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Liverpool ’08: Cultural Turn Or Cultural Tourism?

December 5, 2008

The Architectural Association, London hosted a debate on Friday 5 December ’08 about Liverpool. Consequent upon the issue of Architectural Review earlier in the year about that city, the speakers at this seminar were asked by architect Brian Hatton, a staff lecturer at the AA, to consider whether Liverpool has experienced a Cultural Turn.

The article which follows is a version of my contribution to this debate.

Just hours after I’d started serious work on this piece, the following announcement appeared in Liverpool newspapers: ‘Like many local councils,’ it said,’… we face [in 2009] a budget gap despite making efficiency savings of over £44 million in the last 3 years alone. As a council, we are committed to empowering residents [so…] we are asking local residents and our partners where they think we should prioritise our spending…’

Coming at the end of the extraordinary European Capital of Culture year in Liverpool’s already very one-off history, here is a conundrum indeed. What are we to make of a situation in which the money has run out – and, Oh My, in Liverpool how has it run out! – and yet only now are we being ‘empowered’ to say how to spend the pittance available for next year?

‘Empowering residents’ is a great idea. But in the contexts of discussion of Liverpool’s Cultural Turn, exploration of this sort of empowerment probably raises many more questions than, at least initially, it resolves.

Cultural turn as re-orientation
My position – as an enthusiast for both urban renaissance and the arts and culture, and as a long-time Liverpool resident – is this:

The context of cultural turn suggests a re-orientation. ‘Culture’ can mean either things artistic, or things which concern shared social constructions or understanding.

Either way, cultural shift supposes that an idea, situation or strategy has changed in some fundamental way: that there is a shift in emphasis towards a greater insight about what’s happening, or a refocus of emphasis so we begin to see things in a different light.

Has this happened in Liverpool as we approach the end of our Great Year? As things stand, I’m not sure that it has.

At best, the jury is still out. The things which that jury should be considering – and why – will comprise most of the rest of this paper.

The Leunig – Robertson ‘Future of Liverpool’ debate
A few weeks ago I attended the well publicised regeneration debate in Liverpool Cathedral, between Dr Tim Leunig and Prof. David Robertson.

Dr Leunig’s thesis, versions of which have caused considerable consternation in my part of the world, is, if I may parody a little, that bright and enterprising people should move down South. The South – and especially that hitech Golden Triangle of opportunity around London, Oxbridge and the M4/5 corridor– will then become so overheated that brave capitalists will wish once more to develop Oop North, perhaps almost from scratch.

As a strategy for attracting investment ‘in the regions’ this analysis has its drawbacks – not least that in the Leunig proposals local politicians would be expected to plan for population dispersal in way which would almost certainly lead to their summary dismissal by the electorate.

‘The market’ is not a given
And that’s before we even get to the critique, ably delivered by Professor Robertson and shared by many of us, that Tim Leunig’s analysis takes the invisible hand of the market as a given.

It seemed to us – despite his entreaty to planners across the nation to revisit housing plans and much else – that the UK economy had in the Leunig perception no central steer from government.

Where was the acknowledgement that all parts of the economy receive vast investment from public and other external funds – not to mention much in the way of legal and enabling frameworks?

Where was the reference to John Maynard Keynes and all who’ve followed him?

The past, as was said loud and clear during the Liverpool Cathedral debate, is not a reliable guide in rapidly changing times to the future.

Interventions occur, and opportunities emerge, in ways which few of us can predict – a fact on which Liverpool should perhaps reflect very carefully as we move to 2009.

All this was not however, for me at least, the most challenging part of the Liverpool economy debate.

Unpallatable home truths?
For me, the most critical issues were these:

Firstly, the Cathedral debate showed little disagreement between the protagonists on data.  In specifics, its scope and / or relevance was mildly contested, but the hard information was not what generated the heat in dialogue between the speakers, or indeed amongst the panel members who responded later.

Second, having briskly disposed of the weaknesses in his opponent’s position around government economic strategy, David Robertson took the opportunity to deliver some home truths about his city of residence.  Liverpool would not, he said – once more reflecting the view of many who have sat around the table debating these things – succeed as it might, even now, unless the local economic community moves on.

Self-delusion and self-aggrandisement are no longer options. We are no longer a truly premier, let alone a world-class, city. 

And we cannot genuinely aspire for the future to be so, unless we first recognise this uncomfortable truth.

But my third observation is perhaps the most difficult.

True Scousers
The audience for the debate included many people I know well, hard working and very able professionals and community activists who have given much to their city and really want our renaissance to happen.
Several said later that they had been disappointed by the event.

And this was especially true of those who were born and bred in Liverpool, as opposed to the ‘newcomers’, who have lived and worked there for perhaps a mere thirty years.

