St John's Beacon (Radio City Tower)

Overview

Heritage Category:
Listed Building
Grade:
II
List Entry Number:
1471669
Date first listed:
12-Oct-2020
Statutory Address:
1 Houghton Street, Liverpool, L1 1RL

Map

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Location

Statutory Address:
1 Houghton Street, Liverpool, L1 1RL

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

District:
Liverpool (Metropolitan Authority)
Parish:
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:
SJ3481390392

Summary

Observation tower, constructed in 1965-1969, designed by James A Roberts, converted to a radio broadcasting studio in 1999.

Reasons for Designation

St John's Beacon (Radio City Tower), constructed in 1965-1969 to designs by James A Roberts, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest:

* its space-age design embodies the technological bravura and spirit of the space age and is a physical expression of popular culture at the time, representing a bold and optimistic 1960s vision of the future after the horrors of the Second World War;

* it is a member of a small and progressive international family of landmark observation towers constructed in the 1960s, and is the only structure of its type in England;

* its elegant tapering shaft, seamless slipform construction and radiating ribs to the underside of the dramatic spaceship-like lantern combine to make a bold architectural and aesthetic statement;

* it is an early example of high-rise slipform concrete construction;

* it was designed by the notable regional mid-C20 architect James A Roberts who also designed the Grade II-listed Rotunda in Birmingham;

* despite some later alteration the tower's dynamic character and structural integrity survive well;

Historic interest:

* it is one of only a few buildings to have been realised in the Shankland Plan, widely regarded as the most ambitious masterplan produced for any British city in the 1960s, and it is a powerful symbol of post-war renewal and modernisation.

Group value:

* it has strong group value with the Royal Court Theatre (1938, Grade II) and Playhouse Theatre (1865, interior remodelled in 1912, and extended in 1966-1968, Grade II*), which are also attached to the St John's shopping centre, whilst its prominence as a skyline feature ensures that it has an impact on views throughout the city of Liverpool.

History

St John’s Beacon (now also known as Radio City Tower) was constructed in 1965-1969 as part of a scheme for a new shopping precinct forming part of Graeme Shankland's wider masterplan for Liverpool city centre. The beacon (and the attached shopping centre) were designed by James A Roberts of Birmingham for Ravenseft Properties. The structural engineers were Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick and the main contractors were Trollope & Colls Ltd.

The scheme was in development at least as early as 1961, and was intended to place Liverpool ‘in the forefront of “modern” cities, offering new vistas in merchandising and entertainment techniques’ (Harwood, 2015). An article noted that vertical emphasis ‘will be provided by the St John’s Beacon, an impressive 500ft tower carrying a glass-walled ''lantern'' within which refreshment bars and several tiers of viewing galleries will give visitors an uninterrupted view of coastline and surrounding countryside’ (Liverpool Echo, 2016).

The tower was constructed using slipform concrete, which is a technique of producing reinforced concrete that utilises a continuously moving formwork, where the formwork is moved upwards (slipform can also be applied horizontally in road construction) with the pouring process. The technique (in a basic form) was invented in the late C19 and was originally employed in the construction of silos and grain elevators in the United States, but in the mid-1940s the technique was improved and developed by the Swedish company AB Bygging (now known as Bygging-Uddemann), who introduced the use of hydraulic jacks, enabling the construction of houses by this method in Sweden in the 1950s. Its use was then expanded further to high-rise construction. Slipform concrete is the fastest and most economical method of high-rise construction that enables the creation of a seamless structure, and it is widely used for the construction of service cores in skyscrapers in the early C21, such as at The Shard, Southwark, London.

As the design of St John’s Beacon evolved the lantern was reduced in scale to a single storey, with a viewing platform on the roof. It included a rotating restaurant known as the Tower Restaurant, one of only two in England; the other being at BT Tower, London (1961-1965, Grade II). The tower was designed to serve a dual function as an observation tower and also a ventilation flue for the shopping centre boilers in the basement, however, changes in health and safety regulations in the year of completion meant that the latter function was never served.

St John’s Beacon was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1969, and was the highest building in Liverpool at 138m (approximately 450ft); it now has an additional 10m antenna.

The restaurant closed in 1979 and then reopened in the early 1980s, at one point being styled as a space-age Buck Rogers-themed restaurant, before closing again. In 1999-2000 the tower was refurbished and converted for use as a radio broadcasting studio. The rotating mechanism was fixed in place, and the rooftop viewing platform was enclosed to provide additional accommodation. The tower was refurbished again in 2011.

