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The Good, the Standard and the Ugly: Oriel and Cook Street

Jonathan Schofield takes a trip west to gawp at a pair of Liverpool lovelies

Written by . Published on January 6th 2011.

The Good, the Standard and the Ugly: Oriel and Cook Street

Category: excellent

Oriel Chambers (14 Water Street) and 16 Cook Street

Who and When?
Peter Ellis (1804-80) respectively 1864, and 1866. These are the only two buildings he ever completed.

Description please

 Ellis takes two office blocks on city centre sites and does something no-one else had done anywhere. Maybe he’d been to the Great Exhibition of London and seen the Crystal Palace of 1851 and thought ‘Eureka!’ Maybe he loved Turner paintings with their light and brilliance. Maybe he took the cast iron framed warehouses that were being built in Liverpool and Manchester at the time and decided that it was time similar methods were used on business district streets. Maybe he was an alien. Who knows?

Certainly, he time-machined into the future with Oriel and Cook Street, to allow cast-iron frames to amplify the use of glass in a novel and gripping manner right in the showcase heart of a city. Nobody had done this before - anywhere.


And the buildings themselves?

Oriel is a fly’s eye of many oriel windows separated by spectacularly tall stone mullions (oriel windows are raised bay windows by the way). Cook Street is more playful, designed as a single great Venetian window, of five storeys, breaking up the predictable street presence of the staid buildings to each side.

The courtyards, away from the view of the passer-by, of both Oriel and Cook Street, are even more surprising. Cook Street’s provides the setting for a glass wall containing a spiral staircase, the south wall of Oriel has an iron frame with a glass wall cantilevered over it.

Ellis seems to be saying, “yeah, I know how we keep doing these heavy buildings and referring to the past in one way or the other, but let’s think what these commercial buildings are for and how they are used. You might not like it but these glass walls, utilise what we can now manufacture and therefore can bring extra light to your workers. Makes sense. Cheaper too.”

There was only one problem.

What was that?

Nobody was listening. He was ripped apart by the critics and probably by his peers. The Builder magazine despised his work. Oriel was called a ‘vast abortion’. ‘The plainest brick building is infinitely superior to that agglomeration of protruding plate glass bubbles’, they ranted. Respected writer Professor CR Reilly later called them ‘logical and disagreeable’, ‘a cellular habitation for the human insect’. Prince Charles didn't say anything about carbuncles because he hadn't been born. The criticism plainly got to Ellis. He never designed anything again. Or maybe he just thought, that’s it, job done. Bow out at the top of my game. But now all of us can see that Ellis was that purest of pioneers: an orginal thinker, daring to do something that could only be appreciated years in advance.


So these were a dead end then?

Hard to say. People claim that they influenced Chicago skyscraper design, that they are a sort of architectural missing link joining historicist buildings in older styles with modern architecture. Burnham and Root’s Rookery Building in Chicago of 1888 was a landmark in this progression, and Root was at school in Liverpool as Ellis' buildings went up. The story goes that Oriel and Cook Street made an impression on Root’s young mind. Certainly the Rookery’s iron frame, interiors, the stairwells and window arrangements bear some similarity with the Liverpudlian’s work. Then again there might be no relation at all – perhaps people are developing a narrative where there is none.



So in the end these buildings are beautiful and strange?

Exactly. And wonderful for that. Four years ago I was taking German journalists around Liverpool on a culture vulture tour. One of them was called Hauke. I pointed out 16 Cook Street. I went inside and showed him the remarkable spiral staircase. “When did you say this was built?” he said. I told him. He ran his hands through his hair and looked baffled. “Bauhaus was fifty years later. Why do you hide these things in Britain? The Beatles are one thing, but these buildings should be just as celebrated in Liverpool.” Indeed. And they are, albeit in a different way. There's an argument to made for Liverpool having as famous an architecture tour as Chicago has, particularly as, according to many people, it all began in the city.

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Eddy RheadOctober 25th 2010.

It may be apocryphal but i have heard that Walter Gropius visited Liverpool in the 1920s and was inspired by Oriel Chambers to adapt some of its principles in his own later work.

Baron Rogers of RiversideOctober 27th 2010.

The Oriel Chambers quite famously 'inspired' Sir Michael Hopkins for his design of Bracken House/ London in 1992. South copying North, usually it's the other way round...

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