None of us had wanted blood, but the True Scousers had hoped more by way of apology and remorse than Dr Leunig was able to offer. He had said he was genuinely sorry – and I believe him – that his version of the Truth had hurt and offended people.

But what most of his critics wanted, was that he fundamentally revise his views. And what they had also expected was a robust rebuttal by other speakers, with no caveats about how we could do better.

Liverpool as myth
This is where the Architectural Review’s special edition on Liverpool of earlier this year [2008] comes to bear.

In his contribution to this fascinating publication, Prof. David Dunster chose to consider ‘Liverpool’s powerful urban mythology and civic pride‘. He argues, as here we do also, that Liverpool seems unable to get productively real.
As a collective, Liverpudlians cling desperately to a ‘reality’ which we readily acknowledge is actually no such thing. We vest our heritage in a couple of Liver Birds.

Of course we recognise the error of our ornithological analysis, just as we know there are no pots of gold at the bottom of the rainbow. But on the other hand, we protest, too defensively, that Oh Yes There Are.

And some of us also protest, too defensively, that it’s only other people – on the right and on the left, anyone who offers a critique – who are wrong, that there’s nothing needs to change about Liverpool: it’s just such a shame, in this narrative, that the city has been so poorly perceived elsewhere.

But even if this defensiveness rings true, where does it get us?

Why should architects, or analysts of culture, intent on regeneration, worry about the Liver Birds? What does it have to do with the Cultural Turn?

My answer, reluctantly, is, all too much.

Turning to tourism
Liverpool’s current cultural strategy, and to an extent its whole economic rationale, is, and has for some long time been, directed at tourism.

The city has invested much strategic energy in hotels and talk of ‘destinations’, and in budgetary terms during 2008 it has emphasised above almost all else the importance of large-scale outside events.

This summary analysis is of course too simple; far more has come to pass than that; but the claim contains a germ of truth.

We can all understand why this has happened.

Liverpool, as Professors Dunster and Robertson, and indeed many others, have said, cannot rely for the future on industry – which, Dr Leunig’s longer-term analysis notwithstanding, is likely to stay largely elsewhere – or even on the sub-regional knowledge economy, should we actually manage to secure and develop this.

Nor can we rely any more than we already do on the public sector.

It may not, despite the commentary of many, be very much ‘too large’ for our demography; but we certainly won’t secure a sustainable future by developing it further.

So it follows that the economic activity which will most hold things together for Liverpool in the shorter term is the service sector.

And from that it also follows – because our own city region population has amongst the lowest per capita incomes in Britain – that we need tourists, preferably with quite a lot of money to spend.

Visitor attractions
So first we need to bang the drum, to light the fireworks, to deliver the spectaculars which catch the eye of those who have never before wanted to come and see us, let alone shower their hard-earned cash in our direction.
Hence, the position in which we now find ourselves.

There has been farce, there have been fantasticals, but somehow we’ve managed – and I speak as one in part on the inside looking out – largely to pull the Liverpool European Capital of Culture Year off.

Other cities are keen to learn what we have done. Promising Olympic opportunities seem likely for some of those at the centre of our current activities.

Degrees of success
Why then the hesitation? Why not just heave a collective sigh of relief, enjoy, and move on?

Well, to some extent we can do exactly that.

There are arts practitioners at all levels of engagement across the city who have discovered hitherto hidden inner strengths – some in the face of adversity, some because they were nurtured and supported. We have important buildings and facilities which were not there a year or two ago.

We have engaged, if not captured, the attention of a lot of people outside Liverpool.

‘Empowering’ residents?
But have we cracked it?

I fear that recent little ad in the local newspapers does not bode well.

We as residents weren’t much asked how we wanted 2008 to pan out, but now the money’s spent, our views are invited.

The current recession obviously doesn’t help, but I guess that post-2008 was always going to be difficult for Liverpool. Cultural strategies alone were never going to be a magic cure.

We’ve now been asked to become ‘partners’ in what will probably be a very challenging year ahead.

I suspect that it’s what we can now do without, not what we’d really like, which forms at base the forthcoming agenda. 

If this is ‘empowering residents’, it leaves me rather cold.

Cultural change
Which takes me back again to the prognostications of the Liverpool Architectural Review, to the recent Cathedral debate, and to the issue which started all this – our discussion about whether Liverpool is experiencing a Cultural Turn.

The analytical framework developed by Charles Landry shows there are many places large and small which, by whatever criteria, and howsoever termed, have experienced cultural turn.

These range from the solid grandeur of Vienna and its Hundertwasserhaus, through the second-hand bookselling mecca of Hay-on-Wye, to the less dramatic but nonetheless locally very significant reinvention, as a cultural and knowledge quarter, of Liverpool’s Hope Street – a matter in which I myself have had a hand, and which continues to challenge me and various colleagues even now.

