LB: How does the Art and Design Academy fit into your portfolio?
RM: The practice likes to do anything for a client who wants to do something special' There's never been a good building without a good client: if you want to get a good building you have to have a good rapport with the client.
LB: So how was the brief you were set?
RM: It was good because it wasn't too long! I like briefs to be one page of A4, and then it's about talking to the people. The great thing about a brief is to have one that's fairly concise, but then elaborate it in conversation as the project goes along, I'm very much against what was a fashionable idea, of having one person write the brief and somebody else do the building. The architect should work on the brief and develop it directly with the client, because the best result comes from team-work between architect and client.
LB: The brief here was more than Just a building, wasn't it? There was a strong and complicated context to take into account,
RM: I've always been very interested in the city, and putting buildings in strong contexts has always been a big part of our approach. We always say you've got to link with the ground around the building, understand it as precious down to the last squared centimetre. I mean, I like gardening too! I'm very interested in plants and landscape in general so maybe that helps.
LB: So - special buildings in precious places...
RM: Yes, and most places are precious and special.
LB: The backdrop to this project includes Edwin Lutyens' Crypt and Frederick Gibberd's Cathedral, two fabulous buildings in their own right, that obviously give a sense of preciousness to this particular site.
RM: Yes, I think that and of course the other thing is you have the intersection of two grids in the city: and then you have the Cathedral, which is on an angle to the roads. So we had three different lines to pick up. The top end of the building is at right angles to Brownlow Hill. the middle bit is parallel to the base of the Cathedral and the Crypt, and the lower end is perpendicular to Mount Pleasant. And then, to respond to the Cathedral, the main entrance to the new building is in the middle. on an axis with the Cathedral steps, so as you pass through it there is a great high space that stretches right up through the building, and as you go through it. The cathedral becomes more visible.
LB: When I was first given a tour of the building, we went in at the south end and I was astonished at how small the footprint felt at that point. and of course as I wandered around, the building grew more and more. It must have been a difficult balance, to preserve as much of the environment around by keeping a small footprint, while having to get the required volume out of the building and also doing justice to the various views of the cathedral.
RM: Yes. it was. But there is a sort of perceptual game that we're playing here. in that this big building will look nicest if it's seen in thin pieces. In fact, by doing the two curves in the plan you can get a much thicker piece in the middle. So at each end you get the sense of the lightness of a thin building, but you get Quite a deep plan through the middle. That was quite deliberate, so that it didn't look too bulky,
LB: And the auditorium was detached altogether, so you didn't have to cope with it within the main building.
RM: Yes. it's very neat to pull out an auditorium like that. because then you don't have to worry about spanning the wide space you need in an auditorium, and it's also a way of scaling the whole building down to the street. And the auditorium could have another building on the side of it if you wanted to expand. And that would make it possible to create a courtyard - it's south facing. So it would be a very sunny courtyard. And there is a restaurant space here. and a big gallery space opening out. and even the auditorium has big windows opening out because it's actually a multiple use space. so that the seating can fold away and you can have a great place for meetings or sitting out and sculpture. And then it always has that Link back up through the quadruple height entrance space to the cathedral.
LB: I found the entrance very welcoming and very transparent also: you walk straight through and you have the atrium space above you, so you immediately get the sense of where you might be going: it feels very accessible.
RM: Well think it's really Important that buildings always give these links to the outside, and references, so you do know where you are in the building, and you also know where you are in the city too. If you want to describe this building, besides being a part of John Moore's University you'll be thinking of it as 'the building right by the Cathedral'. The other thing that we were trying to generate here was to give a new public open space to the city. If you look at the side. this long road runs right down the Side here. so there's a big triangular piece which is really a public space and which the University. in a way. is giving to the city. or to the Cathedral. Our idea for the building was that this road would be closed. and a new park could stretch from the face of our building right up to the face of the Crypt. And that's going to be achieved at this end. Although on the other end they have decided to build where we were hoping it would be park. I hope also they can manage to bring the slope right down and smooth it out. The part that's known as the Wilderness was rough ground, and if they smooth that hill out there will be a wonderful public open space where people can tie out on the hillside. And it will be very protected, too. because it faces southwest. where the sun comes down.
