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Degree show review 2019: Liverpool School of Architecture

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This show displays a confidence and coherence within the school as it re-establishes itself following considerable change

The first thing that strikes me about the University of Liverpool’s architecture show (after adjusting to its uncontrolled internal temperatures) is the textural quality of much of the work, with its focus on materiality and form in context. It feels inclusive, with all third and fifth-year students’ work on display together, along with the best first, second and fourth-year work.

Alongside this, the design competition to improve and extend the school offers students an insight into a professional competition to improve their environment. 

In 2006 a joint Anglo-Chinese University called XJTLU was established by the Russell Group, resulting in exponential growth within the architecture school. In 2012, about 200 Chinese students joined in their second year to complete their degrees in Liverpool alongside the 100 predominantly British and European students.

With numbers remaining relatively consistent, this has had a profound impact on the school and led to significant change. After the initial years of transition, the department is now flourishing and students today are benefiting from a newly created collegiate culture that fosters competition and teamwork.

The Part 1 BA degree comprises five Liverpool studios and one London studio, each led by individuals who assemble their own tight-knit team of regular tutors, critics and visiting professors. Although, perhaps, not as diverse and contrasting as other schools’ studio systems, some commonality can be found in the approaches and the output.

The majority of undergraduate schemes are modest in scale, sensitive and grounded in reality. Presentation styles have developed within each studio, with students clearly learning from one another.

The school has been placing increasing focus on preparing students for the professional environment

The school has been placing increasing focus on preparing students for the professional environment, providing training, CV review sessions with employers and setting realistic briefs. Studio 1 is particularly noteworthy, with real briefs and clients.

The focus was on swimming in two contrasting settings, with a wild swimming facility at Buttermere, Cumbria, contrasting with a more urban Victorian swimming bath conversion in Withington, Manchester. Lance Macadangdang’s work was put forward for the AJ Student Prize and it displays a clear understanding of scale and materiality in his subtle and sustainable conversion of the baths.

Lance Macadangdang

Lance Macadangdang

Lance Macadangdang

Similarly rooted in reality, Studio 2 explored visions for housing regeneration in Anfield, working with the city council in a challenging social and economic context. The London Studio also explored housing estates in a very different context, focusing on the contrasting sites of The Barbican and Canary Wharf. Bold, utopian visions seem at odds with the rest of the BA exhibition but prove the studio system does genuinely offer variety to students. 

Studio 3 offered students a complex and emotive brief focused on the processes and rituals associated with death on two sites at either side of the Mersey. Presentation standards were particularly high in this studio, with Ed Turner and Joseph Barnes’ work worthy of particular mention for its process, development and articulation of form. 

In the second part of the course, independence is offered to fifth-year students to develop their own programmes, allowing for greater freedom of expression. Working in groups increases the overall output and is good preparation for employment. However, in some instances the work appears rooted in beautifully presented analysis and theory, without delivering considered buildings.

Three schemes stand out, and for very different reasons.

In Dubrovnik, Rachel James, Tringa Kelmendi and Alice Pulley-Dumonde worked diligently to understand, interpret and sculpt a scheme with a layered, respectful approach that is deeply rooted in and influenced by its setting. They secured the Reilly Medal, Hayes Award, and RIBA President’s Silver Medal Nomination. 

The law courts by Dan Williams are an example of an accomplished and believable building developed by an individual for a site in London, with carefully layered circulation arrangements and sophisticated elevations.

Dan Williams

Dan Williams

Dan Williams

Yu Zhan, Yifan Lu and Jixuan Wang also received the RIBA President’s Silver Medal Nomination and a nomination for The AJ Student Prize for a scheme providing accommodation and sanctuary for the homeless who use 24-hour McDonald’s outlets as their refuge. Parasitic proposals fill interstitial spaces with lightweight structures, creating a mini city, imaginatively presented in a pictorial graphic novel style.

Yu Zhan, Yifan Lu and Jixuan Wang

Yu Zhan, Yifan Lu and Jixuan Wang

Yu Zhan, Yifan Lu and Jixuan Wang

In summary, both stages of The University of Liverpool’s architecture programme feature the usual arts and leisure complexes, although mostly set in challenging historic or rural environments. Social housing is also a prominent theme. Regeneration of the seaside with bridges and piers recurs but, where schemes are utopian and outlandish, there appears to be a desire to humanise and deliver considered interiors or façades. 

Overall there is a trend towards believable, sensitive and modest schemes that respond to their distinct briefs and sites. This displays a confidence and coherence within the school as it re-establishes itself following considerable change.

Toby Wallis is director of Architectural Emporium

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