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CSJ at 25: Liverpool Philharmonic Hall revamp by Caruso St John

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Caruso St John’s ‘surgical interventions’ will prolong the life of this much-loved Liverpool landmark, writes Owen Pritchard


The Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, designed by Scottish architect John Cunningham, first opened to the public on 27 August 1849. Cunningham was extremely proud of the building. It was noted in his obituary in The Builder in 1873 that he had once remarked to a friend: ‘Well the fact is that for a concert hall, it is joost perfect!’ His self-assessment was later confirmed by the renowned conductor Thomas Beecham, who described the building’s acoustics as ‘the best in Europe’.

Sadly, Cunningham’s building was destroyed by fire in 1933 and Herbert Rowse, architect of the College of the Pharmaceutical Society in London and the India Buildings in Liverpool, was appointed to design a replacement. His concert hall, a handsome brick building in the Art Moderne style, opened to the public with a concert by Beecham in 1937. The 1,790-seat venue now hosts around 250 events each year - including comedy, pop and orchestral performances. The structure is now Grade II* listed and the philharmonic orchestra is celebrating its 175th anniversary.

This month has seen the completion of a major refurbishment and extension of the building by London-based architect Caruso St John. The £14.5 million programme of works was completed in two stages. The first phase focused on the main hall and included improvement works to the public and front-of-house spaces and the backstage dressing rooms and warm-up spaces. The second phase includes a new building, which incorporates a smaller-scale venue (160-250 capacity) called the Music Room, as well as office and administrative space.

White lightbulbs on the entrance canopy add some Broadway razzmatazz

Limited by budget, Caruso St John had to make what project architect Anna Cooke calls ‘surgical interventions’ in the building. The exterior has been left relatively untouched, however the practice has added prominent signage, spelling out the name of the venue in illuminated white Gill Sans, and covering the soffit of the entrance canopy with a reflective surface and white light bulbs - adding some Broadway razzmatazz.

Colour plays an important part in this building. The architect has chosen rich and deep colours for the more formal and historic areas of the concert hall, and softened the palette in the new extension at the rear. The intensity and expanses of the colours chosen highlight the grandeur of the Rowse building and, conversely, soften some of the more utilitarian spaces in the new building. Corridors are painted a cool grey, so that the appearance of ‘set pieces’ becomes more dramatic. ‘When we first arrived on the job, everything was magnolia,’ says Cooke. ‘We did some scrape tests and they revealed bright reds and golds in the original scheme. We didn’t replicate the colours, but used them to influence the new scheme.’

Each principal space - the bar (emerald green), the foyer (Thai Sapphire), the main auditorium (once magnolia - now white) and the Music Room (deep purple and apple) has a distinctly different presence. A canny tactic of highlighting certain details and mouldings with gold paint or lighting points out the consistency of Rowse’s vision.

The entrance foyer has been rationalised with a new box office to the north and a meeting space to the south, where a second entrance has been replaced with a large window. The original light fittings and soffit lights have been retained and new joinery for poster displays has done away with the mess that had built up on the walls over the years. It’s a tight space considering the building’s capacity, but it has a touch of ocean liner glamour that kicks off the procession to the auditorium in style.

The Liverpool Philharmonic is, to borrow a phrase from Alan Bennett, a ‘knocker through’

On the first floor, in a tall, pillared room with grand windows looking out over the city, the architect has replaced two separate L-shaped bars with a central one, wrapped around the columns. The solid oak construction is faced with walnut panelling and topped with a Corian surface. Above, a halo of light is cast from a bespoke chandelier created from a band of bright red RHS steel and empty, clear drinks bottles. It’s a moment of levity in a grand and serious space.

Inside the auditorium - a beautiful space - there is a new stage with a scalloped walnut frontage and maple boards. The mechanism for changing the set up has been automated, so the orchestra podiums can retract to free up space. The lighting has been upgraded to LED strips in the folds that line the roof, and the heating and cooling systems have been refined and made more effective.

The Liverpool Philharmonic is, to borrow a phrase from Alan Bennett, a ‘knocker through’. The organisation had purchased the building to the rear of the hall and for years it served as a slightly awkward and inadequate rehearsal, administrative and performance space. The second phase of this project was to make this space work with the philharmonic’s ambitions.

Caruso St John demolished much of the existing building and retained the structural steel frame. Now, at the back of the stage are suites of new, acoustically isolated rehearsal rooms, a green room, dressing rooms, a large first-floor office with a roof garden, and a new bar and venue.

The footprint of the building is the same as the one it replaced and the massing is nearly identical too. As a result, the plan is tight - the extension works hard to make sense of changes in levels. It’s a tougher, more utilitarian set of spaces than Rowse’s, but, then, this is where the hard work of the philharmonic will be done.

From the exterior, clad in two tones of Eternit panels (the bottom row scalloped, making the whole facade look like it is draped in a stage curtain), the extension is a bit more playful than you might expect. A reflective canopy with lights embedded in the soffit is a visual nod to the main hall entrance, and there is a sense that the Music Room will be a more experimental venue than its neighbour. ‘It’s the younger face of the institution,’ says Cook. ‘You have to do something a little different at the back.’

Caruso St John has made decisive moves to celebrate Rowse’s building, and given it the opportunity to prosper. The ‘surgical interventions’ it has made are not cosmetic, but vital, and will prolong the life of this much-loved building for years to come.

Liverpool Philharmonic Hall revamp by Caruso St John

Liverpool Philharmonic Hall revamp by Caruso St John

Project data

Client Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
Start on site June 2014
Completion October 2015
Form of contract NEC3
Procurement Traditional
Location Liverpool, UK
Area 6,800m²
Construction cost £8.5 million
Architect Caruso St John
Structural engineer Price & Myers
Theatre consultant Charcoalblue
Services consultant Max Fordham
Cost consultant Simon Fenton Partnership
Project manager Deloitte 
Access David Bonnett Associates
Acoustic consultant Threshold Acoustics
CDM coordinator Innov8 Safety Solutions
Approved building inspector HCD Building Control
BREEAM consultant Price & Myers
Main contractor Gilbert-Ash
CAD software used: Microstation


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