LB: So now we are talking about light, and that's another distinctive thing about the building. With all these windows facing north along the sides if you look at the building from the outside from the south it almost looks blank and when you look at it from the north it opens up. But also, and this is really special, when you're Inside it has that extraordinary directional sense to it.
RM: Yes, I love that. one way you see the nice ceiling lights, and it looks like there's no windows in the room, and the other way there are. Well, again, that was generated by the situation. We originally started out with glass on that area, with shading and so on, but that seemed like therapy to a bad design, to put shading all over it. So we looked at other ways of doing it, and then we found out that these angled windows gave almost perfect light for the studios for painting and drawing... and architecture at the top, so that was a way of controlling light, getting the good northern light; and at the same time not getting too much of the western or eastern light, which of course is impossible to control because the sun comes right in at low angles.
LB: So glass seems like a big feature In the building from a materials point of view; and also it's picked up in the smoothness of the surfaces you've got on the rising pillars.
RM: That's unbelievable, yes.
LB: The glazed finish, but also that sense of transparency with the central atrium, where all the balusters are in glass. And that gives a real sense of elegance to the building, at that point...
RM: Yes, I feel very pleased that we were able to achieve a sense of elegance, and the luxury of that high space running through it, and yet the overall cost per square metre is incredibly low, it's less than half the planned cost of the new building, so it's incredibly good value for money as well.
LB: That sense of elegance is carried through also by the use of curves - some of the rooms have curved walls.
RM: Yes, I think the curves are quite central and they very nicely guide you around the corners, much easier than an angle would do..
LB: But actually all the finishes are very hard aren't they? It's a muscular kind of elegance, it's not a soft elegance at all..
RM: Well yes, I suppose it will be that way a little bit, but since it's an art and design school. that's probably a good thing.
LB: Another sense I had, walking through the building, is of layering, it comes out in those roof terraces, like roof gardens.
RM: I love roof gardens, I hope some of the people have green fingers and actually start growing some plants out there! It was also a way of stepping down - particularly at the lower end - to scale the building down, a way of getting two different scales to the building. Again, if there's a roof I think it ought to be used as a garden, and we do that on all our buildings and people are amazingly keen on them.
LB: As you say, they also keep the sense of human scale. It could have felt like all the floors were the same. But actually because of these big steps in the roofline, there's a sense of human scale. And I think the pitched roof on the top is also a very human kind of touch, a very basic way of making a roof, but it's very human.
RM: You know it's a roof... !
LB: A good way of finishing a building... !
RM: Well, also we wanted to float it a little above the adjoining volumes and keep the scale running through. You could call it layering, but I'm very keen that when buildings come down and meet the ground there is something there that they give out to people passing by, be it in the street or in a garden. Here, the space that the public will enter, or can look into, to see people using, is down at ground level, and as you go by you can look in to meeting rooms and studios and so on and see things happening. So instead of a dead ground floor, it's a lively floor. There will be a cafe, a gallery, and of course the auditorium will open out and there's the potential for a shop or studio at the north end, and then at this other end you have big windows where you can look in and see people working on things. So I think it will give something to the city.
LB: So you're talking about it in terms of transparency, which is great, but it's also about scale, people aren't going to stay if they don't feel comfortable.
RM: Yes, I'm glad to hear you say that, because that's a key thing we want, and if it works that's great. I think it's quite nice too that we're starting to give a clue as to what's inside. As you see, we have these angled windows in all the studio spaces, but we also have these long windows that are lower and give a continuous band of glazing on both sides, and that's where the offices are. So the slightly different windows tell you what's going on behind.
LB: You want the exterior to express the interior?
RM: I think first of all buildings should look good, but also look right, and be quite accessible to people, and be so that anyone can understand them. But I think they should also function really well, and sometimes people think those two things are mutually exclusive. I don't think that they need to be. I think that a building can do both, and I think very often that if you take the particular situation of the building, the particular site and the context, and start using that to generate the design, and also the brief, that will give the unique quality to the building that sometimes other approaches, maybe more architectural, won't produce.
