Mike Yates from Austin Smith Lord was the Lead Architect of FACT, alongside Andy James and Jamie Scott. Here he tells the story of FACT.
We wanted the building to make an impact, in a number of senses. Strategically for Liverpool, FACT was seen as the flagship for the Ropewalks area. The work had already begun in the neighbourhood with Concert Square and Urban Splash developments. Ropewalks was starting to develop a night time economy. The idea was to pull together the threads of the create community.
Location wise, it was in a good place for a creative quarter in Liverpool. It was to be permeable, to tie together both the creatives and the night time economy. You can only do these things and hope that people respond in the way you want. The gap created in Bold Street - what is Ropewalks Square - was critical to that. FACT had a presence on Bold Street because of that. It took a lot of negotiation but it happened.
The interesting thing about Ropewalks as it was was that the streets all run in one direction in parallel lines. The design was around breaking through those straight lines, as Concert Square had done. FACT was to become part of that network, creating a new pedestrian route that broke up the old street design.
The partnership with Cityscreen for the cinemas was critical. The cinemas were an important way to create a footfall and encourage people into the building. We thought about the route through, so you walk into FACT, the lift is tucked away so you’re encouraged towards the grand staircase and up to the cinema screens on the second floor. You’ve already passed two galleries. It’s like a shopping centre, use the big names to entice people in and explore in a way they might not otherwise.
FACT was Liverpool’s first cultural build for 60 years. It was a focal point and it felt glitzy. The design was for the building to be deliberately robust, with raw concrete, resin floors. It had to feel comfortable in the sense that it isn’t previous. It’s welcoming. You didn’t have to worry about damaging it.
It is, in fact, quite a small and tight space. There had been, I think, a previous scheme with underground cinemas but actually, pushing the cinema screens up into the air made space for FACT, the Foyer, the Cafe and Bar, creating that route through the building. You have to go in and explore FACT to find what you’re looking for.
Legibility is important when you’re designing a building. The staircase was deliberately done to feel like a focal point. You don’t have to ask where the cinemas are, you can see the way upwards and through the building when you enter. When we started creating, we realised the space would be quite tight and vertical, rather than a big broad atrium. We designed it to be quite a feminine space, soft forms.
With the thresholds they were deliberately highly glazed both front and back. We wanted you to be able to see the activity inside from the street. This both reduces anxiety and increases your confidence so you’re more likely to come inside. You don’t feel intimidated, you can pause at the entrance and figure out where you want to go, knowing help is at hand. Self navigation is an important concept at FACT. It’s about finding your own way. A lot of older arts buildings are deliberately intimidating.
In terms of this part of Liverpool, FACT has had a big impact. It was designed to be the flagship building for the regeneration of Ropewalks and it has been. FACT does prove that art centres are great for anchoring or being a regenerative focus for city areas. That was definitely the ambition and it’s been pretty successful. From an architectural point of view we still get university students getting in touch saying it’s their favourite building. FACT has certainly had an impact on the architectural community.
When you’re talking about regeneration you can recognise when it’s done well. It’s got to be the right thing in the right place with a robust and sustainable business plan. All those things have to come together and the architecture tries to capture the spirit of that. You create a special and a unique place. When we start every project we ask what the business plan is, because we have to know they’ve thought about the long term impact.
I’m generally happy with it, if I would change just one thing I might make the entrance bigger. I really like The Box, we spent a lot of time thinking about the name. It’s a multi-use space and it captures the whole spirit of FACT.
To help celebrate FACT’s 15th birthday share your own memories of the building on Facebook, twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #FACTat15
Discover the programme of events at fact.co.uk/15.