Dr Jonathan Foyle scales Britain's most iconic structures to reveal the buildings' secrets. Jonathan's journey takes him to the Liver Building in Liverpool.
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I'm standing 290 feet up on one of the towers of the most iconic
building in Liverpool - the Liver Building, a place which has welcomed
millions of travellers to British shores, and which played its part in a global architectural revolution.
This is Climbing Great Buildings, and throughout this series
I'll be scaling our most iconic and best-loved structures, from the Normans to the present day.
I'll be revealing the buildings' secrets and telling the story of how
British architecture and construction developed over 1,000 years.
The next step on my journey through the history of Britain's best-loved buildings brings me to Liverpool.
At the turn of the 20th century, the British Empire
was at the height of its powers, and shipping was its lifeblood.
Huge fortunes were made in Liverpool, turning it into one of Britain's most prosperous cities.
Straight ahead of me is Liverpool's Pier Head,
one of the most famous maritime views in the world.
On that site were created three 20th-century buildings
that came to be known
as the Three Graces, and the most famous and best-loved of them all
is the Liver Building.
The Royal Liver Friendly Society was originally formed in response to the hardship faced my many Liverpudlians
in the mid-19th century, but it soon grew into one of Britain's largest insurance companies, and to reflect
its position at the top of the commercial world, they commissioned England's first skyscraper.
Whilst the imposing Liver Building looks like it's build from solid masonry,
this mighty building hides a secret.
Underneath its imposing granite facade lies a frame combining
ancient and modern technology, concrete reinforced with steel.
In order to reveal the story behind this architectural masterpiece,
I've been given unprecedented access to get a perspective of the building never seen before.
Wow, what a view this thing has!
I'll be coming face-to-face with this giant granite overcoat...
There's nothing quite as appealing as granite speeding toward you! Ugh!
..traversing the building at 260 feet in the air to understand its design...
Now you can really see how the building's laid out, can't you?
..and at 300 feet, I finally come to roost.
-This is bonkers, isn't it?!
I'm finding it hard to believe where we are, actually.
But I won't be going it alone. I'll be joined by one of Britain's top climbers, Lucy Creamer...
..and her team of riggers...
Here's a man on a rope right now!
..and fearless cameraman Ian Burton, to reveal the story behind the
revolutionary design of this groundbreaking building.
The Royal Liver Friendly Society wanted a landmark building that took full advantage of this site.
It had to show them as a solid, established organisation,
but one which was modern and outward-looking too.
In 1908, Britain hadn't entered the age of the skyscraper, but the architect Walter Aubrey Thomas
looked across the oceans for the solution for how to build on this scale.
How he did it can be seen deep inside.
At the time, America was home to the first-ever skyscrapers.
They were built out of steel-frame structure,
rather than stone or brick, which allowed for more strength, space and, of course, height.
Aubrey Thomas was inspired by these giant buildings, and wanted to show
the world that Liverpool could stand shoulder to shoulder with the great cities of New York and Chicago.
But it would be the little-known Ingalls Building in Cincinnati, Ohio
that would provide the closest inspiration.
Built just five years before the Liver Building,
it was the world's first reinforced concrete skyscraper.
If I want the Liver Building to reveal its secrets,
I'm going to have to both scale its heights and plumb its depths.
This building is a story of inside and out, because from the outside,
all you see are giant, great chunks of granite,
but inside it's a different matter, and to get to the truth, I've got to
climb up this unpromising-looking old lift shaft.
-How's it going?
Welcome to my darkened cave!
Gosh, it's like something out of a science-fiction film up there, isn't it?
-It's pretty cool, yeah.
-Haven't done anything like this before.
It feels like we're going caving rather than climbing.
Yeah, it does. What I really like about this is we're in the guts of the building, aren't we?
There's no cladding here, there's nothing hiding what this building's really made of.
-Really stripped back to the bones.
This was one of the original 16 shafts that made the Liver Building
home to the largest lift installation in the country.
Although this shaft hasn't been in operation since the lifts were refurbished in 1972,
it's the only place in the building where the actual reinforced-concrete structure is visible.
This climb has everything.
It's dark, it's grimy and it's pretty claustrophobic.
Not exactly my favourite combination.
