The city’s light-industrial heritage is being trashed in some places – but has been creatively embraced in others, says Gillian Darley

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On a recent visit to Liverpool, the first for a while, something struck me forcibly. Walking around two areas, a hanger-on with a group of NYUL graduate students led with purpose by architect Richard Hill and two Liverpool city planners, I realised that the real glue in the city is provided by some superficially unpromising, semi-industrial buildings. This is for all the splendour of its listed dockside warehouses and the great public buildings – the reason for its (still just intact) Unesco World Heritage status.

The “Ten Streets” form a grid sandwiched between Waterloo Road and Great Howard Street, heading north to Stanley Dock and the Tobacco Warehouse, which claims to be the world’s largest brick warehouse and is currently the subject of a hugely ambitious residential conversion by Darmody Architecture. The other “sandwich-filling” is a wedge of streets that make up the interior of the so-called Baltic Triangle, directly below the Anglican Cathedral.

In the latter case the possibilities have been, and are being, realised. The creative quarter is humming and yet the buildings are of no particular note, despite some clever upgrading of 1950s light-industrial sheds in recent years. The area boasts scarcely a listed building, and sits pondering its odd status, that of being a “buffer zone” for the Unesco sites although it is no jewel. One exception is a warehouse that Baltic Creative are set to take on from the city which has promise (as well as problems, of course). But a cautionary tale is offered, nearby, by an exercise in peculiarly unpleasant and illiterate façadism, where laughable attempts have been made to graft pathetic remnants of industrial fabric on to cheap (looking) new-build, fenestration run amok. Pity the students.

In late February the council backed away from the Liverpool Waters development, in particular two soaring towers, as proposed by Peel Holdings, in the hope of retaining their dented Unesco status. The architects were Hodder – not a good thing to see a PPRIBA on the naughty step – who seem, with the client, to have been blind to their responsibilities towards the Mersey, the neighbours and, above all, that great port city.

These in-between areas, with more than their share of gaps, derelict corners and, yes, failed skeletons of recent development, have an economic vitality that’s sometimes entirely unexpected or completely hidden.

So, on one such street, I noticed a purposeful young woman unlocking a door which looked hardly viable. As it swung back open it revealed (surprisingly) a fine chandelier inside. Much of the successful business activity around here is digital, and a lot is happening precisely because the buildings are not to be fussed over, being neither precious nor, even, particular. Those ordinary working premises in those ordinary semi-industrial streets are an argument for not judging a book by its cover – on the street as anywhere else. There is much to be said for a loosely textured city, in uses as in fabric, for this is where the city lives.

The excellent Pevsner Guide to Liverpool by Joseph Sharples and Richard Pollard (the latter on the docks) was published in 2004. Fourteen years on, I read that Stanley Dock was then “the most evocatively derelict dock”; now the Titanic Hotel looks over the water on to one of the biggest construction sites in the country, the Tobacco Warehouse. It remains to be seen whether the residential and commercial uses planned there will pose a problem for the irregular but particular ecology of the Ten Streets.

This is Liverpool, and it needs both strands of life.