Amateur dramatics

Dick Petersen, sceptical of the way architects handle interiors, checks out the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts to see how it’s faring one year on. Dick Petersen is a design consultant and senior lecturer in design management at The Surrey Institu

It has always been my opinion that, with some notable exceptions, architects don’t make very good interior designers. So I was a bit apprehensive when I discovered that Brock Carmichael, the architect for the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, had also done the interior design, or most of it.

LIPA, aka Paul McCartney’s School, or the Fame School, which opened its new premises in December 1995, is the concept of Mark Featherstone-Witty, the institute’s charismatic chief executive, who was almost wholly responsible for turning the dream into a reality.

It offers BA (Hons) degrees in Music, Acting, Community Arts, Dance, Enterprise Management and Performance Design. The courses are in the “popular” aspects of these areas rather than the “classical”.

Architecturally, LIPA has four distinct elements: the rather dreary Grade II listed building which was Paul McCartney’s old school; the completely rebuilt, at great expense, rear facade of this building; a four-storey extension to this rear elevation; and a new four-storey building on one corner. This is linked to the old building by steel bridges across a glass-enclosed atrium. All are reasonably nice, especially the new building, but none remotely resembles the other and the elements are only loosely linked in design terms by the odd horizontal line.

There is a grand columned entrance to the old building which isn’t used except when there are performances, so the main entrance is in the rear extension. This is opposite Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral and, instead of car parking, the architects have designed a very pleasant garden area with walls, benches, planted and grassed areas, with stairs and ramps leading down to a rather puny entrance with the obligatory glass canopy. This is flanked to the right by painted metal doors to the various plant areas. Not a star turn.

The reception area inside has a rather low ceiling and desperately needs some furniture and artwork to give it presence. It is a space in rehearsal but unlikely to be a big hit.

Leaving reception, you enter a dim corridor with red, orange and yellow linoleum on the floor which leads past the student bar on one side and “bistro” (read student canteen) on the other. More about those later.

Up the original stone staircase and into the largely unused grand foyer off the largely unused grand entrance. It is here that you notice the very best thing about the building’s interior – its colour. It is aptly very dramatic.

The walls of this two-storey space are rag-rolled in bright yellow with white accents. The floor is cream and rust marble. The architects have used a palette of red, orange, yellow and a bit of dark green, consistent with the colours used on the walls and floors throughout the public spaces. Applause.

The architect may have got carried away, however, with the wall colour in the Green Room – ensuring it certainly lives up to its name.

So what about the interior architecture? The existing floors in the old building were originally going to stay, but the technical and sound-proofing requirements were too difficult to achieve, so the floors and most of the non-structural partitioning were removed. This allowed the architects to create wider corridors, better room configurations and good sound-proofing. Video installations have been incorporated into the structure unobtrusively in some areas and made a feature of in others. Very good technical support.

Brock Carmichael has increased the natural light in many areas by using new and refurbished old skylights and has installed pavement lights in the floors of the upper corridors to bring daylight to the ones below. The natural light on the brightly painted walls creates a very pleasant and buzzy atmosphere. The rehearsal rooms, classrooms, music and dance studios are all light, airy and well-equipped. Another good performance.

So why my scepticism? Frankly, it’s the details. Architects either over- or under-react when it comes to the fine-tuning of interior design, with a tendency to be a bit heavy-handed. And LIPA is a point in case.

To resume our tour: In the largely unused grand foyer are impressive original wrought-iron gates which separate the foyer from the main corridor of the building. Through the gates are the entrance doors to what was the former school’s lecture theatre, now refurbished into an intimate 500-seat theatre, named after the institute’s main benefactor. The doors, architrave, pediment, and so on are all painted an unfortunate dried blood colour. Inside the wonderful horseshoe-shaped theatre the colours fall within a range of maroons and deep reds. Very cosy – except for the radiators, balcony railings, some very naked recesses and the proscenium arch, which are all painted in brilliant white gloss. They virtually glow in the dark. Why, with all the colours available and used elsewhere, were these bits painted white? I put it down to a bad case of over-acting.

When leaving the theatre, you turn either right or left and climb to the second floor via the original stone staircases. The lovely curved yellow walls have been punctuated by rather arbitrarily placed light fittings (architects like wall lights) which would look good on the Starship Enterprise but not quite so good here. These were designed especially by Concord Lighting. They unfortunately appear along most of the corridors as decorative features. Leaving these vivid walls bare and washing them with light would have certainly been more effective, more dramatic and probably less expensive. However, the general, work-a-day lighting is good, if unimaginative.

There is an uncomfortable mix of door types and sizes throughout the building. Plain red laminate doors are very effective with the other colours in the corridor. However, for no apparent reason, some have been inlaid with narrow stainless steel strips. This sort of ad-hoc detailing appears a bit too frequently.

Another detail difficult to rationalise is on the floor of the bridges across the atrium space. Here the architects have laid a 200mm strip of glass between the red floor covering and the railing. Having a glass floor throughout would have been great, but this thinnish strip doesn’t do much except give you vertigo. This atrium space was described by David Dunster in Architects’ Journal as more successful than Sir Norman Foster’s similar infill for the Sackler Galleries at the Royal Academy in London. Dunster must be a floor short of a complete building. The space could be reasonably nice, but at present it has a real back alley feel about it. It could use a bit of set design – planting, furniture, lighting and a purpose to bring it to life. Lots of wall lights here too.

The interior steelworks, railings, staircases, and bridges look unnecessarily sturdy. Seventy-six trombonists could march up and down and they look like they wouldn’t even shudder.

And finally, a brief visit to the bar and bistro. These were designed, for some reason, by another firm of architects, the Robin Clayton Partnership. This second practice has taken the bar area – a really interesting, if awkward, horseshoe-shaped space under the theatre – and made a mess of it. It is badly planned, badly lit and filled with inappropriate details, including once polished brass along the bar. The servery of the bistro, off the totally vegetarian kitchen (I wonder why?), on the other hand, is bright and cheerful, if overly detailed. The dining area has had money spent on it; real wood floors, a suspended grid ceiling with fairy lights, a totally useless strip of wood halfway up the walls above which have been applied raised panels in a rainbow of colours, upon which are mounted lots of Linda McCartney’s photographs. The photographs are easily the best things in the space. They have used the Alvar Aalto’s chair in beech and chrome, popularised by Christine Keeler, and tables with black metal legs and mahogany laminate tops. Can you picture it? No round of applause here.

After my LIPA tour, my opinion of architects as interior designers really hasn’t changed. The familiar problem with detail is evident in Brock Carmichael’s work, but this is largely compensated for by the use of colour and the overall planning. With the Robin Clayton Partnership there were fewer compensations.

Although it is too early to be really sure, the building appears to function very well indeed, except for the absence of an instrument store, and staff offices that are spread around the building. The teaching/learning facilities are really first class.

According to Featherstone-Witty, the project went reasonably well until August last year, when work had to be accelerated to get the building open for the students arriving in December.

David Watkins, Brock Carmichael’s architect in charge of the project, says there were several reasons why the job fell behind schedule. These were things that were not foreseen or included in the original contract. Included in that list were substantial brickwork repairs, particularly to the rear facade; problems with the existing structure; the fitting out of the theatre (a new fly tower and the like); the extensive audio, visual and data cabling and other bits and pieces. So when the building was handed over last December, the cost had risen from the original contract sum of 8.2m to a massive 12m.

LIPA is not happy and is “seeking counsel”. So there is also drama of a financial nature going on in the yellow corridors.

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