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Royal Liver Building
St Nicholas Place, Pier Head, Liverpool
Royal Liver Building
associated engineer
LG Mouchel & Partners
date  11 May 1908 - 19 July 1911
UK era  Modern  |  category  Building  |  reference  SJ338904
ICE reference number  HEW 102
photo  Mouchel archive
Liverpool's waterfront is home to a dramatic early reinforced concrete frame building that has become a symbol of the city — the Royal Liver Building. At 98m high, the building was known as Britain's first 'skyscraper', and when it opened in 1911 was widely believed to be the largest reinforced concrete structure in the world.
Stylistically, the building is possibly unique in England — its design is reminiscent of early tall buildings in the USA. It was designed by Walter Aubrey Thomas for the Royal Liver Friendly Society (founded in Liverpool in 1850) and remains the society's headquarters to this day.
The building is sited at Pier Head, opposite the ferry terminal — one of a trio of landmark buildings constructed in the early 1900s as part of a civic vision to enhance the maritime gateway of the city and celebrate its then-dominance as a trading centre. The city's waterfront comprises (then and now) a series of enclosed docks set side by side, one of which was filled in (George's Dock) to provide a building site.
The Royal Liver Building is symmetrical in plan, with entrances at on all four elevations, and two large internal lightwells. The main river façade has nine bays, the side elevations eleven. The bottom two floors are deeply rusticated. Besides the basement, there are ten upper floors, and six further floors in the twin towers, making it the tallest building in Britain until the advent of tower blocks in the 1960s.
The scale of the building, and the complex stepping-back of the upper storeys and towers, was achieved through the use of new technology. The building's structural engineer was the pioneering firm L.G. Mouchel & Partners, agent for the Hennebique patented system of concrete reinforcement, and predecessor of Mouchel, the present-day engineering company. L.G. Mouchel & Partners was founded in 1908 by Louis Gustave Mouchel, who had been responsible for many "ferro-concrete" firsts in the UK.
There were a number of different systems for concrete reinforcement in use in the early 20th century in this country — the Hennebique-Mouchel system being the most prevalent. The engineers approached the design of the building's concrete frame in a way that Peter De Figueiredo has described as analogous to a "steel skeleton" — all the elements, floors, walls, arches, beams and columns acting as a frame to transfer the building’s loads to the foundations.
The frame includes hundreds of reinforced concrete beams, including ones that span 15m and arch spans of 18m, some of which carry more than 1,420 tonnes. The columns carry loads of up to 1,525 tonnes. The floor slabs consist of tubular units with arched top-spaces that allowed the casting of concrete ribs betwen the rows. A screed was laid on top, making the floor 210mm thick. This method, now commonly used for floor slabs and known as 'hollow tile', was invented for this building — under a Hennebique-Mouchel patent.
The building was completed in three years and cost £621,000. It originally included 19 lift shafts, though it has only 11 today. Its two clock towers feature giant clock faces — the largest in the country and big enough to allow sailors to read the time from passing ships. The clocks run on electricity and were once known as George clocks, since they were set in motion at the exact time George V was crowned in Westminster Abbey.
Perched on top of the building, one on each tower, is a pair of gigantic copper birds — representations of the mythical Liver birds, symbols of Liverpool. There are many other Liver birds on buildings in the city but these are the largest. They were designed by German-born sculptor Carl Bernard Bartels. Each is almost 6m high, with a wing span of 7.3m, and holds a sprig of seaweed in its beak. The moulded and hammered copper is supported on steel frames. The height of the building, at 98m, is measured to the top of the Liver birds.
The Royal Liver Building is Grade I listed. Its two companion buildings are the Port of Liverpool Building (1905) and the Cunard Building (1918). Together, the three are known as Liverpool's 'Three Graces'.
Architect: Walter Aubrey Thomas
Site works: William Brown & Sons
Contractor: Edmund Nuttall & Co
Research: FBA
"Francois Hennebique (1842-1921) reinforced concrete pioneer"
by D.G. McBeth, Proceedings Institution Civil Engineers (1998), 126 May, 867-95, paper 11382
"Mouchel: A Century of Achievement" published by Mouchel, 1997
"Symbols of Empire: The Buildings of the Liverpool Waterfront"
by Peter De Figueiredo, Architectural History 46, 2003, pp.229-254
reference sources   CEH North

Royal Liver Building