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Liverpool students help reinvent the architecture school

Liverpool University’s school of architecture ran a student-centred competition to find the architects for its ambitious new building, won by O’Donnell + Tuomey. Here competition director Marco Iuliano and students Susannah Fairbank-Angus, Gabriela Grodny and Anqi Zhao describe the process

  • O'Donnell + Tuomey's winning proposal.
    O'Donnell + Tuomey's winning proposal.
  • Elevation of O'Donnell + Tuomey's winning proposal.
    Elevation of O'Donnell + Tuomey's winning proposal.

Marco Iuliano, associate professor and competition director

Without students a school cannot exist, a school belongs to its students. This statement was one of the founding stones of the competition for the new Liverpool School of Architecture, originally established in 1894 and the first accredited by RIBA in the UK.

You will hear from the reflections of the students how they contributed in the contest, with three of them sharing the experience of this journey. Culturally, their voice echoes part of the school and of Liverpool’s history: once the most important architectural establishment of the British Empire, during the Second World War it hosted the Polish School of Architecture and is currently home to the largest Chinese community of students in the UK, half of each year’s graduates.

In an age where learners feel more like customers, where educational environments are starting to mirror businesses, we wanted to exploit the wit and independent spirit of Liverpool to show that with ideas, motivation and action you can resist the prevailing direction of travel, and imagine an alternative future – one that we see as an inclusive and engaging learning space, open to change.

In this instance we proposed a different procurement route and invited for the final round of the competition a jury with exceptional individuals – Kenneth Frampton, Maria Balshaw, Juahani Pallasmaa and Michael Wilford. The judging panel worked in dialogue with students, the competition committee and university estates’ representatives, awarding the first prize to the Irish practice O’Donnell + Tuomey, chosen over the thoughtful submissions of the other finalists Grafton Architects, Eric Parry, Carmody Groarke, Haworth Tompkins and 6a Architects; these last two practices were awarded mentions for various aspects of their projects.

The appointment of the Dublin firm at Liverpool will represent for us just the starting point of a new chapter on the education of the future, which will be in dialogue with the Irish practice. Its architectural design will enhance our environment, the school’s pedagogy and, most importantly, the self-confidence and the imagination of our students.

  • Proposal by Grafton Architects.
    Proposal by Grafton Architects.
  • Proposal by Grafton Architects.
    Proposal by Grafton Architects.
  • 6a Architects received a special mention for its proposal.
    6a Architects received a special mention for its proposal.
  • Haworth Tompkins also received a special mention for its proposal.
    Haworth Tompkins also received a special mention for its proposal.
  • Carmody Groarke's proposal for Liverpool's new building.
    Carmody Groarke's proposal for Liverpool's new building.
  • Proposal by Eric Parry.
    Proposal by Eric Parry.
  • Competitors' architectural presentations.
    Competitors' architectural presentations. Credit: Martin Winchester

Susannah Fairbank-Angus, student

The school of architecture has been an all-encompassing part of my three years in Liverpool, being the facilitator of many friendships as well as an education. As students we spend all our time in the infamous ‘studio’: it is vital that it is a dynamic and flexible space that encourages creativity.

It has been an interesting process to reflect on our experiences here as well as be involved in the beginning of its journey towards the future. Reading the preliminary statements that the 18 different architecture practices had prepared gave us an idea of the ethos of each firm, encouraging us to form initial judgements and spark our imaginations and predictions of the sort of project each practice might create. Observing the competition process happening in parallel with our personal design projects meant that we could learn invaluable lessons from watching a real-life project unfold as well as develop our personal objectives and visions as architects.  

It has been a pleasure and a lot of fun to form a close bond with the group of students that were involved. Together we were able to share our ideas and experiences of being a student both here and elsewhere, prompting an informative and diverse discussion with the architects from the six finalist practices. This discussion forced us to reflect on what physical and social aspects of the school make it special, and how they could be improved.         

The enthusiasm and interest that the architects showed towards our opinions was encouraging. It was reassuring to feel that they would ensure that they encapsulated the students’ vision, highlighting the importance of cooperation in architectural design. It was exciting to watch the concepts grow into unique developed designs and see them come to life in their models and drawings, creating a buzz of anticipation and debate.                        

Our final involvement took place in the jury room. We observed the dialogue between the judges and I was reminded of the complex reality of the subjectivity of competitions. But we were glad to be able to voice our opinions to the judges which were valued and taken on board. I feel privileged to have been able to be involved in such an engaging and inspiring experience.

Personally, I was immediately taken with O’Donnell + Tuomey’s proposal. Their passion and thoughtful approach was conveyed through their thorough verbal presentation of the progression of an interconnected, dynamic, open and intimate sequence of spaces shown via the vibrant drawings and the beautifully crafted models that subtly weaved into the context of the current buildings and landscape. Now I look forward to seeing it materialise! 

