Caruso St John’s vibrant colours and deferential refurbishment of Liverpool Philharmonic have given Rowse’s building a new lease of life
The billows of Herbert Rowse’s 1939 ceiling roll over you, pulling you in towards the orchestra, the sublime crash and spray of the music filling the hall. At full strength the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and its choir take over the depth of their stage with up to 205 people playing Shostakovich or Handel for an audience that can be as many as 1600. On another night, an organ will be brought up from the depths of the Liverpool Philharmonic building, the organist playing to accompany the 7m high cinema screen rising in front of it. Or the venue will be taken over by Morrissey and his followers who flood the purples and greens of the foyers with the excitement of their younger selves.
They may not notice the £8.5m transformation of the grade II listed building by Caruso St John. The brass carpet runners are still buckled and worn in places, the seats have the same familiar squashiness. But the more observant among them may perhaps pick up that it is a rather more special experience than it used to be, that despite the throng you feel a little like royalty as you enter the main bar, that the queues for the loo are rather shorter than they were, that the hall is a less stuffy and that the sound in it is rather finer than they remember.
I may be underestimating the city’s concert goers. They have been using the wonderfully tuned spaces around the concert hall, painted in colours that grace the space with an intensity unmatched by the previous magnolia with green mouldings, for a year already. The main bar, now dubbed the Grand Foyer, has the green velvety sweep of a ball gown with gold pinned on as if at the nape of the neck. Caruso St John suggested a simplified scheme of picking out the mouldings alongside a colour palette that subtlety intensified the shortlived colours revealed in paint scrape tests.
Certainly the infirm and those who arrive in wheelchairs will feel the difference. The Philharmonic faces the street with curvaceous turrets of stair towers that once fed the cheap seats direct; there was no grand foyer en route, just a narrow bar at the top of a steep climb. One of the turrets has become an all-level lift which now whizzes up from the intense purple foyer, stopping at the voluminous green of the main bar en route to the deep circle at the top of the concert hall. It is a nicely turned morality tale of exclusivity converted to inclusivity.
But whatever anyone else misses, neither the performers nor the staff could have overlooked the transformation of their world. For six months the hall was dark, the orchestra performing elsewhere as a hugely ambitious six month programme took apart and reconstructed the hall and front of house, adding air conditioning, new acoustic surfaces and staging. It shifted the basement café to a revitalised Grand Foyer while stashing more loos in the basement (and those red, red loos are a performance in themselves, including the angular geometry of the white wiring on the underside of the ceiling slab). Then the back stage was shifted to temporary huts on the car park alongside as the season got up and running again. Only in autumn 2015 did the back of house reopen in its new home. The extension makes getting to stage far simpler and is planned around that and a double height performance space – the Music Room. Compared to the low-ceilinged conference space that preceded, this it is a leap ahead and is programmed to bust with activity. Around it wraps back a generous strip of offices and green room at first floor, and bar and entrance at ground. Tall corridors, in the calm green that also cloaks the corridors front of house, make shifting things and people a more pleasant experience.
This completed extension was deliberately lower budget. It works internally: a certain stripped back aesthetic often accompanies such venues and gives them a pleasant, less formal atmosphere. Outside, however, the envelope can’t help feeling cheap against the rolling brick of the Dudok influenced entrance and even its plainer flank walls. The brown of the thin fibre cement boards gives a sense of impermanence, though the colour matches the brick. In another reference to Rowse’s detail, the stainless steel canopy is scalloped – but it looks bendier than a tin can and more suited to a seaside cockle stall than one of Liverpool’s great civic buildings.
But as they are behind the main entrance, the extension’s elevations don’t detract from the revitalised Rowse which, with its new illuminated letters, is looking as inviting as it should. Liverpool is a city with a great collection of grand civic and commercial buildings from more prosperous times and it is a pleasure to see (and hear) this one tended and brought to life.
6,800 m² area
£8.5 million construction cost
NEC3 form of contract
Client Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
Architects Caruso St John Architects Consultants
Structural engineer Price & Myers
Services consultant Max Fordham LLP
Cost consultant Simon Fenton Partnership
Project manager Deloitte LLP
Access David Bonnett Associates
Acoustic consultant Threshold Acoustics
CDM co-ordinator Innov8 Safety Solutions
Approved building inspector HCD Building Control
BREEAM consultant Price & Myers
Main contractor Gilbert-Ash
CAD software Microstation