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Royal Shakespeare Theatre renovation, Stratford-upon-Avon, by Bennetts Associates

Bennetts Associates’ design for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre reworks the existing fabric in a pragmatic and sometimes playful way, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Peter Cook

The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon was a Victorian medieval fantasy, with a half-timbered attic resting on corbelled brickwork, crowned by a steep chateau roof. Designed by the architect Dogshun and Unsworth for the New Shakespeare Company and completed in 1879, it could serve as a somewhat anachronistic setting for the battle of Agincourt in Shakespeare’s Henry V.

Its mock-Elizabethan interior hastened the spread of the fire that gutted the theatre in 1926, forcing the company to relocate to a local cinema until, in 1932, the architect Elisabeth Scott reversed into its remains with an Art Deco juggernaut, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST).

Later still, the architect Michael Reardon redeveloped the shell of the Memorial Theatre, which reopened in 1986 as the Swan Theatre. The most recent development came in 2007, when both theatres temporarily closed as part of an extensive redevelopment of the site, designed by Bennetts Associates and completed last month.

Bennetts has tidied up this complex, stripping away layers of architectural detritus acquired over the course of 75 years and set about optimising its facilities and providing what Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) artistic director Michael Boyd, calls ‘the best space for performing Shakespeare in the world’. Making the theatres more approachable to the public was another core objective.

Implicitly, the brief also called for a monument and Bennetts responded on three levels: first by playing on memories and associations; second by using an architectural language that conveys gravitas and; third, by celebrating the building’s function.

Monumentality is a divisive topic. In 1937, the historian Lewis Mumford proclaimed the monument dead, dismissing it as a reactionary impediment to modernisation. In the ensuing debate, the historian Sigfried Giedion and other Modernists, including Le Corbusier, promoted a new monumentality. Opponents, notably the Swedish new empiricists, advocated an anti-heroic architecture. A similar debate continues today as architects reflect on the recent spate of ‘object’ or iconic buildings.

You might say that a referential architecture that plays on memory goes against the grain if you caricature Bennetts’ work as unselfconscious and functionalist. But although Bennetts’ design, like Scott’s, avoids explicit references to Shakespeare, it responds to the existing buildings’ history. ‘The project had many main drivers,’ says Bennetts director Simon Erridge.

Although Scott’s RST was never universally loved, it was listed to grade II* in 1987, not because it was seen as England’s first major building designed by a woman, or as its principal new inter-war theatre, but as an exemplar modernist public building. Although founding partner Rab Bennetts doesn’t speak of Scott’s theatre in hushed tones, much of its original fabric is not only retained but also ennobled, for example by showcasing its teak flooring and the remnants of the auditorium wall.

By embracing this cult of the inhabited ruin, Bennetts’ RST is in good company with David Chipperfield’s Neues Museum and Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern, a retrofit of Bankside Power Station, designed by Scott’s cousin, Giles Gilbert. But this over-reverence is relieved by a sense of playfulness in the new Scott foyer, where the original art deco ticket office has been converted to a vertically sliding screen.

Bennetts’ pursuit of gravitas didn’t begin with this project. Bennetts explains that although his practice’s early works were lightweight and transparent, ‘we then started looking at heavier buildings’ and this tied in with preoccupations with sustainability and integrity. ‘It’s as though the young generation have been brought up on surface,’ he says.

The massive brickwork and distinctly northern European idiom of Scott’s theatre was influenced by her former employer, the sometime Modernist Oliver Hill, and municipal projects by the Dutch architects Michel de Klerk and Willem Marinus Dudok. But the RST lacks its models’ formal assurance and, although Scott tried to articulate its volumes, she failed to resolve the bulk of its auditorium into a balanced composition.

Bennetts, faced with the awkward task of working with this listed artistic failure, added a 36-metre-high tower, clad in battered load-bearing brickwork (AJ.04.06.09), resembling Dudok’s 1965 Stadhuis van Velsen. Its verticality, scale and sturdy proportions help to resolve the composition, but it’s no oil painting and you might ask whether a town the size of Stratford-upon-Avon needs such a large municipal statement.

The secondary idiom of metal and glass is tough and un-precious. Steel cruciform columns support the balconies in the RST auditorium and back-of-house corridors have stainless steel dados. The new curtain-walled entrance facade and third-floor setback, with over-sailing roof, say ‘business park’, but the tower says ‘town hall’.

Despite these formal shortcomings, the project is overwhelmingly successful on a practical level, rising above the utilitarian as a real celebration of its function. Buro Happold project principal Stephen Jolly correctly likens it to a machine. There’s much more going on in the building’s engineering than meets the eye, for example in its fire strategy.

Scott’s vast auditorium, which resembled a cinema, was made redundant by transformations in the style of theatrical production. The picture frame arrangement, which became popular after Shakespeare and placed actors behind a proscenium, was superseded by the thrust stage which brought them closer to the audience and surrounded them on three sides, more like the ‘Wooden O’ of Shakespeare’s time.

The Swan Theatre’s thrust stage was a triumph and was identified as the model for the RST, long before Bennetts’ appointment. ‘It was never in doubt that it was going to be this kind of auditorium’, says Erridge. You could say it was short-sighted to replicate this arrangement and that such a universal consensus is unhealthy, although there was fierce sectarian debate over the best type of thrust stage, with RSC founder Peter Hall favouring the half-thrust, which avoids placing sections of the audience behind actors. Nevertheless, the objective was an improved version of the Swan which would be larger without sacrificing intimacy.  

Bennetts worked closely with theatre consultant Charcoalblue to resolve the auditorium’s complex geometry. ‘We chiselled away at curved and faceted forms,’ says Charcoalblue managing director Andy Hayles. The team also monitored performances in Ian Ritchie Architects’ Courtyard Theatre, built as a temporary replacement for the RST (AJ 07.09.06) and the 12-sided form that it settled on improves on its acoustics by aligning the auditorium wall with the back row of seating.

Scott’s theatre was designed for summer festivals and its front of house facilities were inadequate for the all-day building that the RSC envisaged. This has been rectified by using the space freed up by compressing the RST’s auditorium and adding a glazed colonnade which connects the two theatres for the first time and provides views in.

The tower helps to provide lift access throughout and the views from its lantern, which can be opened to the elements, are amazing. The well-appointed dressing rooms are a tonic to actors weary of the tough lifestyle that Peter O’Toole once described as ‘pissing in the sink’.

This project will be an enormous success, aided by the fact that it’s controversial enough to provoke heated dinner party conversation. Before Bennetts’ appointment, the RSC abandoned a comprehensive reconstruction proposal by Dutch architect Erick Van Egeraat that entailed demolishing both theatres.

If affordable, this could have avoided many complications such as the challenge of constructing a basement next to a river and meeting thermal performance targets with a listed building envelope. It would also have improved the chances of achieving an integrated whole and the marriage between Shakespearean theatre and up-to-the-minute architecture might have produced an exhilarating and heroic monument.

This was not to be, however, and the result is altogether more pragmatic. As Rab Bennetts philosophically observes, ‘If you try to reach perfection, that is part of the problem.’

See full plans and hi-res images of this building, and hundreds like it, in the new AJ Buildings Library. For a free trial, or to include your project in the database, please contact ajbl.editor@emap.com

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