chimneys which extract bad air from the Kingsway are basically square in section. But that doesn’t really do them justice. Each face widens from bottom to top, a counterpoint to the vertical edges which flare out, fin-like. Those fins extend down beyond the main chimney, allowing it to stand rocketship-like on four slender feet on top of the ground-level building. It’s an unusually delicate touch for a Brutalist structure. Meanwhile, two diagonal flues run into the chimney, one on each side. The Kingsway Tunnel is actually a twin-bore, and each flue ventilates one of the two tunnels. The face of the chimney is also decorated with vertical grooves, accentuating its height (why do you think businesspeople’s suits have vertical pinstripes, rather than horizontal?).
Twin white-painted air intakes flank the chimney, each one a much more complicated shape than appears at first glance. In cross-section they are non-equilateral hexagons. Viewed from above or the side, they narrow, funnel-like, away from grills at their outer ends. Each breaks down into the roof line of the ground-level building.
That ground-level building on which the air intakes sit, and the chimney balances on its four slender legs, are faced in dark grey brick. The flat roof, edged with white panelling, floats above a continuous run of glazing.
Fans of Gerry Anderson productions will love these buildings. They have exactly that sixties angular engineering that characterised those series, and there’s something distinctly of the Zero-X hangar about the air intakes on the Kingsway ventilation buildings. Observe:
Much is made of the more egalitarian nature of the Kingsway ventilation shaft buildings compared with those of the earlier Queensway. The Queensway ventilation buildings are faced in brilliant Portland Stone on the wealthier Liverpool side, plain brick on the buildings in Birkenhead. The Kingsway tunnel buildings are much more similar, but do differ in one important detail. The one on the Liverpool side has cylindrical flues connecting the air intakes to the chimney, while the one on the Wallasey side has square-section ones. It’s more difficult to cast circular pipes than square ones in-situ, so maybe Liverpool was once again asserting its primacy, albeit in more restrained manner.
As you’d expect, the Twentieth Century Society is a big fan of the Kingsway ventilation shaft buildings (see here). It makes the very good point that the years between the construction of the Queensway Tunnel and the Kingsway Tunnel marked a shift in the visibility of individual architects/engineers on such projects. So although we know the name of the designer of the Queensway ventilation buildings, for those on the Kingsway we don’t. We know they were designed by Edmund Nuttall, but the name of the individual who sculpted their lines isn’t associated with them in the way Herbert Rowse is with the Queesway buildings (Edmund Nuttall built the Queensway too).
They might not be conventionally pretty, but real thought went into the appearance of the Kingsway Tunnel ventilation shaft buildings. And I love Liverpool all the more for it.
How to find the Kingsway Ventilation Shaft Buildings
Bibliography and further reading
British Brutalism blog on the Kingsway Tunnel ventilation shafts, here
Twentieth Century Society “Building of the Month” October 2012: Kingsway Tunnel Vents, here