Liverpool takes flight at the Royal Liver Building 360
Considering its iconic status in the city, the Royal Liver Building has remained closed to the public of Liverpool until now. Paul Milligan was given exclusive early access to a new visitor attraction built inside Europe’s first skyscraper.
Built in 1908 and standing at 322 feet tall, the Royal Liver Building in Liverpool was one of the first buildings in the world built using reinforced concrete. The 15 floor building was the purpose-built home of the Royal Liver Assurance Group, and was Europe’s first ever skyscraper and once held the title of the tallest building in Europe. The building, along with the neighbouring Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool building form the 3 Graces on Liverpool’s Pier Head overlooking the River Mersey, the trio has been granted UNESCO world heritage site status. The grade I listed building is home to two clock towers, each adorned with a 18ft high copper liver bird (often used as the emblem of the city itself), one that looks out over the city and one that looks out to sea, legend has it that if these two birds were to fly away then the city would cease to exist. Such iconic status makes it strange to understand that few people have actually seen inside it until now.
The seeds of the new Liver Building were sewn in October 2016 when it was put up for sale for the first time. It was eventually bought for £48m by Luxembourg-based investment group Corestate Capital in 2017, who set up Liverpool Building CO to breathe new life into the building. The majority of the Liver Building is still home to office space for the likes of Mott McDonald, Grant Thornton and HSBC, but there are three new areas now open to the public, a visitor centre, 270-degree immersive projection show and 360-degree panoramic viewing deck on top of the building. These areas are managed by Heritage GB, a private group that owns and operates landmark destinations and visitor attractions in the UK (including Land’s End, and the Needles in the Isle of Wight). The potential of the venue was the attraction to Heritage GB says its CEO, Allan Leech. “I wouldn’t say it was underutilised but has been underappreciated, in a city that has in the last 10 years grown its visitor economy by 60%. It’s now the fifth most visited city in the UK, with nearly 70m tourists a year, and the waterfront and the 3 Graces is one of the primary destinations they come to.”
The experience has three stages and begins with the visitor centre on the lower ground floor. Built by Paragon Creative, an experiential design and build company, it gives visitors a history of the building, how it was built, and the history of the city, and the pier head. The visitor centre features a green screen presentation and it is also where they also meet their presenters, who will lead the tours. When tickets are purchased online, visitors are directed to download an AP app on their smartphones before their visit which will help get the most out of the tour. The presenters then take visitors up an express lift to the tenth floor where the two clock towers are housed. And this is where the real AV show, and experiential designers Holovis enters proceedings.
It was first made aware of the project when it met the client (Heritage GB) at a trade show and was given the opportunity to present a proposal for it. Peter Cliff, creative director from Holovis says because of his own personal history with the city (he studied at LIPA, the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts for four years) he “doubled down on our efforts to win this project.” So what ideas and plans were discussed in those early meetings between Holovis and Heritage GB? “They had a vision to create an experience that entertained people prior to getting up to the 360-degree viewing platform on top of the building. That was it. They mentioned screens, projection mapping, VR. I’m a big advocate of large-scale projection that can collectively be experienced. We do a lot of VR but it has to used in a specific way for it to sing. This was an opportunity for us to use projection to bring the architecture to life,” says Cliff. “When you are creating a whole package and trying to innovate, it’s really important to embed all the services (design, content, production etc) together as much as possible.”
What decision came first for the show, was it the story itself or the choice of technology? “We are pragmatic because we understand the limitations,” says Cliff. “We started with the technology, what layout would work well? Then we tied that up with a high-level concept to see how it would work visually in the spaces. As soon as we started to piece the two together side by side and co-create the idea we found something that we felt would work,” he added.
As ever with these types of projects, there were a few rules that had to be adhered to says Cliff. “We were told from the get-go this project needs to hit a certain operational capacity. You can only get 16 people in the space at one time, so we were able to use that data to calculate how long the show should be (to load and unload). From there we put the history of Liverpool down on a page and chapterised it. We then asked who is watching the show? What is the demographic? Is it people who don’t know Liverpool very well or people who do know the city? A lot of research was put into that. It was found to include a lot of non-English speakers, so we asked ourselves, what moments of Liverpool’s history are so significant that just be looking at an image or a piece of reference material could you get a sense of the emotion of that time? That helped us define the show. There are certain moments we could have kept in beyond that and still kept to that rule, but what we have ended up with is a show with such significant chapters of history it speaks for itself without the need for narration.”
