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Hidden presence

aj landscape study 1

Collaborating with shedkm on the regeneration of the Collegiate and the Matchworks buildings in Liverpool, McAllister Landscape Architects incorporates existing elements of the urban setting in schemes with a strong minimal aesthetic

'There's nothing to see, ' was the response that I received when I arrived at the newly regenerated Collegiate building in Liverpool and announced that I had come to look at the landscaping.

Since writing his student thesis in the 1980s, landscape architect Brodie McAllister has continued to develop his interest in the work of Luis Barragán, and when pressed to say what it is about Barragán's work that he finds admirable, McAllister refers to the description by Emilio Ambasz, that there is the quality of a 'hidden presence'.

Knowing this, I appreciated the comment that was made on my arrival to the Collegiate, and proceeded to the walled garden and courtyard parking area on which McAllister's practice collaborated with architect shedkm, as one of several recent projects in Liverpool.

The prestigious Collegiate School was closed following the reorganisation of education in Liverpool in the late 1970s, and lay neglected until Urban Splash acquired it in 1996 and instigated the regeneration project.

The main school building, which fronts Everton's Shaw Street with an impressive pink-sandstone Gothic Revival facade, has been converted into 96 flats by shedkm. Behind this, and standing within a courtyard, is the now roofless and weathered brick octagonal structure which was originally the theatre and lecture hall for the school. Some 17.5m high and 26.5m broad, it now accommodates the walled garden at first floor level.

The garden is reached by leaving the central staircase at first floor level at the back of the main school building. Once outside, you cross a bridge and move onto the new entrance ramp for the octagon. Standing in a concrete 'U', and enclosed between high side walls with the floor ramping upwards ahead, you see glimpses of the sky at the end of the route through the old window openings within the walls of the octagon.

Ivy grows over the weathered brickwork and the tops of Himalayan birch trees peek over the ramp's side walls: the archetypal architectural image of a building ruin being gradually inhabited and overtaken by plants comes to mind. McAllister explains that the introduced planting is 'reminiscent of the self-sown seedlings originally found within the crumbling structure before work began'.

As you move up the ramp, the side walls slowly subside to reveal the cradling space of the octagon with its exterior walls framing the sky above, and through the old window openings there are dramatic views over the cityscape and Everton Park. An elliptical timber platform has been suspended over a large planting well in the centre of the octagon, through which the entrance ramp slices.

Slender birch tree trunks cut through circular openings in the timber-decked floors of the semi-elliptical spaces either side of the ramp, and these are bounded by low rendered walls, beyond which a smooth concrete floor runs up to the outer walls of the octagon. The courtyard in which the octagon sits has a surface of buff-coloured bound gravel, with the distance from the base of the octagon to the perimeter walls varying from 10 to 20m.

As you walk through the garden, the window openings with their cityscape views correspond to the speed of your steps, while, with their sloping upper surface, the surrounding walls of the elliptical enclosures appear to rise up towards you as you approach them. The garden thus anticipates the passage of the body through it: its route and elements are designed with movement in mind, in a way that recalls the work of Richard Serra.

It is not surprising, then, to find out that McAllister has long been interested in Serra's sculpture. When employed as a technician at the Whitechapel Art Gallery during student holidays, he became familiar with a number of modern artists: Serra, Anish Kapoor and Rachel Whiteread being favourites. He identifies in their work the quality of 'alluding to what is not there rather than to what is', and certainly in the Collegiate garden, where both the planting and the overall aesthetic is minimal, the strength of the project lies as much in what has not been done to the spaces and structure as in what has.

In terms of a traditional walled garden there is indeed little (if not 'nothing') to see, but the Collegiate is something else: it is an urban enclave, which playfully exploits a connection to, and protection from, the surrounding city. McAllister describes it as 'existing within the tradition of the Italian Renaissance secret garden, an enclosed space standing in isolation from the everyday bustle - the space in which you could dance naked, the one space in which you don't have to behave'. Perhaps the theatrical heritage of the octagon will be continued by the antics of the new residents, but importantly the space will work just as well for calm and private contemplation.

