'A 10 per cent increase in arts students is attributed to the new building

8th September 2000 at 01:00
If ever an FE institution has suffered from rampant decay, it's Liverpool Community College whose origins lie in the amalgamation 14 years ago of eight local authority colleges. In 1994, a year after incorporation and leaving the authority's control, Liverpool was operating out of 12 centres. According to Tom Webb, head of the arts faculty, the Hunter survey of college buildings initiated by the FEFC, described Liverpool's Clarence Street and Greenbank sites as the worst in the country. "In terms of image, our rundown and bedraggled buildings were almost an insult," says Fran Parkinson, the marketing manager.

It was at Greenbank that performing arts students had to tolerate "trees growing out of walls, rising and falling damp".

"The buildings were so bad that we got pound;25 million," says Mr Webb. "The city council had put most of its money into houses rather than schools and colleges. Nothing had been spent on maintenance for 20 years.

"The choice was bringing all sites up to health and safety requirements or reducing their numbers and making things better. Three sites would make things easier and cheaper to run: there would be better curriculum and resource management. But it does mean that the space now struggles to keep up with the volume of demand."

A new Arts Centre, catering for 2,500 students, opened in March 1999. It was the first manifestation of Liverpool casting off its Cinderella image. Environment matters in a city that, while sometimes suffering from low self-esteem, also has a proud record of producing ebullient musicians and actors. While performing arts students are made of stern stuff, not everyone can thrive in a building where water cascades down the walls.

Liverpool, never a place that does things by halves, now has some of the best FE arts facilities anywhere. These have played a part in reducing the drop-out rate. The foyer area of the new block in Myrtle Street hums with the air of students having a good time.

In a raised showcase area above the entrance stand mannequins clad in outlandish outfits created out of rubbish by students in the fashion department. Walls throughout the uilding are a warm shade of yellow, a deliberate attempt to escape institutionalised colours.

"The level of external and internal vandalism is low - we don't get grafitti," says Mr Webb. And more people are being drawn in. According to vice-principal Bernard Moore, a 10 per cent increase in arts students is attributed to the new building.

Simple practical arrangements, such as wall dividers, allow for flexible use of space in specialist rooms and studios. Where actors and musicians once performed in a classroom, they now have an impressive main hall, one of the most complex parts of the design with retractable seating and sophisticated technical facilities.

From the ceiling, which can bear heavy loads, a suspended grid system allows lights to be deployed anywhere in the room, while gantry systems enable equipment to be hoisted easily. Recording studios, designed with thick walls, contain industry-standard equipment which, Mr Webb says, gives music technology students an advantage when competing for jobs.

In good weather, students spill out of the cafe into a canopied area on the pavement - a feature intended to encourage interaction between college and city.

"This became reinforced as the design evolved. It was very important to convey a welcoming, open-doors feel," says Nick Berry of Austin, Smith and Lord, the architects in nearby Warrington that designed the building. An indication of its success is that 1,000 outsiders a week use the building for anything from IT to choir practice.

While the firm has created a building for neighbouring John Moores University, this was its first big FE project. Bond Bryan acted as advisers here too. "The project presented a number of challenges," said Mr Berry. "We had to get a lot of people into quite a tight area while conforming to statutory requirements regarding space.

"The building evolved considerably from the original concept during the design process. As you work closely with a client, you become more aware of their needs. It was extremely important to make their first new building in Liverpool a flagship. I think that has been achieved."

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