It's going to be dusty and dirty, and we're just going to have to be careful not to touch too many things.
-It's still very much a working part of the building, isn't it?
There are lifts zipping down and coming back up again.
-I guess this has been used as a lift shaft for the best part of 100 years.
In one form or another.
-Right, so let's get up and have a look, then, shall we?
-See what we can find.
Now we're at the fifth floor, and I can see exactly how the building's constructed.
That is what this climb's all about.
This is the true material this building's constructed of. It's a concrete frame.
The idea behind the concrete frame is that inside here is a mesh of steelwork,
rods basically, which all join up.
-You then pour the concrete around the steel, and the whole lot then becomes one solid structure.
It's like you've carved the entire thing out of a super-strong stone,
-but it's stronger than any stone because of the steel.
-Because of the internal...
We tend to think of concrete as a very modern material,
but it's been used in construction for thousands of years.
In Britain, we replaced it with stone, brick and timber
as our materials of choice, but it's been used to create some of the most magnificent buildings in the world.
Look back to the ancient Egyptians and the Romans for concrete, the dome of the great Pantheon
in Rome is still the world's largest un-reinforced concrete dome after almost 2,000 years.
It's quite an amazing achievement.
So concrete then is something which liberates the architecture.
You can make very many new shapes with the stuff.
What's really amazing is it took us so long to get back into the habit of using the material.
But it's really in the 19th century that things took off,
and the French really got hold of concrete in a big way.
And the reason it took off was down to a self-taught French engineer called Francois Hennebique.
In 1879, he discovered that setting steel rods in concrete makes it many times stronger,
as can be demonstrated in a simple laboratory test.
So we have a piece of plain concrete in the testing machine at the moment.
OK, so what we're going to do is apply a load so that the testing
machine then breaks this,
and we'll monitor what it's actually taken to break the beam.
Brilliant, OK. I love this kind of science. It's dead simple.
-It's a pneumatic pressure.
Ooh, you can hear it straining a bit now, can't you?
And there it goes.
So that failed at 4.3 kilonewtons, which is about 400kg.
Next to be tested is a block of concrete reinforced with four steel rods.
This one's already taking a lot longer.
You can hear it groaning and clicking.
You get the sense that when it goes it's going to be quite dramatic.
Sorry about the drama, Jonathan.
-Yeah, oh, well!
-That one went right up to 16.2 kilonewtons.
-No drama, but there are two great splits in a parallel split, one under each roller.
So although the concrete's actually cracked, the reinforcement is still holding it together.
So this turns out to be a much, much stronger system of construction.
-It takes four times the weight that the plain concrete did, and it remains intact.
As reinforced concrete was pioneered in France and Belgium, many British
architects and engineers resisted embracing what they saw
as newfangled technology, but the man behind the Liver Building
welcomed its potential with open arms.
Concrete was a scary material for some,
but for a man like Aubrey Thomas it was ideal, and he saw the potential for this material to realise
structures quickly, efficiently and in line with the commercial needs
of Liverpool in the early 20th century.
Using reinforced concrete leads to such an efficient process
of construction, that this building was completed incredibly quickly.
Aubrey Thomas, the architect, had this thing up in a space of just over three years.
At its peak, one floor was being built every 19 working days.
When you look up
and you see how layer upon layer can be stacked up in sequence, then this
skeleton, this frame structure offers a great way to build.
Aubrey Thomas may have been confident in the strength
and speed of concrete, but he knew it wasn't pleasing to the eye,
so he ensured that this building conformed to the elegant standards
expected by the rich and powerful of the day.
It's funny to look at these doors, because
you see here the experience that the Edwardian businessman would have had
before stepping into one of these newfangled elevators.
He wouldn't have been able to see the bare, plain concrete behind.
He'd have been expecting, and was given, the language of any Victorian
office block, of varnished, dark oak, the stuff of old England,
never mind the modernity within.
There's only so much you can learn about a groundbreaking building from a lift shaft,
so I'm getting out at the fifth floor so I can explore its exterior.
It's good to see that, Lu, isn't it, the guts of a
pretty modern, pioneering design still used 100 years on for what it's supposed to be.
-I guess so, yeah. I've been in cleaner places!
That was the downside, it must be said.
