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Garsington Opera Pavilion, Buckinghamshire, Snell Associates

Snell Associates’ Garsington Opera pavilion is eclectic, lightweight, demountable and connects with its landscape setting, says Felix Mara. Photography by Dennis Gilbert

Despite working longer hours than any other European nation, Britons take their leisure time very seriously, especially in the summer. Epic cricket contests, the Proms, the Serpentine Pavilion – and it often seems that money is no object.

This national preoccupation, along with British architecture’s penchant for eclecticism, is demonstrated in Snell Associates’ Garsington Opera pavilion, which opened for its first season in June – and closed one month later.

Founded in 1989 by Leonard and Rosalind Ingrams, Garsington Opera stages summer festivals. It takes its name from their home, Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire, which they used as a venue for outdoor performances of both popular and experimental opera, accompanied by picnic and tea tents.

‘It was basically an opera in a lean-to on the patio in their garden,’ says Snell Associates’ director Robin Snell. When Leonard Ingrams died in 2005, Anthony Whitworth-Jones became general director of Garsington Opera which, working with Snell, began to look for a new home.

After agreeing preliminary designs for a new 600-seat auditorium, they eventually found a site in Buckinghamshire, in the Getty family’s Wormsley Park. Snell’s proposal was awarded planning consent, and over a year the company raised £3.5 million from corporate members and devoted audiences, who pay upwards of £100 a ticket. Following the American model of cultural financing, it did not apply for public funding, and so enjoys a high degree of autonomy.

The condition was that it should be a temporary home: the lease lasts 15 years and the planning consent is for a temporary building. Also, both landlord and planners require Garsington Opera to dismantle its venue at the end of every season and move it offsite. So it was clear from the start that, like its previous incarnation, this was not going to be a conventional opera venue.

Gastington

Snell drew on his experience of lightweight construction, acquired while working at Hopkins Architects on the Teflon-coated glassfibre-roofed Schlumberger Cambridge Research Centre, as well as on Snell Associates projects such as the Water Activities Centre near Norwich (AJ 22.09.05).

The result was a lightweight fabric envelope, timber decking and trussed steel framework with split pin connections throughout, erected in under four weeks, taking as long again to dismantle and remove. Along with theatre and acoustics specialists, Snell also consulted rock concert designers. ‘They were less worried about the architecture,’ he says, ‘but here, we were going to be worried about the architecture’.

Garsington was beginning to take shape as a very eclectic project – a heady mix of transferred technologies; more traditional concerns of European architecture; and, as we shall see, the English landscape tradition, Japanese theatre, architecture and gardens, and of course opera – itself an eclectic mixture of singing, orchestra, theatricality and design. The question was whether this would be an eclecticism that simply mixes its sources, or one that melds them as well.

Snell responded to the picturesque qualities of Wormsley Park, its rolling landscape, flooded valley and the nearby flint and brickwork buildings of Home Farm – all visible from the auditorium. ‘The building almost positioned itself,’ says Snell, who chose a level area of the site where the pavilion nestles against the surrounding woodlands and faces the lake, like Henry Flitcroft’s Pantheon at Stourhead.

Early designs submitted to the planners, who were extremely supportive, are like a Modernist take on a peripteral Greek temple, with lofty white CHSs along its flanks, which were eventually replaced by triangular galvanised steel trusses that are much easier to manoeuvre on site. But its temple steps, designated for picnics, remained in what is otherwise a very subdued north front.

Snell dropped the classical image of a white frame contrasting with its Virgilian setting and opted for something more harmonious, with galvanised steel, a silver-grey PVC soffit and hardwood. ‘It doesn’t draw attention to itself,’ says Whitworth-Jones. White is reserved for external sliding screens and here the pavilion begins to resemble the Japanese shoin idiom of Katsura Detached Palace in Kyoto.

Snell was initially interested in the hanamichi, or flower paths, which feature in Japanese Kabuki theatre – an interesting connection because Kabuki, like opera, is a hybrid that combines singing and dancing. Snell noticed the way its performers, rather than being rooted on the stage, use the hanamichi to pass through the audience, and although this idea never took shape in Garsington’s auditorium, it is redeployed in its perimeter verandas and bridges.

Snell’s focus then migrated from Kabuki to shoin architecture, which connects with the idea of a pavilion, a raised deck and a large internal space enclosed by lightweight sliding screens, as well as Garsington’s setting next to a lake, although Katsura is flatter, with more confined external spaces.