I mention Hope Street – which is the thoroughfare linking our city’s two cathedrals – specifically because it is a critically important part of Liverpool.

As the main cultural and knowledge quarter, it probably has the greatest potential for economic development of any part of the Merseyside Liverpool sub-region.

Yet somehow it remains a side-show. Of course everyone agrees our theatres and orchestra are important; of course our universities are critical; but…. In the discourse of the city, there’s always a ‘but’.

What sort of cultural turn?
So it all depends what ‘sort’ of cultural turn we’re looking for.

Landry takes ‘cultural turn’ to mean a situation –
‘where culture is moving centre-stage for another reason when even economics and politics are culturally driven in manifold ways’.

Another writer in Wikipedia refers to the cultural turn as major element of the discipline of Cultural Studies
developments in the humanities and social sciences brought about by various developments across the disciplines… it describes a shift in emphasis towards meaning and on culture rather than politics or economics… With the shift towards meaning, the importance of high arts and mass culture in cultural studies has declined. If culture was about things (a piece of art, a TV series), it is now more about processes and practices of meaning

 
and a different observer in Geocities links Market Society and the Cultural Turn
.. contemporary social theory has been increasingly concerned with the central role of cultural processes and institutions in organising and controlling the economic. This has been labelled by some the ‘cultural turn’ in social thought. The claim is that the economy itself, and the ‘things; which follow through it, is now largely constituted through informational and symbolic processes…. The very fact that markets are not natural events, but social ones implies that they are the results of meaningful human action, and employ cultural beliefs about human nature, social action and relationships. In this sense we need to think about economics and economic theory as culture….

And we can also find references which see it in different types of context, if we look to cultural turn in respect of the historical emergence of environmental issues and other matters.

It can be the ‘culture’ of a specific discipline or action set, as well as the ‘culture of culture’.

Economics, sustainability, knowledge, arts or people?
So are we thinking here about economics, about sustainability, about knowledge, about the arts, or about people?
To my mind the cultural turn which Liverpool now ‘needs’ must include all these dimensions.

What’s required of us as citizens of Liverpool is a deeply rooted change in our mindset about how things are going to work in the 21st century.

Culture as ‘culture’
We need to take on the ‘cultural’ meaning of cultural turn – to value arts and culture of themselves as well as for what they can bring.

This cultural turn would help to refocus in a way which liberates the imagination and helps us move from a fixation on sad football rivalries; and indeed which would help us also to review the fixation with our maritime history.  Football, like the ports and also The Beatles, has been hugely formative for Liverpool, but they’re not collectively the whole of our future.

Culture as economic context
So we also need to move beyond the cultural sense of cultural turn, to a change in our understanding of Liverpool’s economic situation and contexts.

Like it or not, Manchester is as important for our future as the Mersey.

Skills – and knowing how to use them – are as important as spectaculars; but a lot less easy to deliver.

This sort of change and reorientation, as we all know, requires firm, insightful and inspired civic leadership – a feature not much noted in the local politic of my city.
Consensus and leadership
Evidence of consensus about how to move ourselves off the ‘bottom of the list’ in so many ways is difficult to find.

Local debate still rages over a number of physical features and plans for Liverpool. We need look only to the issues around the Liverpool port terminals and the ‘rights’ which some local people continue to claim, in defiance of economic progress, to walk as they wish along the riverbank.

The same applies to the reconstruction of that major highway approach to the city, Edge Lane and to those who continue to oppose it; or to the future location of Liverpool’s two football clubs, or to many aspects of building conservation across Liverpool, that once-second city of the empire.

Sometimes justice, or at least logic, lies with one interest, sometimes with another.

Choices and consequences
But who is up there, spelling out choices and consequences in a voice which actually respects the concerns and commitment of local people, whilst also offering a wider view?

In other words, who is working to bring about the really essential sort of cultural turn?

Who is, to return to our little ad in the newspaper, ‘empowering residents’ in the true sense of providing a cultural climate in which the real options for our future can be debated constructively?

Sadly, almost no-one.

Supporting change for the better
True leadership is not passing the buck, or simply shouting from the front.

It is moving beyond defensiveness, and taking people with you on the basis of open discussion, after they have been helped to understand all the issues.

Getting people to see the bigger picture, and the options which arise from this, is probably the most important thing which Liverpool’s local leaders could do, if they truly want to secure Liverpool’s future for her citizens.

Looking at the detail
Specifics are however also important.

We have during 2008 moved a little way towards the ‘cultural’ ‘cultural turn’, in the sense described by Charles Landry.

The Liverpool Biennial and other events have sparked a greater interest in public space and what we should be doing in it.

The developments along Edge Lane, despite many delays, have encompassed a real physical base for information technology and other creative industries:
Liverpool is becoming a genuinely global hub for developing computer games.