Aubrey Thomas could have constructed the entire building, including the exterior walls, from concrete,
but Edwardian England wasn't remotely ready to accept such
a simple and drab solution, so he hid the concrete structure beneath a facade of Norwegian granite.
-Thank you, Lu.
-That's all right.
A sparse office.
Yeah, ready for us to do some work.
Yeah. Outside's going to be much more interesting than this, I think!
What are we going to do here?
Because we've got to have a look at the cladding on the outside of the building.
I want to see the stonework. In order to get a closer look,
Lucy's going to make me jump out of this window.
I've come to realise that Lucy might just enjoy taking me out of my comfort zone.
This is a very odd feeling, Lu, isn't it?
I'm starting to get used to it.
This is one of those swingouts.
You know at Durham Cathedral and Caernarfon you made me swing out.
I've never done it over traffic before!
I reckon the way to do it is to turn with your back to the traffic so you can't see anything!
I almost just let go then. I didn't like that feeling.
I'm as ready as I'm going to be, which means unready, really.
Is that OK? Is that good for you?
Yeah. After three?
-Uh, one, two, three.
I've gone about five feet lower than you, Lu!
What does that say about my lunch?!
That happens a lot.
As for all these climbs, I soon find that, once you get past the scary bit, it's actually rather fun.
See, that was pleasant.
It was, actually. Once you do it.
It's that moment of commitment that makes all the difference, isn't it?
Lu, I'm going for a big swing!
-Got to get used to this swing thing.
There's nothing quite as appealing as granite speeding toward you! Ugh!
Now I'm in the swing of things, it's back to the business of architecture.
It's good to see the stone, cos the sun's really catching it now.
-Yeah. And you can see this shininess, the quartzite.
As the internal reinforced-concrete frame carries the whole weight of the building,
this granite cladding serves a minimal load-bearing function.
It's little more than a cosmetic skin that provides grandeur
and also protection from the fierce winds off the Irish Sea.
This short climb has been very useful to literally get to grips
with the stone that faces this building.
It is the most intractable stuff, this granite, and it looks pretty chunky from here.
And the sheer quantity of it.
There are 25,000 tons of it across the surface of the whole building,
a truly Herculean industrial effort.
It almost takes your breath away when you look at it close up.
The stone cladding was created by stapling the granite blocks together
and then attaching them to the concrete frame using metal fixings.
Lu, this is starting to feel like a very tall building now!
I don't know why that is, if we've gone past a barrier or something.
No, I think it's just because we're quite high up!
That's a good explanation.
We are actually pretty damn high off the ground.
115 feet to be exact, and from this vantage point
I can get a fantastic view of Liverpool's distinctive cityscape.
You get an amazing perspective from this height on the Liver Building.
But you also get a great view down onto Liverpool's parish church.
It's hemmed in now by modern buildings, but it reminds you what a modern city Liverpool is.
Its oldest building dates to only the second decade of the 18th century - that's Blue Coat School.
So it's a modern city, one which is always forward-looking.
The Liver Building's a great example of that.
You're good at using that!
Do you know, in 1907 they had trouble selling this site.
It went up for auction, no-one bought it.
-No-one bought it.
Beautiful views of the sea?
No, it took an age before the Royal Liver said, "We might be interested."
But they went through a process of auctioning it. No-one wanted to know.
This was full of ships. Trading was all here.
You were on the front door of one of the great cities of the Empire. Not interested.
-The Royal Liver got it for a discount.
-Good on them.
At least they did something good with it.
Not only did the Royal Liver Association get a discount on the land, but when they commissioned
the nine-storey building, they found a clever way to make money from this prestigious location.
They built this bigger than they needed it to be.
-This was an investment for them.
They only needed two floors, so they cherry-picked the best ones,
floors eight and nine, and rented out seven floors beneath them.
-They've been doing it for 100 years.
So it's a really, actually, clever business move.
What it does is enables you to build this giant billboard,
and you have your name associated with the building,
then you have tenants who are paying you.
-That's a brilliant idea.
Clever. Really clever.
What do you think about modern architecture? Let's say '60s, '70s stuff.
I would have to say it's not my favourite era.
That stuff over there, look.
That great ziggurat of a stepped pyramid.
