With granite and glass used throughout, the new RIBA North creates a striking addition to the Liverpool waterfront
RIBA North is a new architecture centre for the North of England, situated within the RIBA awarding winning Mann Island mixed use development on Liverpool’s waterfront. The centre, designed by Matt Brook of Broadway Malyan, who also designed Mann Island, contains, among other things, the RIBA’s first museum standard gallery outside of London, showcasing its world-class collection of drawings, photographs and models.
Accessed via the covered glazed winter garden within the Mann Island complex, RIBA North’s 1,350 sq m two-tier design (ground floor -150 sq m; upper level - 1200 sq m) sits within the central block. A red corian spine wall (6 x 16 x 0.45 m), accented with shadow gap detailing and recessed lighting, articulates the project’s volumetric spine, linking the winter garden with the double height entrance lobby and adjoining mezzanine level; creating a visual connection between spaces whilst also defining the kitchen and ordering the vertical circulation. Within the winter garden, the wall manifests itself as a freestanding totem (6m x 1.7m x 0.45m), branded ‘RIBA North’; this functions as a striking piece of signage sculpture, its colour and orthogonal form delivering a dramatic counterpoint to Mann Island’s black aesthetic and the geometry of the two trapezoidal blocks.
Inside, the double height entrance lobby sets the scene, with three carefully crafted compositions: the stairwell to left, courtesy of the carved opening in the spine wall; the café and shop area directly ahead; and the mezzanine level above, its front elevation defined by a simple glass balustrade which defers to the horizontality of the white fascia below; this latter arrangement accentuates the tectonic presence of the floor plate, setting up an elemental dialogue with the centre’s spine wall.
The flooring surface throughout RIBA North is 20mm thick granite tiling, save for a heavier 40mm thick granite used for the stairs and landings. On the ground level, the floor specification and diagonal layout matches that of the granite used in Mann Island’s public realm, so visually drawing one into the centre and then through to the stairwell via the spine wall opening, which is detailed with chamfered edging that aligns exactly with the tiling. Here the specification changes, as does the configuration, to a slightly darker, smoother tile, arranged within a classic grid pattern; this organises both the staircase and the first floor sequence of spaces while the flooring has been designed to avoid site cuts and ensure full tiles to all areas.
Integral to the stair design is the granite’s heft, which generates a sense of permanence underfoot, while the slender stainless steel nosing detail complements the material's colour, depth and texture, as does the deep shadow gap detail to the outer stair edges. Within this dynamic, the structural clarity of the stainless steel balustrade provides an elegant interface between the granite stairs and the spine wall, all of which is heightened by the high specification lighting, which runs throughout the entire center, enhancing the volumetric design and the finishing to all surfaces.
The balustrade itself, along with the internal and external door handles and all gallery and WC ironmongery have been designed to create a dialogue and visual unity between the details throughout the centre. These key features were all designed and developed in partnership with specialist subcontractors before being forged and fabricated specifically for the project.
Upstairs the museum standard gallery (150 sqm) takes centre stage. A second, smaller gallery (80sqm) - which will also be used for lectures and debates, seating up to 80 people - defines the operation’s east facing side. These two galleries in turn together with the full height atrium and spine wall demarcate a central presentation area (160sq m), which will accommodate a wide range of public facing activities, hence the inclusion of two substantial plasma screen installations set flush in its two long walls flanking a free standing interactive city model. On the south facing side of the complex, positioned behind the main gallery, an open-plan office, with full height glazing, overlooks Liverpool’s Canning Dock; while on the west facing side, two meetings rooms and a well-sized conference suite enjoy good views of Mann Island’s public realm.
Access to the two galleries, RIBA office area and toilets is via four glazed door openings, which are located at the far end of the central presentation area. The glazed doors are enhanced with the addition of the feature bespoke stainless steel full-height one piece pull handles and push plates (a double set in the case of the larger gallery) onto which the relevant room signage is inscribed - ‘Gallery One’, ‘Gallery Two’, ‘RIBA Studio‘. In conjunction with the glass doors and semi opaque flanking glass screens, the slender ironmongery orchestrates a barcode-esque configuration, subtly defining and unifying an informal compact lobby area to all of the public spaces.
Another important aspect of the glazed door design is how the opaque detailing gives each door a sense of visual depth when open, so substantiating their sculptural presence within the layout. In terms of circulation flow around the main upstairs floor plan, this is further facilitated by two hidden doors, respectively located, in relation to the glazed doors, at the far end of the central area’s two long walls, giving additional access to the seminar suite and office area and meeting rooms.
In the two main galleries the centre’s clarity of composition continues with a slatted ceiling system delivering a uniform linear finish while controlling the visual impact of the M&E services located above. In each space shadow gap detailing to the perimeter bulkhead brings about a smooth transition between the slatted ceiling height and the slightly higher plastered ceiling surface within the central presentation area.
The display walls within the galleries are bounded by a continuous shadow gap and recessed lighting defining the display walls as a continuous ribbon within the space. This detail allows for flexibility of the gallery exhibitions and enables the display wall ‘ribbons’ to be extended into the space whilst easily maintaining continuity of the ceiling and key detailing. The aforementioned granite flooring runs seamlessly through into the two gallery spaces and recessed shadow gap detailing emphasises the existing vertical structure of the Mann Island. This emphasis is reflected in the linear ceiling as the slats are offset around the columns to mirror the shadow gap detailing.
This higher ceiling height in the galleries continues throughout the central presentation area and into the open plan office space, with the exception of the raked ceiling at its southeast corner, which takes advantage of the building’s commanding prow, with views of Canning Dock, Liverpool One and the Anglican Cathedral beyond.
The WAN Awards Civic Buildings category is open and the final deadline for entries is 30th June.
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