Architect James Roberts (1922-2019) was born in Kings Heath, Birmingham. Following his father, Ernest S Roberts, into the profession, he attended the Birmingham School of Architecture, later becoming one of its lecturers. He worked extensively with the property company Ravenseft, primarily in Birmingham but also in Croydon, and on the St John’s scheme in Liverpool. He made a lasting mark on Birmingham’s built environment, most famously with the Rotunda (1960-1965, listed Grade II), also a tower rising from a shopping complex, originally conceived with a revolving restaurant at the top.

Details

Observation tower, constructed in 1965-1969, designed by James A Roberts, converted to a radio broadcasting studio in 1999.

MATERIALS: board-marked in-situ slip-form concrete.

PLAN: the tower, which is circular in plan, stands at the junction of the south-east elevation of St John’s shopping precinct and the Playhouse Theatre. EXTERIOR: not inspected, information from other sources. The tower has its own separate foundations and stands on a circular podium attached to the St John’s Precinct. It has a tapering cylindrical shaft with a circular crow's nest-like lantern projection towards the top, originally containing the revolving restaurant and viewing platform (now a radio station). The upwards-sloping concrete soffit of the lantern is segmented with recessed ribs radiating from the centre. The lantern, which also tilts outwards to enable views downwards, is glazed and has a band that wraps around with affixed lettering that reads 'RADIO CITY 96.7'. Originally the lantern had a rooftop viewing deck, but this level is now enclosed to form extra accommodation for the radio station, and has continuous glazing around the perimeter. Above the lantern the shaft terminates in a flat top, which is now obscured by a framework supporting telecommunications equipment.

INTERIOR: not inspected, information from other sources. The tower contains a stairwell and two lift shafts. The high-level lantern contains radio studios with a perimeter landing area/corridor and viewing gallery, and offices on the upper floor (formerly the open viewing deck).

Sources

Books and journals
Harwood, E, Space Hope & Brutalism. English Architecture 1945-1975, (2015), 323
Saumarez Smith, O, Boom Cities. Architect-Planners and the Politics of Radical Urban Renewal in 1960s Britain, (2019)
Harwood, E, 'White Light/White Heat: Rebuilding England's Provincial Towns and Cities in the Sixties' in Twentieth Century Architecture 6. The Sixties. life: style: architecture, , Vol. 6, (2002), 57-70
Saumarez Smith, O, 'Graeme Shankland: a Sixties Architect-Planner and the Political Culture of the British Left' in Architectural History, , Vol. 57, (2014), 393-422
Websites
‘Obituary: Birmingham Rotunda architect Jim Roberts dies aged 97’, Glenn Howells, Architects Journal, 12/07/19, accessed 24/07/2020 from https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/obituary-birmingham-rotunda-architect-jim-roberts-dies-aged-97/10043599.article
‘The history of the Radio City Tower’, d2architects, accessed 24/07/2020 from https://www.d2architects.co.uk/history-radio-city-tower-1759.html
‘This is how St John’s Beacon could have looked’, Liverpool Echo, 12 November 2016 , accessed 24/07/2020 from https://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/how-st-johns-beacon-could-12164848
‘Tributes to legendary Birmingham architect James A Roberts’, Tamlyn Jones, Business Live, 02/07/2019, accessed 24/07/2020 from https://www.business-live.co.uk/commercial-property/tributes-legendary-birmingham-architect-james-16519274
'Shankland, Colin Graham Lindsay (Graeme)', in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed 7 September 2020 from https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-109708?rskey=W24uPZ&result=1
The history of construction, accessed 27 August 2020 from https://www.britannica.com/technology/construction
United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service. National Register of Historic Places. Multiple Property Documentation Form: 'Grain Elevator Design in Minnesota', accessed 27 August 2020 from https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset/c60eaa5e-b357-4d05-8e0f-1268d88761f8
'Walkways in the Sky and the Liverpool 'masterplan' that was never built', in the Liverpool Echo, 20 June 2020, accessed 7 September 2020 from https://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/business/gallery/walkways-sky-liverpool-masterplan-never-15874583
Other
Account of construction and advertisement for the building contractors in the Supplement to The Illustrated London News, October 28 1967
'Early Start In St. John's Precinct', The Liverpool Echo and Evening Express, Monday November 30, 1964
'First Phase Of City Centre Redevelopment Is Really Under Way', The Liverpool Echo and Evening Express, Friday March 13, 1964
'Three Big Plans For Tiered City', Liverpool Echo and Evening Express, Monday March 25, 1963

Legal

This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

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