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Image exclusive: behind the scenes at Liverpool School of Architecture contest

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Students have been heavily involved in a progressive competition for an extension to the Liverpool School of Architecture. Richard Waite looks exclusively at all the finalists and O’Donnell + Tuomey’s winning scheme

Last month Dublin-based O’Donnell + Tuomey was chosen unanimously as the winner for the £23 million scheme to extend Liverpool University’s School of Architecture, ahead of 6a architects, Eric Parry Architects, Carmody Groarke, Haworth Tompkins and fellow Dubliners Grafton Architects. 

Undergraduates, postgraduates, staff from the school and the estates department took part in a two-stage selection process, which started by narrowing down an invited longlist of 18 practices to nine, before a further trim to the six finalists showcased below. On the final judging day, students, along with the competition committee and university estates’ representatives, remained in dialogue with the jury.

Judging at liverpool uni

Judging at liverpool uni

The high-profile judging panel was chaired by architecture critic Kenneth Frampton with Tate director Maria Balshaw, Finnish architect and former dean of the Helsinki University of Technology Juhani Pallasmaa, and architect Michael Wilford. 

Marco Iuliano, associate professor at Liverpool University and the competition director, said it had been important to engage the student body throughout the contest as the school sought to create a ‘flagship project … in a post-iconic, very uncertain time for architecture’.

He added: ‘We capitalised on the opportunity to build a democratic competition process, using the power of architecture not only to materialise beauty, but as an influential agent to initiate a dialogue among the different actors involved in it: students, staff, professionals, jurors and the estates department.

‘[O’Donnell + Tuomey’s appointment] is only as a starting point. Indeed, our journey now continues, working with the university and the appointed architects to shape the building and the architectural education of the future. 

‘We envision a school where we will continue to see students not as clients nor customers but as peers, as the fundamental component to imagine beautiful ideas and beautiful buildings for the society to come.’

The proposed building will sit on land currently used as a car park. The winning design comprises a new-build addition of more than 2,000m², as well as a remodelling of the school’s existing accommodation, currently housed in a Georgian terrace and the neighbouring Leverhulme building, which was designed by Charles Reilly in the 1930s and revamped in the 1980s by King and McAllister.

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O’Donnell + Tuomey’s winning design for Liverpool University’s School of Architecture

Source: Picture Plane

WINNER: O’Donnell + Tuomey’s winning design for Liverpool University’s School of Architecture extension

The students felt O’Donnell + Tuomey’s vision had best ‘captured the evolution of the architecture school’. The design was also praised for its ‘balance between free and enclosed space, contextual sensitivity and original style’.

The Irish practice’s proposal was the judges’ undisputed winner too – although there were commendations for the ‘flexible, open organisation’ of 6a’s proposal and for the ‘thorough analysis of the entire program’ by Haworth Tompkins.

According to architect Alan Berman, now of Studio Berman, who had observed the competition process and later interviewed the jury, chair Frampton had been wowed by the ‘lucid rationality’ of O’Donnell + Tuomey’s proposed restructuring of the existing spaces and the way the scheme faced the new park.

‘What capped their entry,’ Frampton said, ‘was their new, dynamic “head” building for the school of architecture.’

Balshaw described the winning design as having the potential ‘to become the best architectural contribution to the University of Liverpool campus’, while the practice’s multi-layered response to the site impressed Wilford.

Wilford, who worked with the best-known graduate of the Liverpool School of Architecture, James Stirling, said: ‘At first glance, the geometry of O’Donnell + Tuomey’s proposal seemed gratuitous but, on examination, it clearly derived from the context and masterplan. As well as ensuring views towards the cathedral, the building opens out to the park, responding to, and making a presence on, adjacent pedestrian routes. 

‘This in turn gives to each of the studios different qualities. It was noticeable that some of the entries seemed to take little note of the nearby cathedral.’

The longstanding link between Liverpool and Ireland was also noted, with Iuliano stating that O’Donnell + Tuomey’s selection would ‘continue the tradition of the Irish presence in the city’.

Frampton concluded: ‘This has been an important and significant competition, which suggests the possibility of a renaissance in British architecture, in part because of the power of Irish architectural culture, which has the capacity of raising the stakes for architecture in this part of the world.’ Construction of the new building and the overhaul of the existing premises is expected to be completed by 2023.

Students’ view

Judging student

Judging student

Source: Richard Pare

Students Susannah Fairbank-Angus (left) and Alicja Tymon-McEwan (centre) with, Tate director Maria Balshaw (right) at the judging

By Alicja Tymon-McEwan (pictured above), Matt Thompson and Leting Wang

The finalists offered up a full range of approaches. Grafton Architects created an innovative conceptual framework for architecture teaching, leading to a highly engineered architectural form, while Haworth Tompkins generated its design from an investigation of the existing buildings of the architecture school and their context.

Carmody Groarke, Eric Parry Architects and 6a architects all favoured lightweight, framed, open-plan structures. Eric Parry’s proposal was highly sustainable, interfacing with the new garden that forms part of the university’s wider masterplan. Carmody Groarke’s industrial aesthetic used contextual materials in novel ways.

6a’s design, responding to the significant Chinese presence within the School of Architecture and the cultural history of the city, captured the attention of judges and audience alike.

