Sandcastle / from the archive / issue 3

From the river it holds its position confidently, a solidity different from the triplicate graciousness framing the Pier Head; broader, not on the waterfront itself but set back and massed from the higher ground of Old Hall Street, blocks spread and piled towards the approximation of a pyramid. Colloquially, and by the authority vested in the Mersey Ferries commentary, this is the Sandcastle, the ribbed aggregate panels of its cladding being sufficiently golden in colour, its silhouette simultaneously martial-like and playful, that the name sticks well to its target. It is also the Royal Insurance Building, the Capital Building, New Hall Place; slippery nomenclature for such a definite article. Alongside the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, this is probably the most prominent and accomplished brutalist building in central Liverpool from a period that didn't otherwise make much of an impact architecturally in a city experiencing rapid economic decline, and which had lacked any notable design confidence since the 1930s.  

Built between 1974 and 1976, architects the Tripe and Wakeham Partnership created for Royal Insurance an intelligent interpretation of a complicated brief, filling a large 2.8 hectare site with two stories of car parking (as a podium), placing large departments and circulation spaces on top, with additional functions placed higher up as separately readable volumes. The impression created is one of an exceptionally well arranged kit of individual rectilinear blocks. The rough texture of the ribbed panelling provides the piecework of thrillingly blank walls, but the bouncing interplay of solid and void provides the real interest. As the volume of the structure generally recedes up the storeys, buildings within buildings reveal themselves as a series of terraces breaks up the considerable bulk into the striations of a ziggurat.   

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Really, though, and despite the characteristic massing and texture, this was a building designed from the inside out in a strongly functional tradition. Significantly, these functions catered as much to the social and human needs of its users as to the perfunctory requirements of office accommodation; this was a corporate landmark representing the standing of a company by means of high quality design, amenities and relationships. At the entrance floor over the parking podium was a 200 seat cinema and training suite as well as a computer centre and a printing works for in-house publications. On the level above this was the heart of the scheme, a social and recreation centre for employees that included a gym, sports hall and function rooms. Office floors and management suites rose up on decreasing plan sizes between levels two and ten to a tapered summit.

Close attention to interior detail was invested across the entire project. The interior designer, Lyle Ellard, was committed to a generous application of timber features through the fit-outs of shared social facilities and office spaces alike, with five different species of wood used as either solid plank or veneers throughout the building. In the most repetitive aspects of the floor plan, the departmental office spaces, a consistent design approach was taken with mustard yellow carpet, screens, plants, sound absorbent ceilings, work stations and equipment all forming part of a unified aesthetic, each unit clad in a veneer of American cherry wood to create a sense of enclosure and demarcation across floors. Visual consistency was aided by cladding in solid teak the service towers rising up between floors and containing the lift foyers, providing a point of navigation.

Wych elm, with its warm, decorative grain, was used throughout the social and recreation suite; English Yew, meanwhile, was used on an abstract mural on the tenth floor which sought to communicate the idea of natural growth by the complex layering of multi-dimensional planks. As Ellard reported to Interior Design magazine, his approach was rooted in a philosophy that, first, looked to the users of the building as the most significant factor to be considered and, secondly, was concerned with the application of a brutalist aesthetic inside as much as externally. None of the finishes were intended to be maintained with polish but were intended to age within the lifetime of the building to reflect their intrinsic qualities.     

            ...timber is warm, pleasant and harmonious as well as being visually good. I wanted to surround the people who would work in the building with some humanity – not merely paint or plaster or other artificial   finishes…We were determined that we wanted the whole building to be as truthful as possible by using as  many natural materials as we could…

Within the last decade, the Sandcastle has been sold by Royal Insurance and passed through numerous ownerships and refurbishments. Out of paternalistic corporate hands, the sheer quality of the building has contributed somewhat to its undoing – as the cachet of its architecture has increased, so has its money-making potential. A new glass atrium on Old Street has undermined the original conception of circulation at podium level, whilst every available square metre of space on every floor has been commandeered for lettable office accommodation; shared social and recreational areas converted out of existence in the search for maximum profitability. As an emblem of a socially-aware corporate capitalism, the Sandcastle must be considered defunct; even with RSA (the successor company to Royal Insurance) as a major tenant, nothing remains of their largesse. Internally, the brutalism of Ellard's design concept has been undermined by a slick refit that has kept much of the timber detailing but seen it underlit with blue neon and accompanied by the shiny surfaces and palette of fixtures found in any office development of neo-liberalism's

hubristic noughties. Externally, though, we are left with a monument to an age of corporate patronage that sought to not to create an egregious building-as-logo nor maximise returns on floorplates, but something more substantial, a statement of values and meaning. Architecturally, it has always been successful and perhaps even loved a little, but the stability and values of the economic world in which it was conceived has passed; its aesthetic merits must now be disassociated with the comparatively benevolent incarnation of capitalism that provided its original rationale.

© Matthew Whitfield

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 3 'BOOM & BUST'.

Matthew Whitfield