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Degree show review: Liverpool School of Architecture

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While a studio structure allows for diverse approaches, in practice Part 1 students share a preoccupation with the politics of regionalism and post-industrial territories, says Matthew Ashton

The Liverpool School of Architecture awards BA (Hons) and MArch degrees at Part 1 and Part 2 respectively at the University of Liverpool. Founded in 1894, the school became the first in the UK to award RIBA-accredited degrees in architecture. Architecture is set within the School of the Arts, part of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, a point of difference when compared with Liverpool John Moores University Architecture Department, located within its School of Art and Design a short walk away.

The third year of the BA programme is divided into five independent studios, each anchored by a full-time leader and visiting professor, together with teaching staff drawn from the school and practices both regionally and nationally. The studio structure in theory allows for diverse approaches; in practice there is in fact a great deal of commonality in the scope of projects. Recurrent themes include the politics of regionalism and the devolution agenda, a preoccupation with post-industrial territories, and a number of projects exploring continuity and change in the specific urban mercantile/maritime context of Liverpool.

1.200 forum iso

1.200 forum iso

Birmingham Central Forum by James Chaundy, Rhiannon Powell and Sian Atherton, MArch, Birmingham Central Forum

The school does not set out an overarching manifesto; rather each of the studios defines the arena for its study and the process of work. It is clear that in all studios, the making of buildings is used as a means to encourage a broader cultural perspective in the students. The more interesting projects seem to stem from this engaged perspective. Of note are those in Studio 1 that seek to create formal responses to serve the future political landscape of devolved government in urban centres. Equally, there is some very strong work in historically significant settings, where the strong formal emphasis of Studio 5, for example, has produced some notably confident schemes.

In such concise presentations, it can often be difficult to follow the translation from initial research and concept to the final scheme. However, there is much evidence of modelmaking as both a developmental and representational tool. It is pleasing that the majority of the stronger schemes are not reliant on photorealistic visualisations to communicate their qualities.

Embedding relationships with professional practice through teaching in each of the studios will undoubtedly assist students in developing their careers. Aside from the obvious advantages for potential year-out placements, the presence of practitioners alongside the academic staff allows for current professional issues to be explored in the studio. A good example is the work of Studio 3, which has engaged with a local live client and project for Alder Hey Hospital.

Concept montage

Concept montage

Birmingham Central Forum by James Chaundy, Rhiannon Powell and Sian Atherton, MArch, Birmingham Central Forum

The MArch programme is distinctive though not unique in that thesis projects are developed in teams. The projects on show for the most part divert from using the Liverpool City Region as the laboratory of study. While the majority are on UK sites, there are also a number of schemes in EU countries, and a project in rural China. In their various ways, projects explore the impact of economic, social, and political change. Rural poverty caused by urban migration, contested territory caused by political conflict, and the settings of post-industrial economic decline all feature as arenas for study.

A project for the redevelopment of the Teesside steelworks at Redcar offers much in the vein of post-industrial reuse, but much more besides, seeking to offer a model of sustainable or at least viable development – a ‘new town’ stitched around the museum ruins of industrial archaeology.

Beacon

Beacon

Fiddlers Ferry Energy Research Facility by Alexander Phaedona, Corina Ciobanu, Martin Hagan and Yasmin Eva, MArch

Equally noteworthy is a project that approaches a new civic architecture for government in a regional setting – in this case the city of Birmingham. The team is to be commended for taking on an architecturally diverse and specifically urban setting; a brave decision to set their scheme in the exuberant company of Richard Seifert’s Alpha Tower, and Mecanoo’s Library of Birmingham.

The thesis projects on display are discernibly student-led, and there is certainly not the collegiate sense of continuity between schemes that may be seen at BA level as a result of the studio system. Independent direction is critical at MArch if students are to succeed in differentiating themselves to an oversupplied employment market, and perhaps it could be argued that an individual thesis would allow the student to develop to a greater degree on a personal level. 

One could, however, equally and quite reasonably assert that working in a team structure provides the student with invaluable experience in preparation for the inherently collaborative environment of professional practice – frustrations and all.

Matthew Ashton is an architect and co-founder of MgMaStudio, established in Liverpool in 2011. www.mgmastudio.co.uk

The distributed town hall aj 3

The distributed town hall aj 3

Alexandra Gay, Stuart Pavitt, Dominic Eley and Emily Harris, MArch, The Distributed Town Hall

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