Despite its strong presence in Manchester, Liverpool is Urban Splash's actual and spiritual home. Co-founder Jonathan Falkingham (right in phototograph) is an architect who studied and still lives in the city, and one of the company's first projects, the Baa Bar, heralded Liverpool's design-led renaissance. But the tortuous process of accessing buildings and sites more or less forced Falkingham and partner Tom Bloxham to seek sites elsewhere, and their recent projects have looked to the more bullish Manchester scene. 'It can take years in Liverpool for projects to come to fruition,' explains Falkingham. 'Somewhere like Manchester tends to have bigger sites and less complicated ownership.'
Now after years of delays and enforced absence in Liverpool, Urban Splash has four major projects on site in the city. The company has moved on from small-scale bars and shop units to ambitious speculative mixed-use developments, including light-industrial units like the old Bryant & May match factory on the outskirts of the city, Urban Splash's biggest project to date.
The Collegiate school (see page 10), one of only four buildings by St George's Hall architect Harvey Lonsdale Elmes, is being converted into affordable flats. The Tea factory in the Bold St/Duke St area is also on site, along with Manchester Street above the Mersey Tunnel entrance. 'We aren't scared of risk,' says Falkingham. 'We have never pre-let a scheme and where most speculative development tends to be safe and mundane we argue the other way round, that to entice prospective purchasers you have to work harder on the design side to generate confidence.'
Falkingham admits that the earlier stylistically hardline Baa Bar and Concert Square loft apartments were aimed at the niche market of young professionals happy to live above the area's robust nightlife. The new residential schemes, he says, will accommodate a broader range. Some observers have predicted a limited life for Liverpool's city-centre living, but Falkingham points out that there are only around 100 owner/occupiers in Liverpool city centre (discounting the docks) compared with Manchester's 5000. 'The city centre will reach a watershed, but it is nowhere near it yet. There is a market for retirement homes, and there's no reason why families can't return once the facilities are here.'
The Tea Factory is the only new project in the Duke St/Bold St part of the city centre with which Urban Splash has come to be associated. As the name suggests, the scheme is to convert a former tea-blending factory into a mixed-use development which will also house exhibition space and an art-house cinema. Urban Splash has recently relocated to the building. 'The main thrust is to build upon the creative industries already in the area. The key is critical mass. It's not enough to have just one shop selling nice kitchenware,' says Falkingham.
Falkingham and Bloxham appreciate more than anyone the difficulties of Liverpool's property market and its unpredictable economy, but amazingly don't undertake any market research, instead deciding together whether they would personally like to live or work there. 'I look at the architectural opportunities,' explains Falkingham. 'Tom isn't an architect but he brings different intuitive qualities. He has a keener commercial eye. And after five years we have learned a lot from each other. We share similar aspirations about the type of space, he loves contemporary design, hates pastiche and we both like good modern interventions in old buildings.
'It's not usually the buildings that are the problem,' he adds. 'True, there are the problems of perception to be dealt with and often the biggest task is to sell the area, but Liverpool's image is changing because it is growing in confidence. When we did Baa Bar no-one thought we would sell any flats, now there are more people going for a high-quality product and prepared to spend money. The population has stabilised and we have lost that beggars-can't-be-choosers attitude.'
Urban Splash has negotiated a deal with the city council over Manchester Street, renamed Old Haymarket - a second residential/retail scheme in an odd location over the entrance to the Mersey Tunnel. It's a dead area between the civic, cultural and retail quarters of the city that, if Urban Splash pulls it off, could enjoy similar benefits to those that Concert Square has bought to the Duke Street/ Bold Street area. 'We want to restitch what is essentially a sea of tarmac back into the fabric of the city centre with high-quality new building benefiting the site. It could be a great space with good pedestrian routes into the city.'
Falkingham, whose commitment to Liverpool belies his Yorkshire origins, has never been tempted by London and enjoys being a big fish in a small pond. 'When I left college there were no opportunities for ambitious architects in Liverpool and all my peers were going to swanky jobs at Foster's and Hopkins or the us and Australia, but I saw a big gap here and decided to stay. The council here is becoming much more proactive about development. Our attitude is that if you can sort out the centre, we believe you can sort out a lot of the wider problems too.'