LB: I particularly enjoyed the surfaces, and the detailing of the surfaces. You know, any kind of public building can use these materials. It's quite rare to get highly finished surfaces, and all the detailing on those surfaces, as you have with this one. You can tell when somebody's taken trouble over the detail.
RM: Well, we always try to.
LB: The building feels that way; you can feel it, all through, even though the materials aren't necessarily very special.
RM: The materials are quite reasonable economically, we do try to do that, and also the team that has been working on this, I can't tell you how much effort they've put into it. They've been incredibly dedicated and they've worked night and day on it, and against incredible legislation sometimes, so... I think it's really the team we've got in the office that makes that sort of thing possible. We work through models all the time. Even though you can do computer models or sketch up models very quickly, we find a physical model makes a huge difference and it tells you a lot about what the building is going to be like, so we use them very much as a design tool, right from the overall concept. I think that creative work happens when you're in conversation. The great thing about an Academy is that you're working together with a great group of people you spark ideas off of one another. Learning happens in the studio when you're working together, but it also happens in the social space, so there's lots of places within the building where people would come out and naturally meet. They come out of the studio, and on to the roof gardens. And the atrium: you notice that all the circulation routes come into that big space and cross through it. So when you come out of your studios you'll be aware of all the other activities going on, and I hope that that crossing will actually encourage some kind of interchange of Ideas, and will help you see what's going on in the rest of building. Because the most interesting thing, in a way, about being in the building will be being able to see all the other creative work that's going on. I think that the architecture gives the chance to do that. I really hope the atrium is well used, because I think it's a great space in which things can happen, You notice how some of the corridors open out into bigger spaces to overlook the atrium for people to gather - so, again, I hope that will happen. Then of course at the bottom you've got a big space for the cafe.
LB: What's your favourite thing about it, what are you really proud of?
RM: I think in the office we are all proud of the whole thing. But I think what really I'm very pleased with, is the way the building actually links through to the cathedral and really makes a good setting for the cathedral. It gives more to the city than 'just another building', there's a whole new public open space, a new park, and (the building) creates a route through. So this is a demonstration of how you can make a building that's good in itself, that'll also make a new contribution to the city by turning around what was a no-man's land before, and make it into a 'place'.
LB: Well, it strikes me that one of the best things about the building is that it is very under determined - the fact that you can't tell whether you're in an architectural design space or a graphic design space: it's very loosely defined. And I think that's a great spur to creativity, because it allows you to use it exactly as you want to. You don't feel you're being constrained by the building.
RM: No, I think that that is the absolutely correct point - one of the things that the client wanted was good studio space, but a studio space in which you could do a variety of different creative things. Also, all the dividing walls could be taken out, and you could have one big studio, stretching the full length. None of these (partitions) are structural. You've got complete flexibility within those studios. We were asked to do a 'general' building. In fact, I think we were almost sad to see the walls go in, it looked great, that long, long view and seeing it curving away. And that thing you were talking about earlier, where you look one way and it's all glass and you look the other way and it's all wall!
I expect the studios to change. I mean there might be a time when they get divided up into little boxes, then somebody comes along afterwards and liberates the space again. I've seen that happen in architectural studios. This space can be used that way if you want to, because people change, and buildings should be like that, you know, not constrained. An Art & Design Academy is a very nice client to have, because with all the creative activity, people will want to change the building, or modify how they use it all the time, and it's nice to have it flexible enough for that to happen. In a way. when we do work for that sort of client, we always feet that whatever the buildings have, somebody is going to pick it up and use it, run with it, make the most of it. It will be interesting to see what happens here; there's always a chance we all might get lazy and just take it like it is, that happens (laughs)...
Rick Mather interviewed and edited Lewis Biggs.
Lewis Biggs is the director of the Liverpool Biennial and a former director of Tate Liverpool.