I don't think many people would call it Liverpool's loveliest building.
-With the weird box on top.
When you look at it and you see its skeleton, its frame,
with concrete cladding on it, all it is a version of this building.
When you think about the way that's made, it's concrete,
-onto which is hung flat concrete bits of cladding.
This is the granddaddy of that, and it's the DNA of this building which informed the '60s and '70s.
You can admire the technology for better or for worse, and that's a matter of opinion.
Look at it! Look at its offspring!
They've grown up, haven't they?
We've produced a monster!
You said it!
You said it!
-That was good.
-Look what we can see!
The Liver birds!
-They're still some way up, but they look majestic?
There are two.
-Because one looks out to sea...
..and the other looks into land.
One looks out for the prosperity of the sea,
the other looks over the prosperity of the people in the city.
It's a nice gesture, isn't it? Architecturally, it's a real masterstroke
to have crowned the building with two birds.
-I love them.
-Yeah. Quite poetic.
But not everyone took them as high poetry.
Some thought that one looks over the city, he's just checking the pubs are open!
-That's the sensible one!
-You like that one, do you?!
These emblems of Liverpool sit upon two enormous towers,
both of which house the biggest clocks in the country.
Their size meant that, before they were installed,
the directors of the Liver Association ate lunch off one of them.
That is a heck of a clock. The clock face is about 25 feet in diameter,
which makes it bigger than the famous one on the tower
which came to be known as Big Ben at the Houses of Parliament.
The hands themselves weigh getting on for 550lb in weight.
Close up, you can see the clock is not a thing of great refinement.
It's not set in a stone framework or surround.
There's not even Roman numerals or anything fancy painted onto the surface.
It's instead a piece of ironwork.
It's practical, it has to withstand the wind and the rain,
but nonetheless, for sailors returning home from long voyages,
to see this clock face illuminated from a distance must be a very romantic thing indeed.
Now I'm up here, I want to see the full scale and layout of this towering building,
so Lucy and the riggers have carried on the theme of trying to scare me witless
by setting up a huge rope line between the two towers.
I'm clinging on. This feels like my first swimming lesson,
hanging onto the side of the pool saying, "I can't do it! I can't do doggy paddle."
Shall I go first or you go first?
-Let's go together, shall we?
All right. 3, 2, 1 - go!
I feel seasick now.
-That's marvellous, that is amazing.
-Brilliant - in style!
Now you can really see how the building's laid out.
Two square light wells.
Really efficient way of getting the light into the offices.
And not relying just on the facade of a very broad building.
Really clever, isn't it? As much light as they can get.
Gosh, to see the full height of these towers rising
-from those light wells right up to the top - it's like a mini Manhattan.
And comparison with New York was no coincidence.
Aubrey Thomas had always been fascinated with the vast corporate skyscrapers
that began to loom over Manhattan.
He was firmly convinced that Liverpool had every right to stand alongside America's greatest cities.
This building is more than any one architectural style, it's part of an architectural conversation
that Britain was having with the United States at the turn of the 20th century.
Liverpool was the premier passenger port for the whole of the North Atlantic.
and to look for comparatives with this building you've really got to go to Chicago
and look for the earliest skyscrapers.
But the towers, which look a bit like the English Baroque we've seen at St Paul's
the way they're piled up makes them look more than anything,
especially at this height, like early Manhattan.
The way the companies built distinctive spires on their skyscrapers
to give themselves an eye-catching identity.
It's a funny, faint glimmer of a lost, golden age.
Of transatlantic influence.
I've rarely seen a city like this all in one go, just floating over it.
It's, you know... Helicopters seem so exciting but just to feel the wind and the air.
Yeah, really part of it.
There is nothing but space between you and all the great monuments of this city.
That was amazing.
I loved it.
-That was so cool.
-Looking at this building
-from above, you can really see the plainness of the clad granite.
To me, the overwhelming sense I got, is the end of the age of craftsmanship.
-That fine Victorian work we saw at St Pancras.
Yeah, "Let's not put too much fussy detail into it, let's just get this thing built."
-It feels really solid as well.
Yeah, and it's real, practical, modern commerce.
"Let's get it up quick, make it totally solid, almost maintenance free..."
