Hot Water: The Fight To Save Liverpool's Best Public Art

In the business district sits the region's most brilliantly bold modernist sculpture. But it needs help before it's flushed out for good.

by David Lloyd

Question. If your city owned something so rare there was only one other of its kind in the entire world, would you entrust its guardianship and vital maintenance to the city’s elected officials (you know, the ones we pay to do that job)? Or would you hand it over to a property developer embroiled in insolvency investigations?

We only ask because, in the crossfire of claim and counterclaim surrounding UNESCO's threat to disrobe us of our World Heritage gown, it’s easy to assume our heritage is confined to slave trade-built civic buildings and ornate-but-empty banking halls. But our real heritage can be found in the spaces inbetween. The quirky public realm incursions, the city’s ripped backsides and - yes - strident 60s art, the touchstones that remind us it’s possible for our city to have a real fire in its belly.

So the sorry story of Beetham Plaza’s Piazza Fountain (referred to by many as the Bucket Fountain) symbolises something much more than a tug of water between developers and campaigners to keep the fountains in situ. It shows the city’s contempt for the stuff that makes us who we are. Why wrap our arms around a silly little fountain when there’s another multi-million pound deal to be struck for a new boutique hotel?

“This is one of the only two bucket fountains remaining in the world, and enjoys a steady stream of visitors, both tourists and locals”, says Rachel Reed of the Friends of the Piazza Fountain. “We believe any decision to relocate it should not be made by a developer, who clearly has no regard for our proud heritage”.

She’s not alone. The Friends of the Piazza Fountain, who are campaigning to keep them right where they are, has amassed nearly 5,000 signatures.

For their part, the Elliot Group says that the fountains “deserve a home where it can be enjoyed by more local people and visitors alike”. They want it to become a “must Instagram” attraction for the city.

Yes, you heard us.

This “must Instagram” attraction commemorates the start of the Tryweryn Scheme in 1962, bringing Welsh water to the city, and displacing an entire village in the process. 

Three years ago the fountain was acquired by the Elliot Group, which had plans to build a boutique hotel on the Beetham Plaza site and, as a result, wanted to shuffle the sculpture off to another undecided part of the city (at their own expense). 

At the same time, UNESCO came back to the city to compile a report, the results of which have just been published. The report recommends the removal of Liverpool from its World Heritage list. 

Liverpool’s waterfront developments are detrimental and "eroding the integrity" of the World Heritage site, it believes. For UNESCO, the tipping (buckets) point came with the Liverpool Waters development. But it’s ironic that the Elliot Group, who’ve planned the enormous triple-towered Infinity development overlooking the waterfront, are the ones now overseeing the future of the Bucket Fountain. The ones now entrusted with the upkeep of our history. 

“Our issue has always been that it’s tucked away”, the Elliot Group says. “More seagulls find it each day than tourists and residents. If we were to re-site it then more people could enjoy its wonderful engineering”.

It’s a miracle the Bucket Fountain is still with us. In the 60s, when it was commissioned and built over at Cammell Laird in Birkenhead, kinetic sculptures like this could be found soaking civic squares from Wellington to Seattle. But delicate-eared locals objected to them, complaining that they sounded too much like flushing toilets. To us, they had an altogether different resonance. They represented the turbulence and unpredictability of waves. At least, that's what Huws envisaged when he created the piece. 

"It is a waterfall of a strange new kind", Huws told the Merseyside Civic Society when the piece was installed. "Instead of streaming steadily, water hurtles down unexpectedly in detached lumps in all directions". Huws was a man with previous form. He created a 43 foot high water sculpture at the Festival of Britain in 1951 and, today examples of his work can be seen in Tokyo and New York, although precious little remains intact in the UK. Really, we should be proud to call it ours. Instead, it’s facing an undignified shuffle across town to some hitherto uncertain new home. 

“By freeing up the site we have an opportunity to develop a new hotel, creating valuable jobs and rateable income for the city council to invest in vital public services” says the Elliot Group. 

But whoever gets their way, Merseyside Civic Society, along with Engage Liverpool, claim much needed engineering investigations are required to see if the fountains can even survive at all. 

“An expert needs to look at the fountain, take apart some of the buckets to look at the seals and draw up a report which details the restoration needs, viewing platforms, pump room and pool”, they say. 

They’ve joined forces with The Friends of the Piazza Fountain to launch a crowdfunding appeal for £12,250 that would pay for the report. Small change, you’d think. And a tenth of the price the council will have to pay for a report by the Secretary of State for Local Government into the shambolic activities surrounding, oh, property management and regeneration. By the council.

Water was most definitely Richard Huws' thing. Which is another irony in this little tale. For Huws, and his artist wife Edrica lived in darkest Anglesey with neither electricity nor running water, throughout the 60s. "The sight and sound of waterfalls is so spellbinding that they have always been centres of attraction in the landscape, and in the places where we work we are prompted to create them artificially", Huws said, adding that the “perpetual bubblings” of man-made fountains bored him to tears. 

For him, there had to be a twist. "To make it more exciting we contrive various means of providing additional animation, a very simple device which interrupts the regular flow, so as to create a round of action. The sound and movement of which is no longer that of the ever-monotonous bubbling river, but that of the restless, temperamental sea..." 

So rare and special is the Bucket Fountain that it was Grade II listed by the Government in 2019, and Historic England said it was “one of the most notable and fascinating listings” of that year. 

What twists remain in this curious tale remain to be seen.

Visit the Piazza Fountain, and support the crowdfunding campaign.