In McAllister's projects, it is difficult to detect at what point the work of the architect ends and that of the landscape architect begins. Among other things, this is the result of a productive relationship between the two disciplines. Director of shedkm Dave King describes McAllister's role on the Collegiate and the Matchworks as being 'one of the inhouse team'; while of shedkm, McAllister says: 'They see things in a similar way - we like the same things. Our working relationship is a sort of virtual office; a vigorous interaction at all stages.'

McAllister's practice, which was established in London in 1993 and has recently relocated to Bristol, has worked on projects ranging from largescale urban planning schemes (it coordinated the urban design issues on behalf of Dartford Borough Council for the proposed development of Ebbsfleet International station in north Kent) to smaller corporate and residential design schemes.

Having studied town planning at the University of Wales and landscape architecture at Edinburgh College of Art, McAllister then worked for Brian Clouston and Partners in London and Singapore on large-scale public, residential and resort projects. This was followed by four years spent in the US in which he freelanced as a landscape architect, including working on the San Francisco Yerba Buena Gardens complex in collaboration with Lawrence Halprin (among others).

The stay in the US was important in encouraging McAllister's aspirations: 'In the US, landscape design is often seen as the overviewing, lead discipline, and I was able to experience at first hand the highly creative projects that I had seen in American design magazines.'

The idea that landscape architecture can be the leading discipline when addressing urban problems, rather than be relegated to providing the 'passive' setting for the 'active' architectural object, is increasingly accepted elsewhere in Europe. Adriaan Geuze and his practice West 8, for example, are carrying out more and more masterplanning projects. This is particularly relevant for regeneration projects, as a way of preventing new buildings being located in surroundings which remain unintelligible.

The Matchworks is a Grade II-listed 1918 building set within 7ha of land on the south-east outskirts of Liverpool. shedkm describes it as 'Chicago-style', though it is decidedly horizontal in emphasis and almost Art Deco in some details. Having produced Bryant and May matches for much of the past century, the factory was abandoned in the 1980s, and remained so until Urban Splash instigated the project to turn it into eight office areas set in landscaped parkland, using shedkm as architect, which then consulted McAllister for the landscaping.

McAllister produced a sketch masterplan for the Matchworks, which shedkm then modified in line with its own preliminary masterplan, budget constraints and client feedback - and with three more phases of the development to come it is a project in process.

A challenge of the project from the start was how to mediate, both in scale and in the vocabulary of materials and elements, between the graphic and highly characterised building and the surrounding bleak and disparate peripheral cityscape. The qualities of the latter are familiar, with its mix of abandoned industry and suburban housing.

Large signs on huge shopping sheds shout out across the dual carriageway at scattered two-storey 1930s houses, which try to find shelter in the inhospitable scrubland.

The current layout of the site consists of a main strip building facing, but set back from, Speke Boulevard, a parallel strip building behind it, and a wing connecting these two parts. The site extends in front of and around the main building, into an area between the two parallel buildings, and then to a third realm set further back from the road.

The masterplan divided the site into three areas: an inner, middle and outer zone extending outwards from the main building.

The inner realm, conceived of as a sculpture park, is constructed from hard elements laid on a macadam surface, and incorporates a central entrance axis leading from Speke Boulevard up to and through the main building, across the courtyard behind, and up to the rear building.

In this inner zone, McAllister and shedkm show how important it is to control scale, texture and colour. Parking spaces are discreetly marked out with rivets rather than being painted on the macadam, while the design responds to geometries set up in the building's facades - for example, parking areas are separated from one another by low granite gabion walls, with red roses on top, which follow the lines established on the back of the main building by tubular service elements. The gabion walls are laid on strips of pink textured carpet - Marshall's red concrete tactile blister paving - which then run up to meet short sections of blackened sewer pipe (for seating), and a lamp post beyond. The line terminates at a row of trees which forms a perpendicular axis running along the facade of the rear strip building.