  • Inspecting Carmody Groarke’s model.
    Inspecting Carmody Groarke’s model. Credit: Martin Winchester
  • Jury with competition director Marco Iuliano and Peter Buchanan.
    Jury with competition director Marco Iuliano and Peter Buchanan. Credit: Richard Pare
  • Jury assessing with students.
    Jury assessing with students. Credit: Richard Pare

Gabriela Grodny, student

When I first entered the school, my attention was drawn to the large cast iron plaque dedicated to the memory of the Polish School of Architecture, which was a part of the Liverpool School of Architecture during the Second World War. As a Polish student, I felt warmly welcomed not only into the beautiful building, but more importantly to the community of multicultural people with one common interest – architecture.

Since that day, I have started to identify the Leverhulme Building as a place which connected several nationalities with their own different approaches to teaching architecture. Its internal design was also instrumental in creating a community which displayed the excellence within international research and education. For me, the construction of the new Liverpool School of Architecture building is equivalent to the reorganisation of a house with new rooms for future generations of the successful international architectural family. 

I had the great opportunity to take an active part in the events related to the competition including the discussion with the six finalists and the final presentation. The process allowed students to present a variety of opinions regarding the functionality of the existing building as well as our visions of the ideal design of the future school of architecture. The final discussion contributed to the development of a close, respectful and educational relationship between students who are the users of the building and the qualified architects – representing various generations and design ‘styles’ associated with them.

Positively surprising effects of our conversations were seen in the final proposals presented by the architects. The exhibition of models, which complemented the final presentation, accurately illustrated the wide context of the site and allowed participants to thoroughly understand the physical aspects of every project such as scale or materiality.

Thinking about the new Liverpool School of Architecture as a place for the future generation of multicultural architects, I imagine a place supporting the development of social relations and cultural exchange resulting in new ideas. The design proposed by O’Donnell + Tuomey was the closest to my belief. I was impressed with the internal planning, which not only allows students to personally experience the area created by the geometrical layout of the walls, but also reinterprets the concept of individual and group space.

The whole process showed the extraordinary involvement of architects, the high quality of projects, ingenuity and remarkable cooperation between the client and stakeholders. A worthy example for future architects.

  • Jury chair Kenneth Frampton assesses O’Donnell + Tuomey’s proposal.
    Jury chair Kenneth Frampton assesses O’Donnell + Tuomey’s proposal. Credit: Richard Pare
  • Kenneth Frampton with Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey.
    Kenneth Frampton with Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey. Credit: Richard Pare
  • John Tuomey with competition committee members Fiona Beveridge and Soumyen Bandyopadhyay.
    John Tuomey with competition committee members Fiona Beveridge and Soumyen Bandyopadhyay. Credit: Richard Pare
  • Architects, jury and public after deliberation.
    Architects, jury and public after deliberation. Credit: Richard Pare

Anqi Zhao, student

One of my favourite competitors states that building a school of architecture is an education, which well summarises my experience of the contest. Being the witness of and contributor to how our new school developed from lines of statements into detailed proposals is like participating in both a thought-provoking lecture and an engaging workshop: not only urging us to critically assess our profound knowledge, but also inspiring us to imagine, together with the leading practices, the future of architecture and architectural discipline.

My initial engagement with the competition was through reading the work provided by the firms along with images illustrating their previous projects and their approaches to design. The efforts made by the firms to present their ‘spark’ within a short article and several slides were enlightening: immersing myself in their statements gave me a unique insight into the ways practices communicate their ideas and, more importantly, into the diverse visions across different generations of architects. 

After choosing the six finalists, we were given the opportunity to convey our demands and perspectives to the architects in person. This encouraged us to revisit the spaces that we currently inhabit with critical eyes. As architecture students, we are not just users of the building, we could also be informed joint creators. During discussion with the architects, I was impressed by how much they respected our opinions and their attention to detailed aspects of our academic life. The resonance between former and current identity as a student studying the discipline generated lively and rewarding conversations.

The presentation of the final schemes was the highlight of the entire process. It was exciting to see how our words were interpreted and taken forward, let alone having the chance to ‘crit’ and question directly the project with its creators. I had an interesting dialogue with 6a Architects upon how they came up with their concept inspired by Chinese gardens.

Our preferences and perceptions were also valued by the jury. The process of choosing the winner demonstrated the art of debate within architectural discipline, where student and teachers challenge each other’s ideas. Through the collision of opinions, I was able to gain a more thorough understanding of not only the entries but also my own aspiration for our school and for architecture.


Finalist architects
O’Donnell and Tuomey (winners), Haworth Tompkins and 6a Architects (special mentions), Grafton Architects, Eric Parry Architects, Carmody Groarke

Competition committee
Soumyen Bandyopadhyay, Fiona Beveridge, Marco Iuliano (director), Nicholas Ray

Advisory board
Alan Berman, Andy Brown, James Jones, Terry Leahy, Ian Ritchie, Roger Stephenson

Estates Department
Alex Beedle, David Harding, Andy Murphy, Steve Taylor