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Paul Monaghan: ‘It’s about improving the everyday architecture of Liverpool’

Paul Monaghan is founding partner of one of the most successful architecture practices in the UK. Now, he’s got a new role, as design champion for his hometown of Liverpool, writes Christine Murray

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Paul Monaghan accepting the RIBA Stirling Prize 2015 for Burntwood School
Paul Monaghan accepting the RIBA Stirling Prize 2015 for Burntwood School

Paul Monaghan is a founding partner of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM), one of the largest and most successful architecture practices in the UK and winner of the prestigious RIBA Stirling Prize. Now, Monaghan has a new role, as Liverpool City Region’s first design champion, with a mandate to get design quality on the agenda in the North West.


“It’s about improving the everyday architecture of Liverpool,” says Monaghan.


We are sitting in a white boardroom in AHMM’s Clerkenwell office. In the corridors, shelves of models display upcoming projects, including their new retail block and ‘hanging gardens’ for Broadgate in the City of London.


Monaghan suggests his appointment, made by Steve Rotheram, metro mayor of Liverpool City Region, is a passion project: “Steve is a proper Scouser – I lost my accent when I was about 20. But we’ve done a number of projects in Liverpool. I’ve taught at the school of architecture. It’s something that’s special to me.”


Plus, it’s an exciting time for Liverpool, Monaghan says, with major urban redevelopment sites such as Liverpool Waters by developer Peel, and the 28-acre council-led project at Festival Gardens. “There’s a ferry terminal coming too, so that cruises can come from New York, almost back to what Liverpool was,” says Monaghan.


“But there have also been a lot of poor-quality developments,” Monaghan adds: “A lot of cheap halls of residence going up around the edges.”


With its beautiful historic fabric, Liverpool has an extraordinary architectural heritage. But while arts venues and theatres have been elegantly redeveloped – Liverpool won the Stirling Prize in 2014 for its Everyman Theatre by Haworth Tompkins – Monaghan fears the poor-quality construction of new offices and housing blocks will cause problems in as little as 10 years.

AHMM's Burntwood School in London, which won the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2015
AHMM's Burntwood School in London, which won the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2015

It’s a symptom, Monaghan thinks, of how developments are treated in Liverpool, “where getting development to happen is more important than the quality of it”.


“Well-designed development doesn’t cost any more than badly designed development, so why not insist on better?


“People always threaten that it costs more money, but we all know it’s about picking the right design team and having the right concept,” Monaghan adds. “In my experience over the years, with all the design reviews I’ve done, quite often the weaker schemes are also incredibly inefficient financially, too.”


Monaghan believes a housing design guide for Liverpool could help improve the quality of housing being built in the city


First on Monaghan’s agenda as design champion is a housing review and – possibly – a housing design guide. “I thought it could be something that we do in Liverpool, some sort of design guide, because there isn’t one at the moment and you want to make places that people want to live in; that feel like communities.


“People are critical that [the London Housing Design Guide] has led to this ‘London vernacular’ where everything looks quite similar. But if you go back to what it was like 10 years ago, [the housing] was terrible, built out of cheap materials and render, and falling apart. At least the brick buildings are more concentrated in proportion and longevity, so I think it’s alright.”

Liverpool's Royal Court Theatre by AHMM
Liverpool's Royal Court Theatre by AHMM
Inside the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool by AHMM
Inside the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool by AHMM

In the short term, Monaghan sees design review as an opportunity to push quality: “[Rotheram] has given money to the design review team at Place Matters, which means that any project can be reviewed. I’m a great believer in design review.”


Next up, Monaghan is keen to push public space outside the city centre. “Liverpool’s quite spoiled for public space within the historic city and it did get this gift that is Liverpool One,” he says, referring to the retail-led redevelopment of 42 acres of central Liverpool a decade ago with its masterplan by BDP.


Outside Liverpool city centre, Monaghan says you’ll find “a lot of tired places lacking investment”


“[Liverpool One] must be one of the most pioneering examples of regeneration in the UK,” says Monaghan. “Half of Liverpool was rebuilt to incredibly high quality, with lots of good architecture and amazing public realm.”


But outside the city centre, Monaghan says you’ll find “a lot of tired places lacking investment”. To address this, Liverpool City Region is going to run a competition with RIBA to invite anyone to put forward ideas to “reboot these spaces”.


Monaghan recognises that Liverpool may need new models of development in order to enshrine design quality.


“What doesn’t happen in Liverpool are the big regeneration schemes that councils undertake in partnership with the private sector,” he says. “Interestingly, they’re sort of dying out in London, too, because of things like the Haringey Development Vehicle having collapsed.”


“Perhaps there is another way – recently councils have started doing their own housing again. If you look at Hackney and Croydon in London, both are doing really exemplary housing themselves. There is an extra level of detail and thoughtfulness that I’m not sure the private sector always delivers.”


“Hackney and Croydon in London are doing exemplary housing... It would be great if Liverpool, rather than asking developers, built it themselves”


“I think it would be great if Liverpool, rather than asking developers to build 35% affordable housing, got the money and built it themselves – back to where we used to be.”


The office sector also has its challenges: “It’s incredibly difficult because the rent in Liverpool is low, so if Clerkenwell gets £60 per square foot [for office space], in Liverpool the highest you would get is £20-£30 per square foot. The equation of building it and renting it doesn’t work, so quality goes. How do we get more inventive in these things? I’d be very interested in trying to get involved.”


So what does good urban redevelopment look like? “The best ones are where they put an emphasis on public spaces and things like character, individuality, and the idea of making spaces that are meaningful,” says Monaghan. “Sometimes that’s just good streets.”


Unity residential and office towers in Liverpool by AHMM, 2007
Unity residential and office towers in Liverpool by AHMM, 2007

Unfortunately, Monaghan feels too little is being done. “We’re almost heading back to the 1960s, when very little was spent on public realm.”


With the increased density of what is being built, Monaghan believes public space and quality design are more important than ever, especially when it comes to fostering community.


“We’re putting dense and bigger buildings in existing locations because of the crisis we have in housing,” says Monaghan. “How we mitigate between small terraces to bigger blocks and make a city that’s meaningful and doesn’t alienate people is a real challenge.”


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