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Building visit: RIBA’s Northern Powerhouse opens

  • 4 Comments

The RIBA North architecture centre designed by Broadway Malyan opened its doors to the public this weekend. Jon Astbury went to take a look

The two-storey, 1,350m² centre, with a cafe, shop, offices and gallery spaces sits alongside 376 apartments, commercial units and a photography gallery in Broadway Malyan’s Mann Island complex. The centre is on the site of the ill-fated ‘Fourth Grace’ competition, the moniker given to a new landmark building planned for Liverpool’s City of Culture in 2008, which sought to round off the ‘Three Graces’, a run of historic buildings along the waterfront. Originally earmarked for completion in 2014, a scheduled opening last summer was postponed due to concerns over the quality of finishes. 

The RIBA chose the city after extensive discussions around five northern cities, including Manchester, which was home to CUBE, a previous attempt to form an architecture hub in the north which closed in 2013. ‘There’s a reason Tate moved here,’ says North director Suzy Jones, referring to Liverpool’s strong cultural activity and rich architectural heritage. Staff previously housed in Urban Splash’s Tea Factory nearby have now moved into the centre’s new office space overlooking the Albert Dock. As well as driving increases in membership, the RIBA hopes the centre will draw the profession – from which Jones says there was a strong ‘grass roots’ desire for a new centre – and the public together, providing incubator space for local designers and a ‘city room’ catering for both educational and professional events.

Riba7 ®walter menzies

Riba7 ®walter menzies

Source: Walter Menzies

The complex, comprising two black granite wedges and an orthogonal commercial tower has, as with almost all of the proposals for the original Fourth Grace project, been subject to criticism. Along with 3XN’s Museum of Liverpool and the Mersey Ferries Terminal, it follows a trend of early generic waterfront architecture – all reflective glass and steep, prow-like angles – that are unlikely to be referred to as ‘graces’ any time in the near future, but are nonetheless huge pulls for tourism that the centre hopes to benefit from: complete with tea towels adorned with a sketch of the complex.

The RIBA North space itself has offered the chance to be more subtle and detail-led, with the primary gesture being a RIBA-red Corian spine wall that cuts into the entrance and around which the centre’s elements pivot, in the process forming a bar for the cafe and separating the stairs from the shop area. As Matt Brook of Broadway Malyan says: ‘It follows the lines of the pavement geometry to cut through into the building, revealed almost as a section’. This wall protrudes out into the central ‘winter garden’ (also known as the ‘Equinox’) which during the day acts as a public, albeit privately owned, thoroughfare connecting Mann Island to the Canning Dock beyond. This space is shared by the various occupants of the complex’s ground floor, and for the opening months the RIBA has commissioned KHBT to produce the installation ‘un-veiled’, depicting the silhouettes of Northern architectural landmarks cut out of bright red scaffolding netting that helps to negate some of the harshness of this glassy atrium space.

Riba north entrance ®hufton crow

Riba north entrance ®hufton crow

Source: Hufton+Crow

The interiors are clean-cut and solid, dominated by exaggerated metal doorhandles and equally exaggerated shadow-gap lighting. Inside in Gallery One, a model of the cancelled winner of the Fourth Grace bid – the ‘Cloud’ by Will Alsop – takes centre stage in the centre’s opening exhibition, Liverpool(e), Mover, Shaker, Architectural Risk-Taker, a display curated by Jones and Joseph Sharples that tracks the city’s open-armed attitude to architectural development in perhaps something of a wry response to the criticism of the building in which it stands. Here, the RIBA drawings archive has been plumbed for some stunning examples, ranging from works by John Summerson and Denys Lasdun to student projects. A large part of the room is dedicated to Liverpool’s two cathedral competitions – Anglican and Roman Catholic – as well as Graeme Shankland’s 1963 plan that declared two-thirds of Liverpool ‘obsolete’ and a model of Colin St John Wilson’s planned civic centre. It is a modest but rich selection – relying on a £67,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant pay for restoration works.

Brook refers to the gallery spaces as the ‘dark core’ of the centre around which the office spaces wrap. The slightly smaller Gallery Two currently houses a visual collaboration between photographer Virgile Simon Bertrand and curator Davina Lee, originally shown at Liverpool’s LOOK!17 photography festival and examining the urban geography of Hong Kong housing. In future this space, which can seat around 80, is expected to be used for presentations and lectures.

5. broadway malyan case study (dragged) 4

5. broadway malyan case study (dragged) 4

Source: Broadway Malyan

Both of these spaces, as well as the entrance to the offices, branch off the City Gallery, which bleeds into the public thoroughfare below via a mezzanine overlooking the cafe and boasts as its centrepiece an interactive 3D-printed model of Liverpool. A gimmick this is not – the 3D data stored underneath the series of screens is open-source and provided to planners or firms on the basis that they update and return the data upon completion of their project, leading to a constantly updating representation of the city. The plastic segments of the model can be removed, re-printed with any new data and replaced, and the screens below can display graphics that show the routes of walking tours or highlight particular areas. A programme of public events and educational activities promises to see this space used as a powerful tool for understanding and engaging with the city, with planners and developers using it when the galleries are closed and tour guides making it the starting point for their routes.

It may seem an unlikely setting for the consideration of new, effective plans for Liverpool, but currently RIBA North exudes an energy and sense of direction that the institution is sorely in need of.

RIBA 32547 jpg

RIBA 32547 jpg

Source: RIBA Collections

Competition design for Roman Catholic cathedral, Liverpool: elevation, by Denys Lasdun, 1959

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Readers' comments (4)

  • Chris Rogers

    "open-armed" attitude? More like one armed, as in bandit - pull the handle and what we end up with is utterly random... I wish RIBA North luck and trust it won't end up as Manchesters Urbis did. Oh and St John Wilsons complex was, critically, a civic AND SOCIAL centre.

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  • The RIBA North architecture centre, 376 apartments, commercial units and a photography gallery - hidden within a couple of inscrutable black super-sized geometrical lumps.
    Look at images 9, 13 and 15 and decide just where you can see 'commodity, firmness and delight'.

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  • It's in the wrong place. Every architect I know (even Scousers) all say this.

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  • I struggle to see who will get to see this opening exhibition with 9-5 hours Monday to Friday.

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