Rob picked the perfect place to meet to talk about perspective; it was away from the hustle and bustle, it offered expansive views, fresh sea air, and was once the place of a Viking parliament.
We headed down the sandy path to Thurstaston Beach, Wallasey, to meet Rob and his dog Marra. The day was overcast and there was mist in the air; we set out hoping the rain would hold off and the clouds would lift.
Rob Burns is an archaeologist, urban designer, and heritage specialist based in Liverpool. In the past he has worked hard preserving and protecting historical sites all over the world. He was once even smuggled out of Libya whilst on an architectural survey. He smiled and said, “That’s a story for another day.”
More recently he has been involved with all the major transformational schemes in Liverpool city centre such as Liverpool One and the waterfront developments. His archaeological background gives him a great ability to absorb historical information and offer strategically grounded focus and vision. He said, “I loved archaeology but I was just looking back; I didn’t feel like I was offering anything for the future.” So he enrolled on an urban design course. This offered the potential opportunity to make positive change, but do so with a solid grounding in historical place-making. He said, “History is important. If there is a legacy here, we need to understand its context. Only then can we contribute to its future.”
A good example of looking to the past to guide the future is Liverpool Waters, a job Planit and Rob have worked on for a long time now. Early on, some of the plans came under a number of objections because of the tall buildings planned. Rob looked back at the history of Liverpool’s tall buildings such as Oriel Chambers 1863. Liverpool actually invented skyscraper technology and used it for office and commercial buildings. Rob said, “The Liver Building is recognised as one of Europe’s first skyscrapers. Looking back can give us a better understanding on what decisions can be made for the future.”
There are lots of professionals who are experts in heritage work and lots of people who are brilliant urban planners and designers, but not many people who are both. Rob’s skill of balancing proposed design with historical context makes him totally unique.
Rob’s introduction to Planit was whilst he was based at English Heritage. At the time, the team were working on Stanley Park and Rob was consulting on the new Stadium. He said, “We were challenging the American architects who wanted to drop a new stadium in. They just brought a design over from the States and said this is what we’re proposing. It was a design that could just be built anywhere. It took no character from the area and had no relevance to British stadium design. For example, historically, British stadiums would have different looking stands because the chairman would build one at a time when he was feeling flush.”
He paused, grabbed his phone and showed us a black and white picture of the Kop at Anfield. He looked up and said, “By looking at the past we helped the new owners appreciate the process we had to go through. I knew they were on board when we started talking about adjusting the acoustics of the Kop to get 19,000 scousers to sound like 30,000. It was around that time that Planit where brought in to look at the design of the park next door to the proposed stadium.”
Rob brings a layer of understanding to something that’s new. He cleverly looks at how historical context can further urban design aspirations, so the project feels right in its surroundings. He said, “Start from what it used to be, understand how it was used, how it has evolved, and ultimately what we want it to be.”
A lot of heritage consultants will just work from a protectionist focus. Rob, though, looks at it from another point of view: its potential. His focus is on a continued narrative, “If we are working in a city, a heritage consultant would ask ‘how can the city evolve around it?’. I like to ask, ‘how can the city evolve because of it?”.
Rob’s unique method taps into the spirit of the area and uses that to guide the vision. In order to understand the spirit of a place, it is important to fully immerse yourself. Rob said, “I get perspective by working with other people and communities. There is always something you can pick up, ideas that you can adopt. I want to hear how people think they should do things, what stories they know. That way we can produce something brilliant that people feel part of, ultimately, making places better, collectively.”
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