The Big Interview:
Hans van der Heijden

Five years after new work on Liverpool city centre’s oldest building was unveiled, we speak to the director of the architects responsible… 

Amongst Liverpool’s myriad anniversaries in 2013, potentially most controversial is that of the refurbishment of the Bluecoat. Part of the high-profile regeneration of Liverpool undertaken in the lead-up to the city’s year as European Capital of Culture, work on the oldest building in the city centre raised some eyebrows.

Now, five years after the Bluecoat reopened in 2008, the building plays host to a symposium looking at the collaborative design approach adopted by its architect, Biq and the wider context of urban development and cultural life.

We spoke to Hans van der Heijden, director of the Rotterdam-based firm…

Tell us a little about the kind of work that you do at Biq.

We have design commissions in Holland, Germany and Belgium – not in the UK currently – and we work on housing and urban design tasks mostly. We also lecture, teach and write.

You describe the Bluecoat as a “unique combination of village hall and avant-garde institute.” Were those factors important/uppermost in your mind during the redevelopment process?

Absolutely. We were intrigued by the fact that the Bluecoat Grade I listed monument, and the sometimes difficult art that was presented there, did not result in a place that was isolated from city life. On the contrary, the Bluecoat is all about communication. And by that I mean both the building and the arts institute.

“I have always liked the commitment of Liverpudlians to the Bluecoat”

Was that process a very challenging one, especially in light of the reverence in which the Bluecoat is held in the city of Liverpool?

I really prefer reverence to indifference. I have always liked the commitment of Liverpudlians to the Bluecoat. I remember stories of people who had buried their pets in the garden or had spread ashes of deceased family there. I felt honored to work on such an important part of people’s existence.

Five years on, having that natural (as well as geographical) distance, what are your thoughts on the completed space?

I note that the garden and the lobby is always filled with people. They don’t have to consume, you’re not forced to buy a coffee and most people just quietly sit there or wait for others to meet. The Bluecoat has reinforced its ambitions in that sense. Also, the new wing starts to weather and there are traces left by different art shows of the past five years. It is slowly losing its newness.

How much has Liverpool changed architecturally in that period?

It is not yet too late to prevent Liverpool from turning into an Abu Dhabi at the Mersey. The recent buildings of Liverpool 1 and the Mersey banks suggest a worrying preference for an international architecture in steel and glass. Liverpool deserves better than an all too naïve city image which is borrowed from exotic places. Why is the local potential of brick and stone architecture not developed into something that is dignified, useful and sustainable in the long term? Cities should change, but they change best when changed slowly.

Are Rotterdam and Liverpool very different cities?

No. Both are harbor cities, with a low level of self awareness. Richness, in so far as it is available, is never on display. The weather is the same.  

“We have to wait and see what the conference brings us”

The symposium looks at ‘collaborative design approaches …  and the wider context of urban development and cultural life.’ What more can you tell us?

We have to wait and see what the conference brings us. But I hope we will speculate on how the Bluecoat acts as an unique arts institute within the context of Liverpool 1, how it differs from it and how it contributes to the city as whole. I do hope it will contribute to the constant innovation that is needed for places like this.

What are the main challenges to architecture today?

Adidas is changing its strategy based on the assumption that people will buy less, but better sport gear in the future. Amongst younger generation architects, it has become clear that we cannot think in terms of expansion anymore. There is much thinking on how we make do and get by with the buildings that we already have. Personally, I assume that the 21st century will see a wide range of strategies, the small and the large, the spectacle and the modest, the cheap and the expansive will exist next to each other. I also think it will be increasingly hard to teach architecture and prepare students for such an unstable professional context.

What buildings do you think people will look at in 100 year’s time and think ‘they really got that right’?

The Rope Walks area perhaps. By that time this area will probably still be in a state of perpetual change. Hopefully it will still have that weird mix of high and low culture. It was a brave decision to invest in new stone curbs while the area was still derelict 20 years ago.

What buildings won’t people be so kind about?

John Lennon Airport. If it is has not crumbled down within the next decade that is.

Habitat: Architecture Symposium takes place Thursday 2nd May 6pm @ the Bluecoat £3-£5

Posted on 18/04/2013 by thedoublenegative