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Are these the best new buildings in the North West?

Phil Griffin considers the wonderful world of modern North Western architecture and finds much to praise

Published on March 19th 2008.

Are these the best new buildings in the North West?

Seventeen North West buildings are short listed for this year’s RIBA awards, to be announced on Wednesday 28 May. They include the new Aintree grandstand by BDP and the Liverpool Arena and Convention Centre – the ACC – by Wilkinson Eyre. There are apartments, houses, university buildings, hospital, libraries and offices. A fair indication that the North West continues to create quality buildings in all areas. There are eight schemes in Manchester and Salford, six in Merseyside, two in Cheshire and one in Lancaster.

The Manchester big guns are on either side of Deansgate. The Civil Justice Centre by Melbourne architects Denton Corker Marshall must be a contender for the biggy, Stirling Prize for building of the year. This particular category, the most prestigious architecture prize in the UK, evolves through regional awards. The first ever Stirling Prize – it is named in honour of the late great James Stirling architect of Tate Liverpool who also did the original concept drawings for the Lowry arts complex – was awarded in 1996 to Manchester architect Stephen Hodder for his Centenary Building at Salford University.

The biggest gun this year, Ian Simpson Architects’ Beetham Tower, is no shoo-in. I’d say it’s liked and disliked in equal measure. Simpson himself doesn’t think he makes award-winning buildings and professes not to care. As he sits in his olive grove between the reflecting pool and the swimming pool in his 46th floor apartment at the top of his building, he probably has a point.

Liverpool’s big shot is the King’s Waterfront Arena and Convention Centre by two-time Stirling winner Wilkinson Eyre. It is a striking building. It needed to be. From Birkenhead the site is utterly exposed. The Arena becomes the dominant building on the waterfront. It is the first structure in several generations to diminish the impact of the Anglican Cathedral. A lot of money and thought has gone into what wraps the building. The roof becomes the parapet, becomes the walls, in striking materials. It’s based on an open clam-phone. Expect a building with an overhanging upper deck, modelled on a sliding phone, anytime soon.

Liverpool’s most stylish contender has just re-opened. In fact, Bluecoat Chambers never fully closed. The new wing and refurbishment has been undertaken with Bluecoat staff remaining on site. The whole operation had three different firms of architects. The overall concept was decided in competition, won by Dutch architects Biq. The new scheme, incorporating galleries and performance space, re-configured artist studios, offices, teaching spaces, restaurant, bar, garden and courtyard is theirs. This is important to emphasise because of the way the project has been completed. The original and utterly beguiling building was begun in 1716 by a sea captain, Bryan Blundell, as a charity school. It’s the oldest secular building in town and, from School Lane, seen across the tree-marked quadrangle, is so pretty and outright English as to be vernacular. The sort of signature building most other UK cities would die for has just been reinterpreted by Dutch architects. How so?In the late 1980’s Dom Hans van der Laan, a monk who was also an architect built an abbey in Vaals in Holland. It’s a tough old cookie of exposed white-painted brick. It is built for purpose and natural light its only embellishment. It is the inspiration that Biq brought to Bluecoat, and that the competition judges had the good sense to go with. The whole scheme has been a collaboration between Biq, and Austin Smith Lord the executive architects who, from their Liverpool office have overseen the work from day to day, and conservation architects Donald Insall Associates who have dealt with tricky issues of exposed horsehair plaster and other such early eighteenth century mysteries. Bluecoat reborn is thus an entirely contemporary collaboration combining European influence, local know-how and historic interpretation. The dominant material is brick. Like plaid or linen, expect it to be the fashion fabric of the moment.

Liverpool architects Shed KM worked a three-card trick for Urban Splash in Salford. At Chimney Pot Park in Langworthy they shuffled the floors of terraced houses, put bedrooms on the bottom, kitchen and living rooms on top and conjured garage and roof terrace into the bargain. This isn’t a style affectation, it’s genuine innovation. Shed KM are double nominees, with their Matchbox at Speke. Other residential schemes on the short list, including two eye watering private houses by Stephenson-Bell for clients with as much good taste as money, don’t really compare. BDP probably come nearest with their Salford mini-flats for Abito. BDP continues to put work and thought into schemes in equal measure. Their grandstand at Aintree is on the short list. I’d say they should win the award for showing a refreshing lack of restraint.

Austin Smith Lord get their own shout as architects of the crisp, well thought out extension and rationalisation of the University of Manchester’s magnificent John Rylands Library on Deansgate. At a stroke both client and architect have introduced a world class building to a city that had very nearly forgotten about it. Austin Smith Lord gets my award for Friend to Historic Buildings.

The full list is:

Abito, Salford
Aintree Grandstand
Civil Justice Centre Manchester
Denton Corker Marshall
Liverpool Arena & Convention Centre
Wilkinson Eyre
Chimney Pot Park, Salford
Shed KM
Post Graduate Statistics Centre Lancaster university
John McAslan + Partners
Matchbox, Speke
Shed KM
The Bluecoat Liverpool
Biq / Austin Smith Lord
Small Animal Teaching Hospital University of Liverpool Cheshire
Sheppard Robson
Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester
Beetham Tower, Manchester
Ian Simpson Architects
Private House, Cheshire
Stephenson Bell
Private House, Cheshire
Stephenson Bell
Sydney Jones Library, University of Liverpool
Shepherd Epstein Hunter
3 Towers, Manchester
Union North
Guest Street Housing , Manchester
John Rylands Library, Manchester
Austin Smith Lord

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5 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

davyMarch 19th 2008.

TV Kelly, didn't you used to be in charge of corporate hospitality on the Isle of Man? I wrote to you many times but never got a brochure

DigMarch 19th 2008.

TV Kelly always has an opinion on big modern erections.

AnonymousMarch 19th 2008.

TV Kelly: Were you involved in the campaign to stop the closure of the Legs of Man, Ah yes, it was called "Keep our Legs open".

TV KellyMarch 19th 2008.

The Matchbox? The Matchbox? It's a glass cube. They didn't even have to put any complicated corners or twisty bits on it.

TV KellyMarch 19th 2008.

Davy, I AM the TV Kelly of whom you speak, and I apologise if one of my minions failed to send you a brochure. Obviously, I was too busy birching homosexuals to send the brochures out myself. Anonymous - are you related to the Anonymous who wrote Beowulf, by the way? - I was a prime mover in the ultimately unsuccessful campaign to save the pub, and now spend most of my leisure time nursing a Benilyn and Absinthe at the New Penny Farthing. By all means, come and meet me the next time you're in town. I'm the big-boned tattooed chap who sits by the bar. To ensure I recognise you, could you please wear a pink carnation and greet me with the time-honoured French Navy motto "A l'eau! C'est l'heure!" ("To the water! The time is ripe!")to honour our shared maritime heritage? Ta.

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