To whatever extent, these developments as such (if not always their locations) are generally perceived as benign, or sometimes as really positive.

Dissenting as residents
But as Landry himself notes, there are other aspects of our city’s development which have been judged more harshly by its residents.

Liverpool’s Albert Dock renewal has at times been amongst these.

This facility, which includes museums and Tate Liverpool, has brought the historic docks back into use as a venue for tourists and cultural visitors.

It has more recently been connected to the city centre by the new and vastly ambitious Liverpool 1 retail, commercial and mixed use development, and it also now connects to the challenged ‘donut’ around the southern inner city, via the new Liverpool BT Conference Centre and the Liverpool Echo Arena.

But still it stands aside from the experience of many hardened locals, who may enjoy the odd spectacular in the Arena or on the waterside, but deep-down still see the area as ‘for tourists’, rather than as an opportunity for more local jobs.

The knowledge quarter
Similar considerations, in a different way, apply to Hope Street.

Liverpudlians one and all agree that Hope Street’s cultural offer is important, just as they agree the universities to each side of that street are critical.

But for the most part they also think that what goes on in these august institutions has little to do with them.

Perhaps there’s a touch less defensivenesss now, but still we hear murmurs in places which matter about ‘elitism’, when really we should be hearing about achievement and excellence.

Regenerational drivers
The Albert Dock and Hope Street are major regenerational drivers for the future, but they remain – both physically and metaphorically – at the margins of Liverpool’s ambitions to be reborn.

So at best, to date, there’s only mixed evidence of the sort of fundamental change in the city’s psyche which would empower Liverpool to face the twenty-first century with confidence.

Real plans and futures
In the recent Architectural Review of Liverpool, editor Paul Finch discusses the fiascos which arose from the genesis of what some now call the ‘fourth grace’, the museum currently being built, after fierce infighting and an abandoned architectural competition, on the water front.

Finch reminds us that competitions are [often] used as substitutes for real decision-making, which in turn derives from the absence of a coherent long-term proposition about Liverpool’s urban future.

Focusing likewise on developments during Liverpool’s tenure as European Capital of Culture, Brian Hatton reminds us in the Architectural Review that the EU surely invented as a way of enrolling provincial or failing cities [to the title]… by regeneration, which seems to mean making them conducive to ‘creative industries’ and attractive to the supposed tastes of top executives.

But as Hatton also remarks, this assumes that regional and sub-regional development can be a force for genuine progress – whilst the reality seems to be increasing concentration of power and resources at the centre.

Whatever, a city which over some forty years can’t even convince its residents of the need to fix its main access route to the centre, will have difficulty persuading others of its long-term focus and resolute determination to move forward.

Clarifying the issues
So where does this all take us?

A few things are, I believe, becoming clear.

First, Liverpool’s 2008 Capital of Culture year may claim some successes, but that alone will not take us far.

There is sparse evidence that real opportunities to empower and engage people at the genuinely local level have had much impact as yet; already, for instance, there is fear that 2009 will find local arts and cultural activities sorely tested.

The window for action is short; it will need to happen very quickly if we are to retain the claimed advantages of 2008.

But this follow-through from 2008 is only now being seriously considered, and impetus is almost certain to be lost.

Where has the leadership been, to embed and prepare for the next stage of Liverpool’s re-emergence as a force to be reckoned with?

Local perceptions
Second, where there is in fact now real focus, it remains effectively outside the perceptions of many local citizens.
Tourism and students, not local jobs and the knowledge economy, are for most city residents the defining elements of the Albert Dock and Hope Street.

Except during festivals, these two regenerationally critical locations are of little interest to many Liverpudlians; and even then the festivals are not devised to raise local aspirations.

Increasingly, even these festivals are purely commercial activities which (in the case of Hope Street at least) do not build on prevoius community engagement work.

This lack of overt coherence, the segmentation of approaches to regeneration, and the lack of embeddedness, will not help Liverpool’s progress.

The Cultural Turn as mythology?
And finally, the Cultural Turn in Liverpool is perhaps in part a new mythology, for us to put alongside the Liver Birds.

Look, we say, we’ve pulled off 2008, and now we have Tourists!

But all that says, if we are brutally honest, is that we have Cultural Tourism.

Genuine Cultural Turn, of the sort which I believe would enable Liverpool to construct a new, more sustainable and prosperous future, continues to elude us.

Perhaps we now have a greater emphasis on arts and culture, but we have yet to demonstrate how that can go forward to shape a new future.

Progress or pastiche?
Maybe this can be done where a city has great leadership and vision.

But in Liverpool I must conclude that, for now, the pastiche of Cultural Tourism has eclipsed any fundamental sense of Cultural Turn.

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