The inner realm could easily have been a windswept parking lot, either cluttered or mundane; but instead it is rather like a large board game, its pieces ready for play to commence. It invites you to meander, to pause and look around you, not head straight from the car to the building entrance.

The middle realm of the site was conceived of as a golden brown meadow, with the specification of a grass seed mix of mainly tall fescue at 1.5m, giving the impression, says McAllister, 'that the building floats in an American prairie' - a reference that is in line with the 'Chicago-style' building.

This is currently being tested on parts of the site, but will cover less ground than was originally conceived, due to further building development. The idea was that the grasses would conceal the parked cars from the longer distance view and would have a mix of Coxfoot, Timothy and Crested Dogstail to give a pasture-like lower level cover.

The outer realm of the site is then treated with bands of scrub, within which areas of mature tree groups occur, such as at the boundary to Speke Boulevard.

McAllister's practical argument for the meadow was that it would be drought-tolerant and considerably easier to maintain than the more predictable option of a lawn or ornamental planting. But privately he insists that every project should work on two levels: all the practical requirements must be fulfilled, but of equal importance is the potential for a level of imaginative engagement by the user. McAllister sees it as part of the designer's task to leave clues that offer the user the chance to construct a narrative or myth around the project as they experience it, whether as part of their daily routine or in a more conscious state of contemplation.

This aspect of McAllister's work has developed over time, with his continued admiration of the work of Barragán, and his striving to achieve in his own projects the 'hidden presence' mentioned earlier.McAllister elaborates: 'It is a secular but spiritual belief in the unseen, and a belief in the need for the invention of modern myths and rituals to celebrate this.' In this vein, McAllister proposes that the meadow could be controlled by a ritual burning each year (which, he explains, also refers to the previous existence of the match factory).

Narratives also help McAllister to find out whether a design on which he is working 'fits' its site and cultural context, and as part of this he often looks to historical investigations for clues. Thus he describes the low granite gabion walls as 'hedges, remnant strands of field boundaries, also referring to the granite set margin of the steel rails which used to convey wagons from the site to boats on the Mersey'.

White poplars were chosen to line the entrance avenue to the building, because poplar wood was used for making the match sticks and poplar logs used to be stored in the adjacent log field. The meadow and scrub grasses are a memory of what was found on the derelict site before the regeneration project began and, as the grasses disappear from the surrounding landscape during the process of regeneration, the grasses on the site will be a reminder of this phase of the broader landscape's history.

Not having previously known the Matchworks, I did not pick up the historical references, but the food for imaginative engagement was certainly there. With the meadow and scrub grass, this took the form of an interesting perceptual shift in my reading of the context. Looking outwards to the areas in which similar grasses are growing to those that are part of the carefully constructed landscape composition, I initially wondered whether the grasses on the site were deliberately planted or self-sown.

This very act of more careful observation and of questioning made me look at the grasses both within the site and beyond it in a new way. Curiously, the effect was then that parts of the view beyond the site ceased to read solely as the derelict peripheral cityscape, but rather as a landscape with some inherent and even beautiful qualities of its own.

Another influence of Barragán upon McAllister is his idea of the 'key threshold' - what Barragán saw as the link between the fragment that is the project and the wider landscape. Within the side wing that connects the front and the rear Matchworks buildings, there is a large square arch, and it is this which McAllister's masterplan identified as the key threshold. From the relative shelter and comfort of the rear courtyard, you can look through the arch, which frames the broader landscape extending westwards beyond.

Such a threshold, says McAllister, 'makes a strong connection that elevates the importance of the viewer as the critical intermediary, looking beyond the pragmatics of such things as parking and vehicle access.' He explains that it was also the route that wagons used to take from the match factory out across the log field to the Mersey.

McAllister's masterplan had more ambitious interventions along this threshold axis, but these were reduced due to budget restrictions, and the axis is currently emphasised by the row of trees running parallel to the facade of the rear building.

