Bold Street. A nostalgic place that is booming with boutiques, bazaars and bars. A nostalgic place engrained into the city’s culture. A nostalgic place that time has not forgot, and neither have URBAN SPLASH.
25 years ago, following a Thatcherite government, Liverpool’s city centre was in need of a renaissance: Bold Street in the early 90s was reminiscent of Skid Row with its businesses closing and multiple empty properties, a sight that is certainly far from what we know today, filled to the brim with arty cafés, shops and restaurants. Thanks to Urban Splash and their part in the regeneration of the area we now know as Ropewalks, Liverpool has never looked back. To commemorate the relationship between Urban Splash and Liverpool, RIBA North are hosting an exhibition titled It Will Never Work. The aptly named exhibition focuses on the works of Urban Splash founders Tom Bloxham and Jonathan Falkingham, and their quest to raise city standards across England through a series of innovative residential and commercial projects that make use of empty space in areas of high footfall. At present, the majority of Urban Splash’s portfolio consists of warehouses – but they’re also looking into modular housing projects which will tackle issues around urban living. In a joint venture with Peel Holdings, Urban Splash have recently announced that they are working on bringing 347 modular homes to the banks of the Mersey by 2022 as part of the ambitious Wirral Waters project.
The exhibition commemorates an institution that has received over 400 awards for architecture and regeneration, and one that has successfully repurposed some of Liverpool’s most retro-looking buildings, at the same time celebrating and supporting the city’s subcultures. Sam Canavan caught up with co-owner of Urban Splash, Tom Bloxham MBE, to consider what Liverpool has achieved through its connection with the boundary-pushing architects.
As a political and artistic visionary, was the Ropewalks regeneration driven by a personal or political agenda?
I wouldn’t say it was driven by any agenda, it was more an opportunity, more an adventure, and I found myself in Liverpool in the late 90s and thought it was an interesting place. It was an opportunity to buy some unloved, yet interesting buildings and this was pre-dating when it was named the Ropewalks, when it was just an untouched bit of Liverpool behind Bold Street. We started with the Palace [on Slater Street], then Concert Square, then onto Baa Bar. We helped establish a community, initially of retailers, then cultural office users and then people living in the city centre – this came to create Ropewalks. It really did all start by accident.
How did a degree in politics fuel your passion for creating spaces that have effectively changed the DNA of most northern cities?
Well, although I’m not directly connected, I came to Manchester to go to uni. While I was at uni I started a business selling records and posters, and I needed a retail outlet as I was selling out of Student Unions and the universities. I then got a place in Affleck’s Palace in Manchester, and then opening The Palace in Liverpool was a means to selling my posters. When I was much younger, I thought politics could change the world, and after studying it for a few years you realise no matter who out of the two you vote for, the government always get in. My view on politics is that it has a limited ability to influence change and a better way of influencing the world is by actually, physically building stuff.
Do you feel that Michael Heseltine had the same opinion towards the political situation, and maybe that’s why he was welcomed in Liverpool?
Michael has a strong background in a business, and he’s very much a doer. I’m not too sure how welcomed he was in Liverpool, but he definitely had Liverpool in his heart. He did a good job for Liverpool.
Is Urban Splash better known for the buildings they created or the communities they created?
The two are symbiotic, and I think when we looked at The Palace, there was little in terms of architecture, we just simply needed to make use of the building. From this we curated and collected very interesting tenants in there; Wayne Hemingway – owner of [footwear brand] Red Or Dead – The Farm, The La’s and Oceanic made a number of hit records there. In the upstairs rooms, we had a poster shop selling alongside James Barton and Andy Carroll of Cream, who were running their record shop from there. The Palace started being a consortium of interesting people, who liked hanging around there. From this we created Baa Bar to give everyone another place to hang out, socialise, mix and do business with one another. Then came Concert Square, with the first loft apartments in Liverpool, and we started showing people Liverpool city center was an attractive place to live. It’s hard to remember that when we started Urban Splash, hardly anybody lived in the city centre.
As a Capital Of Culture chairperson, what advice did you give to the City Council, and is that advice still evident today?
Cities change and we cannot get too nostalgic about everything. The Capital Of Culture was great, and I hope I added a sense of confidence and ambition to it. By [the city] doing some big projects and getting national attention, I thought it was a great seminal point. Being the only person on the board right through the Capital Of Culture, it was a great time to see Liverpool punching above its weight on the world stage, and it was great to see the Turner Prize and MTV Awards come to Liverpool, The Puppets and some other great projects.
Do you believe the relationship between Urban Splash and your main anchor tenants is down to shared business acumen?
All sorts of really interesting customers occupy our buildings, with many of them growing into really successful businesses. For instance, Cream started out with us renting an office for £10 a week, a lot of the tenants did business with each other, and I think it says something about your business being [at] an Urban Splash premises, and equally says something about our company given the quality of the customers we attract.
How do you feel the pioneering ways shared between yourself and like-minded local businesses have created the je ne sais quoi that Ropewalks offers?
I think what places like Ropewalks are known for is attracting independent business and edgy retailers, and you just have a bit of a feel for independents. What I hate on many high streets in the UK is seeing the same plastic signage outside the same high street retailers, same take-aways, so then every city is the same. What I love about cities is their differences; Liverpool is different from Manchester, is different from Sheffield, is different from Leeds. Liverpool has a strong culture, with its music, its bars, independent retailers, and all this make a city, as well as the architecture.
The Palace was described by the Independent as “a happening sort of space” and described by the MixMag as “the heart of Liverpool music”. How did tenure selection affect the Ropewalks development and the wider Liverpool subculture?
I think what was special about The Palace, was that we bought it at a time in Liverpool when everywhere was closing – The Palace was a bathroom showroom. We came to Liverpool in the late 80s, early 90s – I remember going to conferences and people were amazed I chose Liverpool as property prices were decreasing. We identified something about Liverpool, the quality of the people, the talent of the city, the edginess. Starting with a miniscule budget we set up The Palace and we attracted a whole series of great young edgy businesses, and from that small beginning, it grew into what we call Urban Splash, it grew into Ropewalks, a center of music and culture. Liverpool music was now going around the world again, with some great bands, Liverpool began to grow in confidence, began to attract investment. 2008 Capital Of Culture was a pivotal moment, an expression of our new-found confidence, and we’ve seen the city grow from there, very much as an organic local movement with some incredible and talented individuals.
What are your fondest memories of The Palace?
Well for starters, the parties would begin in Baa Bar and end up in the offices upstairs. Lots of great businesses were started here, Cream occupied their first office here. A genuinely feel good place, with a real nice vibe about it. Lots of great memories.
Out of all the developments, what development is your favourite?
The next one!
It Will Never Work: 25 Years Of Urban Splash is on show at RIBA North, Mann Island until 16th June.