While there seemed to be a discrepancy between the sensitivity of some materials and their joints – and the bright colours of certain highly visible elements – the jury suggested this would appeal to the building’s student users. So it was interesting that, while approving statements about how the detached yellow staircase, with its nod towards a constructivist aesthetic, ‘vivified the whole project’ came from within the student body, so too did some of the strongest opposition. 

6a’s open-plan layout was praised for its flexibility, but one student representative pointed out that the acute angles and covert spaces in O’Donnell + Tuomey’s designs were the most likely to be readily appropriated by students. Discussion followed about the easily readable relationship between the dynamic form and the context of O’Donnell + Tuomey’s design.

Eventually it was decided that O’Donnell + Tuomey best captured the evolution of the architecture school. Praised for its balance between free and enclosed space, contextual sensitivity and original style, this was thought a proposal that would create a landmark both for the campus and for the city of Liverpool.

Critic’s view

By architect, urbanist and writer Peter Buchanan

O’Donnell + Tuomey’s winning design is one of two by Irish practices, the other being Grafton’s. Very different from each other, they also contrast with the other entries by English architects that are merely pragmatic. Reticently rectilinear, like the buildings around, these latter are containers of accommodation, so affording some flexibility.

The Irish entries, especially the winner, more actively animate and engage with the functions and people within and without to become exciting places to be and study in – although arguably in a manner as deterministic as it is emancipatory. They also more obviously respond to the nearby Catholic cathedral, a Liverpool icon.

The new building will expand the existing school as the third in a chain of blocks along the main pedestrian spine of the campus. These extend from the Georgian terrace on Abercromby Square and the 1930s Leverhulme block behind, which together constitute the existing school, to the new block addressing a proposed new green space at the campus’ verdant heart.

Alterations have compromised the existing building’s functionality and legibility, not least by convoluting the circulation. Reworking the existing to form, with the new, a coherently functioning whole, was intrinsic to the competition intentions.

The assertive presence of the winning design’s angularly faceted forms engage with the setting, scooping those arriving into the inviting entrance, connecting new and old, and cementing a connection with the new green space.

O'Donnell + Tuomey’s winning design for Liverpool University’s School of Architecture extension

O’Donnell + Tuomey’s winning design for Liverpool University’s School of Architecture extension

Source: O’Donnell + Tuomey

O’Donnell + Tuomey’s winning design for Liverpool University’s School of Architecture extension

The corner, between entrance and green, of the brick-paved public forum of the ground floor, puts on invitingly conspicuous show the stepped floor of an informal discussion and event space overlooked by a mezzanine above a café that opens off it and onto the green space. Above these, studios and other accommodation step up around wells that offer diagonally inclined vistas and overlooking.

The stepping choreography and faceted forms are reminiscent of the architects’ Saw Swee Hock student centre at the London School of Economics. But there the spaces spin off a single spiralling stair. Here the climbing route meanders between independent stairs so as to animate the more horizontally expansive spaces.

Movement and overlooking may disturb those trying to concentrate – except that computers tend to compel attention while other distractions are shut out by donning headphones. Moreover, tall volumes and characterful spaces might inhibit students from co-opting and impressing themselves upon them, as was traditional in student studios.

Even if oriented towards the cathedral, the angular forms seem out of keeping with the quietly rectilinear surroundings. But, rather than take the edge off these forms, an answer could paradoxically be to exaggerate them to make the building something of a formal starburst, an iconic presence in dialogue with the cathedral.

Competition-organising committee’s view

By Nicholas Ray, honorary visiting professor at University of Liverpool

As the competitors for the new building were frequently reminded, the School was established in 1894, and Liverpool became the first university to award a RIBA accredited degree in the subject. What was not perhaps emphasised sufficiently was that funding for the School of Architecture and Applied Art had been supplied jointly by University College Liverpool (as it then was) and the City of Liverpool. The Liverpool Trades Council had campaigned for some time for such an institution within the broad provisions of the 1886 Technical Instruction Act, which allowed that ’A local authority may from time to time out of the local rate supply or aid the supply of technical or manual instruction, to such extent and on such terms as the authority think expedient. (…) The expression ‘technical instruction’ shall mean instruction in the principles of science and art applicable to industries’.

The Liverpool School continues to enjoy close links with the City, and with the profession. Studio projects are set in the city; local planners join studio teaching staff in reviews, and the city looks to student projects to challenge its own preconceptions.

When the idea of promoting the competition for the design of the new school, which would be sited on the main route from Abercromby Square to the heart of the campus, so that student work can be showcased to anyone who passes, it was natural to seek reassurance that this was an initiative that the Liverpool business community would welcome.

This is the main reason why, alongside visiting professors and members of the University, we invited Terry Leahy to join the advisory board. A business leader, born and schooled on Merseyside, he is a passionate advocate for Liverpool, where he was given the freedom of the city in 2002. He believed that were the University to engage in a competition to appoint an architect of distinction, the extra investment of both time and money would pay substantial dividends.

What the city had initiated in 1894, in conjunction with the University College, will be complemented by the University’s farsightedness in 2019 in seeking the highest quality for its new building, and its determination to reintegrate the work of the School with the future planning of Liverpool.

Odt liverpool uni city

O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects’ winning proposal - aerial View facing west - landscape and connections

O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects’ winning proposal - aerial View facing west - landscape and connections


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