Brick Buildings We Love: Royal Albert Dock

November 17th 2020

Brick Buildings We Love: Royal Albert Dock

The iconic waterfront of Liverpool is home to a set of impressive brick warehouses that were once at the heart of world trade.

For good or ill, it cemented this city's maritime status and its role in the British Empire.

The Royal Albert Dock is now Liverpool's most visited attraction and its collection of museums, shops, restaurants and bars is a popular destination for tourists from around the world.

It's also the subject of our second 'Brick Buildings We Love' series!

One of the reasons the Albert Dock is so popular is its striking red brick construction and timeless warehouse aesthetic.

In this post we're going to look at its history and construction, as well as what makes it such an inspirational and impressive brick building.

A Lot Of Bricks

The Albert Dock opened in 1846 after construction that cost the equivalent of £41 million today.

With 40% of global trade passing through Liverpool's docks by the beginning of the 19th century, we imagine it was a pretty sound investment.

Ships would make use of hydraulic cranes and haul heavy cargo across the flagstones of the quayside. The design of the warehouses was such that the speed with which they could unload their cargo and turn around was cut in half.

The warehouse complex which comprises of five five-story warehouse blocks surrounding a dock, provided 120,000 m2 of warehouse space and was built from more than 23 million bricks. That's a lot.

(Although not as many as the 27 million bricks used to build the less well-known Stanley Dock Tobacco Warehouse down the river which is actually the world's largest brick warehouse.)

Although in the century following the Albert Dock's construction, many warehouses would be built with brick, on completion, it was the first of its kind in the world.

And that brings us to why they used the building material that we all know and love...

A New Kind Of Warehouse

The building materials chosen to build the Albert Dock were brick, cast iron, granite and sandstone.

Brick was used, rather than timber, as the primary building material, because it was more fireproof. With the sheer amount of valuable cargo passing through these warehouses, they needed to make sure it wasn't going to go up in flames.

As a result, it was the world's first non-combustible warehouse complex.

Of course, there are other materials involved, the most prominent of which is the cast iron columns which line the quay.

There's also the granite foundations, the sandstone bedrock and the use of timber piles driven into the silty sand of the Mersey bank - a vital component to keep the whole structure in place.

A Bumpy Journey And A Gradual Decline

Eventually the ships got too big for the dock and started using newer, bigger docks further along the river, meaning it had less use.

During World War II, the dock space was suddenly in demand, when it was used to house small warships, submarines, landing crafts and more.

However, this did lead to it becoming a target and it suffered fairly heavy damage from German bombs during the blitz.

Post war it was awarded Grade I listed status and is now the largest single collection of Grade I listed buildings in the UK. Unfortunately, this status wasn't enough for it to avoid abandonment after years of not being in use.

Heavy silting occurred in the dock itself and all went silent when it was closed in 1972, until...

New Beginnings

In the 80's a redevelopment project began to regenerate Liverpool's waterfront and docks.

The opening of the Merseyside Maritime Museum in 1986, chronicling the city's maritime history, was the beginning of a huge upturn for the docks.

More museums would move into the old warehouse buildings over the years, including the Tate art gallery, the International Slavery Museum and the Beatles Story.

It's now full of restaurants, shops and bars and is the most visited multi-use tourist attraction in the UK, outside of London.

In 2018 it was given the royal seal of approval (hence the new name!) and it's also a central part of the Liverpool waterfront's status as a UNESCO world heritage site.

An Instagrammable Location

So why is it so popular?

Well, other than being full of great tourist attractions, we reckon it's because it's pretty marvellous to look at. And a lot of that is down to the bricks.

The mix of red brick, red cast iron pillars and water full of boats is an Instagram dream. The picturesque location is the subject of many a post online.

The relatively simple brick construction could be seen as fairly monotonous and uninspiring but thanks to a number of subtle but powerful features it manages to stay interesting.

These include: the cornerstones at the end of each wing, the arches on the quay side that go from one pillar to the next, hooks, rigging attachments and other nautical features, and the old wall mounted cranes from the cargo hauling days.

All this gives it its unique character.

The Warehouse Aesthetic

The Royal Albert Dock's restaurants and living quarters provide a lot of inspiration for décor of all kinds.

The old warehouse aesthetic has grown in popularity over the last couple of decades. Many cool hipster companies occupy renovated warehouse space with exposed brick walls and they are also a popular apartment style in big cities.

Indeed, there are apartments available in the Royal Albert Dock. But you don't have to go looking for a fancy apartment in a big city to get this aesthetic.

Even if you don't live in an old warehouse style building, you can apply the exposed brick warehouse look in your home.

There are ways of exposing the brick that is already in your house, if the inner wall of a cavity wall is made of brick, or you could try brick tiles.

These are a great, economical way of getting an authentic exposed brick look in your own home. Check out the Brick Tile Co for more on this.

If you want to find out more about the Royal Albert Dock, you can visit the official website here.