Hopefully, however, in the next phases of the project the importance of this axis will be reinstated, for I think it is in the rear courtyard that you would choose to eat your sandwiches at lunchtime. The framed view outwards and away from the building could provide considerable relief in the working day when, as in many peripheral locations, there is no sandwich bar around the corner to stroll to.

The Collegiate and the Matchworks are projects that present refreshing ways in which relationships can be generated between buildings, the open spaces around them, and their broader context.

The importance of our valuing such urban design issues was eloquently emphasised in S, M, L, XL by Rem Koolhaas who, while considering the late-20th-century problems of urbanism, said: 'We were building sandcastles, now we swim in the sea that swept them away.'

Liverpool is a city that is still adapting to the consequences of a radical decline in population. Regeneration projects thus face the particular challenge of constructing relationships between the regeneration sites themselves and an urban context which is often (and may well remain) sparsely populated. Both the Collegiate, with its glimpses of surrounding cityscape, and its memorable image of trees growing within the rescued building ruin, and the Matchworks - with its wild grasses, and emphasis on views to the broader surroundings - are projects in which the existing, and often strange, elements of an urban setting are seen as positive; and then worked into effective designs.

To make these kinds of connections between buildings and their surroundings is important anywhere, but especially so in Liverpool today. The city is in the midst of a building boom, and vulnerable to the large, idealised visions of developers' brochures, imposed from outside. With their attention to what exists already, and acknowledgement of history, the Collegiate and the Matchworks keep such fantasies at bay.

Derbyshire house (The Hollies)

In a project with shedkm for a new country house on part of the Egginton Estate in south Derbyshire, McAllister models the 2.2ha site around the house, 'using historic references as inspiration rather than the basis for pastiche'. The project reinterprets what the country house might be, and explores the potential of the common circumstance where estates have been carved up into a collection of individual parcels of land.

With references to the 18th-century formal English garden, both the house and garden are woven together in an orthogonal composition. The low-level, turf-roofed house is based around two staggered stone walls with further walls and planes extending from these. A swimming pool extends along one of the axes, which then continues through the gardens as a series of linear ponds and a water channel. The sides of these ponds slightly diverge as they move away from the house and fall with the land, creating an illusion of foreshortened perspective - the reverse of the normal effect.

Access to the house is along the edge of a ridge-and-furrowed field, the ridges and furrows of which have been exaggerated. Red-stemmed coppiced willow will be planted in the furrows with the ridges operating as walkways. A yew hedge which will grow to eye level will be planted in a spiral form through an existing orchard, giving 'a sense of enclosure that an orchard or kitchen garden would have had'. The project has recently won planning permission.

Kowloon

With larger landscape projects, McAllister says: 'There are different senses of scale that can operate. The surface of the landscape can be monumental without raising eyebrows - cliffs, hills, rivers and pattern.' He recently entered a competition for the waterfront development at Kowloon in Hong Kong with his brother, architect Rod McAllister, in which, 'there was no room for the park at ground level, so we put it on the roof '. With roof and park essentially as one, the relationship between landscape and architecture is symbiotic .

CREDITS

COLLEGIATE:

CLIENT Urban Splash

DESIGNER shedkm, McAllister Landscape Architects

SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS Landscape contractor (planting)MJ Hulton; paving Marshalls; parking studs Roadcraft; render Sto

MATCHWORKS:

CLIENT Urban Splash

DESIGNER shedkm, McAllister Landscape Architects

SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS Landscape contractor Adana Construction; paving Marshalls; tree grilles Broxap; gabion cages Tinsley Wire; lights Iguzzini; geotextile Terram

WEBLINKS

McAllister Landscape Architects Site under construction shedkm www. shedkm. co. uk There is more information on the Collegiate and the Matchworks (before and after conversion) in shedkm: architecture 1997-2002, an illustrated record of 30 shedkm projects just published by Garlic Press at £6.50 (0151 608 7006).

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