When you walk into the clock tower itself, you are immediately stuck by the sheer size of the clock faces, which are greater in size than those of Big Ben in London. “The huge discs at the rear of the clock face create such an impressive canvas it seemed like a no-brainer to do projection mapping,” says Cliff. Visitors are spread out across a viewing platform, which is on the upper level of two levels. The lower level houses the AV racks and one projector. When we think of projection mapping we think of giant outdoor shows, projected onto the windows of skyscrapers. This project is part of a growing trend for smaller-scale indoor projection mapping shows, which are no least impressive than their larger, outdoor counterparts, because of the limitations of architecture. The clock tower is a complex space for projection, full of irregular angles and corners and turns. So how do you go about using all of those as your backdrop for a 9-minute show? “We started with a Lidar scan of the room, that allowed us to see where our projection shadows would be, were our collusion points would be,” says Cliff. “From there we gave a directive to the client for the areas we needed them to fill in for us, so the room has been slightly modified for the projection, to give us more space to play with.”
The 9-minute show was written by Holovis, and follows the story of the city and the building, moving through history to take in war, commerce, sports, and music. The show uses a combination of projection and audio to create a fully immersive 270-degree show. “Visual immersion is about taking you out of the place that you are. To do that you have to encompass the whole visual. If the lights and sound are all around you can forget who you are with or where you are. If you have a point of reference in a normal building its harder to suspend that disbelief,” says Cliff.
As well as three Christie 18,000 lumens laser phosphor projectors blended together to fill the space, another one is used on the lower level. “The projector on the floor was driven by the content,” says Cliff. “The initial seed idea was to use the liver bird as a vehicle to transition the viewer through history. The bird lands on the clock, sends it backwards, the bird is born out of the flames of the foundry in the industrial revolution, which gave birth to the building. The bird drags you through the whole show, but because we are flying there are certain perspectives in the content we needed to achieve when at that height, because if everything was at the same height you wouldn’t have a sense of what is below you. So it was really important to continue (the content) below the feet of the guests to give a sense of where we are in a space and add context.”
Moving between dark and light content provided tone of the major challenges of producing the conent says Cliff. “We took a lot of time to develop the transitions between the different chapters so isn’t just a wash (of the screen). We go from a building that is being bombed and physics-based animation which brings the wall down to the wall being rebuilt outside Paul McCartney’s childhood home (he was born in the same year the final bombing raid on Liverpool took place). We then spin the clock forward to him joining the Beatles, and that takes you in to the next chapter. It’s little things like in the content that take it from being a good show to a great show hopefully. We really considered how those chapters would come together.”
The content is run from a Green Hippo Amba media server on an Alcorn McBride VCore show controller by each presenter, via a touchscreen in the clock tower designed to be a user friendly as possible (play, pause, stop, repeat). “We realised early on this attraction wasn’t going to have its own technical manager, so it was designed to be as easy to run as possible,” adds Cliff. The projection mapping is impressive in its own right, but Holovis was determined for the show to be as immersive as possible, so audio was a major consideration in this project. Audio is spread around the clock tower room, including three Ohm BRT-12 loudspeakers, two Ohm BRS-18 subs and two BRW-28 surround speakers. “We spent a huge amount of time and money and investment to consider every sense. My favourite part of any process is when we get the composition because that often melds the whole thing together,” says Cliff. Lighting is used to reach sections of the screen where the projectors don’t provide coverage. “In the WWII section we use a searchlight during the bombing raid, and the whole basement lights up in the foundry section. It extends the effect beyond the visual medium,” explains Cliff.
The two biggest challenges on the project says Cliff were a mix of the creative and the practical. Distilling the history of Liverpool into just a 9minute show was tough, as was dealing with the unsual clock tower space “We are in a grade I listed building, so all the in-fills are wedged, instead of being drilled in to the surfaces. We have to be aware it’s a working space for other people. We can’t have it too loud, so we are using lots of local speakers in that space as opposed to centre and front. Getting things up to the clock tower was tough, as there are no lifts to get equipment up, so we had to manually carry heavy projectors and large subs.”
Luckily for Cliff and Holovis, the project has been a successful one as demonstrated by a clearly delighted client in Allan Leech from Heritage GB: “The building is world famou, and we now have produced something world class. It has surpassed our expectations from creativity to delivery to what is now an immersive, soulful experience.”
Alcorn McBride VCore show controller
Christie D20WU-HS-1-DLP laser phosphor projector
Datapath 4K display wall controller
Green Hippo Amba media server
Ohm BRT-12 loudspeakers, BRS-18 subs, BRW-28 surround speakers