And it feels to me like, having seen this building of the new century,
-it's like we've just opened the door to a new age.
-It feels to me.
It's got a little flourish at the top though, with the birds.
Oh, yeah. Not entirely without a little bit of...
A few frills. A few...
What are they? 18ft high frills!
And it's these 18ft high frills, each weighing four tons, that are the destination for my final climb.
The Liver bird originated as the eagle of King John, who gave Liverpool its charter.
The popular myth is that the Liver birds haunted the pools that gave Liverpool its name.
And if they were to ever fly away the city would cease to exist.
-Lu, we're going to get to see the Liver birds...
..Which reminds me of many a Friday night in the 1970s.
There they are, you can just see the beak poking up over the top.
-These birds seem to have changed shape through history.
But they are semi-fact and semi-fiction, and this building
carries the biggest and most obvious Liver birds as a symbol of the city, so these are the ones to look at.
For me, that means scaling up to 300ft to the top.
As we make out way up these granite towers with the salty wind whipping off the Mersey,
you realise what a sensible decision it was to clad with ultra-tough granite.
However, its one drawback is that it doesn't lend itself to elegant sculpture.
You see the sculpture, Lu, when you get to this level, these big scrolls.
-In London, with Portland stone maybe,
they'd be carved with lots of mouldings to catch the sun.
What can you do in granite?
It's such tough rock, that quartz is going to bend the chisels
if you try and sculpt it too much.
-So you've got to keep it simple.
-Keep it simple, yeah. Totally.
-But it will be here for a millennium.
-It's one of those buildings you think, you know, when the end of the world comes
there'll be the Liver Building sticking up out of the sea.
For archaeologists to marvel over in a million years.
I'm nearly at the top of this huge building, but at 300ft above the ground and exposed to the elements,
I'm really clinging onto this structure.
But the excitement of being one of only a handful of people to see this building
from the perspective of the Liver birds drives me on.
It's really, really windy!
Because we're by the sea and we're about 300ft up in the air!
Are you heading up?
This is climbing.
Yeah. Climbing a very smooth surface.
Oh, let's get you into here.
This is ridiculous.
I'm going to have to get down.
This is ridiculous, I am with a Liver bird.
Gosh! For years I've looked up at these things from a distance, you only ever do. Here we are.
Beautiful. I'm under a Liver bird.
It feels like a very maternal presence all of a sudden.
I hope it doesn't sit down and try and hatch me.
-I'll be in big trouble.
-Looking quite comfortable there.
Wow - what a view this thing has!
What an amazing view.
It's astonishing. You can see mountains in Wales, ocean, you're looking toward Ireland.
You just know that America is beyond.
It's amazing, it's astonishing.
This place has a majestic scale. This bird...
It's not your regular Sunday microwave chicken, is it?
This is bonkers, isn't it?
It is. I'm finding it hard to believe where we are, actually.
If you'd have asked me just some weeks ago, "Do you think you might go and sit underneath a Liver bird?"
-Is it even possible?
Liverpool is packed with fine buildings,
it's always been an international city, a player on the global stage.
And it was in the Edwardian age that it arrived at its economic peak.
That's when the Liver Building was conceived and constructed.
And somehow it avoided destruction during World War II,
when the Luftwaffe laid so much of the city to waste.
And it survives today as a testament to a great city and a golden age.
Nest time I visit a multi-coloured phoenix which rose from the ashes of a medieval city.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Dr Jonathan Foyle, architectural historian and novice climber, scales Britain's most iconic structures, from the Normans to the present day, to reveal the buildings' secrets and tell the story of how our architecture and construction has developed over 1,000 years.
The next step of Jonathan Foyle's journey takes him to the Liver Building in Liverpool. Built from 1908, this behemoth in concrete was Britain's first skyscraper that influenced buildings all over the world.
On his climbs Jonathan, aided by top climber Lucy Creamer, scales over 250 feet to reveal how this granite building isn't quite what it seems and investigates how a concrete boat paved the way for this immense skyscraper. He climbs up a disused lift shaft to literally get under the skin of this groundbreaking construction; comes face-to-face with the biggest clock in Britain; and tests the limits of his courage to traverse over a sheer drop of over 200 feet to get up close and personal with a couple of beautiful birds.