There’s also a resonance with Jean Prouvé’s Maisons Tropicales, designed as prototype accommodation for French West African colonies. Though smaller than Garsington, they have stilts and external staircases, and are demountable and prefabricated – but also bespoke. ‘The contractor told us if we wanted to do it bespoke, it wouldn’t make much difference to the price,’ says Snell.

This was an opportunity for resourceful, and in some ways low-tech, design – light fittings supported by simple curved sheet-metal brackets fixed to the vertical trusses, vertical meshed cable trays, a disabled access lift clad in perforated metal, and stainless steel gargoyles that throw rainwater onto patches of gravel below the verandas. A commercial architect would have front-loaded Garsington, probably with an ‘iconic’ foyer.

But what is noticeable about Snell’s approach is the way he uniformly spreads his modest budget throughout the building fabric, paying careful attention to the radius of clamping member arrises so that it’s easier to install the fabric membrane, and developing customised seating that is comfortable and slots out of Halfen channels when the pavilion is struck.

There’s something very open about this approach that the pavilion’s users have responded to. Rather than rejecting it as ‘industrial’, they appreciate its frankness and the ease with which the venue can be adapted. ‘The whole thing is a bit like a rig for opera – it’s a fun palace,’ says Snell, using a phrase coined by his tutor, the radical visionary Cedric Price.

A temporary, lightweight, demountable building, with a semi-exposed environment and no mechanical ventilation, heated by a few suspended radiant panels, seems an unlikely venue for professional opera. But Whitworth-Jones is adamant that this is a serious undertaking. ‘I was absolutely determined to get the best possible standards,’ he says. ‘It’s very, very comfortable.’ Acoustician Bob Essert, director of Sound Space Design, concedes that performers are likely to be young with fairly lightweight voices, and that the repertoire will concentrate on smaller operatic works.

He also makes no promises to eliminate background noise, which is free to pass through large openings in the pavilion’s fabric: ‘The birds are what they are, the thunderstorms are what they are and the wind is what it is.’ But, with other design team members, he has worked hard to control room acoustics. ‘You need a bit of space for sound to develop and blend,’ says Anne Minors, principal designer at Anne Minors Performance, who worked out the sightlines.

This accounts for its proportions, which follow the shoebox model. Intimacy, she explains, is less of a priority in opera than in theatre. Although the auditorium looks deep because it has no circles, as Snell says, ‘there’s not one bad seat in the house’.

What’s most impressive is the way that Sound Space Design and Snell have worked with the pavilion’s lightweight fabric to augment and control sound reflection, using the convex PVC membrane roof and its sleek, sculpted and tilted walls of shiny, clear PVC. An outer roof membrane, which Snell describes as a ‘string vest’, disperses rain and reduces its noise level by 14 decibels. These are remarkable achievements for a feather-light transformer of a building, which some even perceive as a permanent structure. ‘It may well be that we go on and on,’ says Whitworth-Jones.

On the whole, Garsington succeeds at melding, rather than just mixing, its multiple influences, but not always with finesse. Preliminary drawings showed scalloped roof overhangs, convex in plan, but after a form-finding exercise that addressed structural, drainage and acoustic requirements, these mutated into the spiky bat-wings that now dominate the pavilion’s skyline – more expressive than graceful.

And there’s something loose and almost shambolic about its demeanour and the way it seems ready to clatter across the valley like the Bumblebee robot from Transformers, which is part of its rustic charm. But it’s also remarkably consistent and disciplined and, as befits this eccentric festival, totally unique and radical.

Credits

Start on site November 2010
Completion May 2011
Gross internal floor area 2,065m²
Form of contract JCT Design & Build, revision 2 2009
Construction cost £1.8 million
Cost per square metre £872
Client Garsington Opera
Architect Snell Associates
Structural engineer Momentum
M&e consultant Buro Happold
Acoustician Sound Space Design
Theatre consultants Ian Mackintosh, Theatreplan and Anne Minors Performance Consultants
Quantity surveyor Gardiner & Theobald
Cdm co-ordinator Gardiner & Theobald
Approved building inspector Oculus Building Consultancy
Planning consultant Nathaniel Litchfield & Partners
Main contractor Unusual Rigging
Steelwork contractor Sheetfabs
Fabric roof and cladding contractor Architen Landrell
Electrical works Capri Mechanical Services
Auditorium seating Race Furniture
Timber James Latham
Glazed entrance screens Sun Paradise
Donor boards Rankins Glass
Signage Glyphics
Light fittings Bega
Radiant heating panels Solray (Comyn Ching & Co)
Access lift Ability Lifting Solutions
Stage decking Steeldeck (Kings Cross Manufacturing)
Foyer furniture Race Furniture

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