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birkenhead school of art

21 / 04 / 2021



The Laird School Of Art was established in Birkenhead during the second half of the 19th century (1871). A dedicated building on park Rd north was endowed by the private wealth of local shipping magnate John Laird. This building was closed 40 years ago and the provision of art education in Birkenhead now sits within Wirral Metropolitan College.


This project is for the design of a new school of art building in Birkenhead situated in the Hamilton Square conservation area. The new building needs to meet the demands of its users but also fulfil a civic function as an important component within the cityscape of Birkenhead. In particular, the relationship with the public space needs to respond to the physical context without resorting to pastiche.


The new building needs to provide a range of studio spaces for different media (painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, digital etc) with associated storage spaces. Design of these spaces must include; appropriate  daylighting for each activity. Publicly accessible spaces that could include lecture/performance space, gallery and café/bar should also be provided and located appropriately within the building. Circulation spaces (stairs, lifts, corridors, foyers, lobbies, atria, etc) and other support accommodation (toilets, kitchens, etc) are important components of the building that make a significant contribution to the experience of the users. The exact size and proportion of all these spaces should be identified during the research stage; reference to precedent is particularly important in this process.


The new school of art building will be located in the Hamilton Square conservation area of Birkenhead. Three potential sites within the conservation area have been identified for this project and these will be the focus for initial analysis for the whole studio. This analysis  will aim to capture the physical nature of this part of the city. The final choice of site for each student will be from these three alternatives. The two sites on Hamilton Square have different plan proportions, both with frontages onto the formal thoroughfare that passes the townhall as well as frontages onto the more informal streets beyond Hamilton Square itself. The site on John Street is a 'hidden' back land site with a long tapered proportion in plan.


This studio will begin by examining the physical quality of the Hamilton Square conservation area. The formal set piece of Hamilton Square itself presents a strikingly consistent image but beyond the square a more varied and informal quality is evident. These variations of form, scale, fenestration, material, detail, relationship to the street and so on are the physical aspects that make the conservation area a special place. Whilst the economic fortunes of the area and uses of the buildings have changed over time, the physical fabric of this part of the city has survived; understanding what exists is the first step in developing  proposals for any new intervention. As Colin St John Wilson's words below declare, new building proposals in this context would not be seen as 'isolated objects' but as part of the streetscape. This does not mean that the context requires a design response that copies the 'style' of existing buildings (pastiche) but that a contemporary response can be fully informed by a proper understanding of the physical qualities of a place. The school of art programme requires spaces of varying sizes and the context can show us architecturally resilient ways to accommodate these spaces. Critical evaluation of relevant building precedents; such as the Glasgow School Of Art buildings, will also inform the development of designs for this programme. consideration of interior daylighting and materials (structure and envelope) are integral to the development of any proposal.

"For unlike any other work of art, a building does have a life; it engages not only with the ways of [wo]men but also endures the laws of statistics and the vagaries of weather, not to mention the unpredictable fortunes of its neighbours. The corollary to this is that unless the building is charged at birth with the appetites and potencies proper to its role, it will be repaid in kind - denatured ruthlessly if not actually demolished.

A building will not be seen as an isolated object. Responses to the physical context of contour and neighbour, orientation and climate should inflect the form and disposition of every element in a deeply purposeful way... we are therefore concerned with a way of working that sees the building not as an object to be contemplate from without  but to be entered, experienced within, used."

Colin St, John Wilson (2007)

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