Haworth Tompkins’ master performance at the Everyman Theatre has given Liverpool a satisfyingly schizophrenic landmark, writes Jay Merrick. Photography by Philip Vile
In the 1970s, Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre was a hotbed of left-leaning agitation and propaganda. Productions took place in Hope Hall, originally a 19th-century church for dissenters. Audiences sat on pews or ex-cinema seats around the 10m-deep thrust stage, and actors such as Julie Walters, Bill Nighy, Alison Steadman and Jonathan Pryce were part of the grainily monochrome, duffel-coated vibe. This was Liverpool in the days of Bill Shankly, The Scaffold, the Liverpool Poets and a young fireman called Derek Hatton, the future Trotskyite radical and anti-rate-capping Liverpool council leader.
In these agitprop-lite times, Haworth Tompkins has not attempted a faux-radical chapel of spittle-flecked declamation. It has delivered a new Everyman of architectural civility, in terms of the building’s internal character and its wittily two-faced relationship with the very different streets that confront its main and rear elevations. The £13.4 million scheme is also an object-lesson in presenting cheap-as-chips recycled materials to engaging, and often elegant, effect.
The spatial and material qualities are touching: one reaches out instinctively to feel bricks, handrails, edges, plywood surfaces; this heightened degree of physicality recalls the interiors of the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings, replete with HAT Projects’ beautifully tuned volumes and material details.
Steve Tompkins says the fundamental idea was to create a building of great density. But that phrase only makes sense in the way the practice argued against rebirthing the Everyman on a bigger site elsewhere. The theatre segment of the Everyman occupies the same square site of the original Hope Hall, plus a slim, roughly triangular fillet of newly acquired land adjoining the site in Arrad Street. The new building is not in the least dense: apart from a slight sense of compression in the ground-floor reception area and basement café, the overriding impression is of spaciousness.
The auditorium, encased in 25,000 bricks reclaimed from the demolished Hope Hall, anchors the northern portion of the building, with the stacked rehearsal and community theatre volumes on the southern side. The public sections and theatre offices form a vertical west-facing layer of four floors facing Hope Street, and the get-in and theatrical back-of-house section looks east over Arrad Street.
The reception spaces, and vertical connections, are characterised by a mixture of tough, expressed brick and concrete internal structure enlivened by a collage of volumes, cut-outs and cross-views. There is no sense of the generic theatrical ‘crush’ - smelling of tired perfume, sour wine, and gin and tonic - that typified small repertory theatres in the Everyman’s original heyday. Haworth Tompkins has replaced that quaintness with an architecture of engrossing spatial and atmospheric situations; and these are embedded within an influential contextual situation.
Hard up against the north side of the Everyman’s Hope Street facade is the Grade II* Liverpool Medical Institution, with its 1837 Greek Revival columns, bays and pilasters; it’s rather dumpy, but it gave Tompkins the idea of classicising the first floor of the theatre’s reception and circulation as a long piano nobile bar and milling space, from which the well-furnished and equipped auditorium is entered.
About 100m further north looms the ferroconcrete crown of thorns of Frederick Gibberd’s Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King; 50m west is the 19th-century ex-convent whose slim barley-twist chimneys prompted the spiralling brickwork on the four magnificently portly vents rising from the Everyman’s auditorium, expelling air drawn into that volume from a plenum between the basement and stage levels.
Through Tompkins’ eyes, the Hope Street elevation registers as a Postmodern palazzo; the conceit is conceptually, and literally, debatable. Most of the facade is appliquéd human context, a collage of Dan Kenyon’s 105 monochrome images of randomly selected Liverpudlians, hole-punched into a deliberately unsophisticated screen of aluminium panels whose angles can be manually altered from inside the building: adjustpeeps, rather than agitprop.
In a street of strong 19th-century character, this busy facade is relatively insubstantial, and rendered more so by the fact that, despite the crimson neon lettering designed by Jake Tilson, the long overhang above the glazed ground-floor reception frontage lacks decisive horizontal profiling. But this slight vagueness accentuates the peculiarly satisfying typological schizophrenia of the Everyman’s front and back.
In Hope Street we encounter a loose-fit, classically motivated building. At the back, in Arrad Street, we find a rather monumental brick edifice, whose massing, asymmetries in plan and stepped elevation suggest Aalto and Lewerentz. We are looking at the back of a theatre, but it could just as easily be a foundry or a crematorium.
This back-of-house segment, with its triangulated dressing room window bays, carries the gaze to the next building along, an ex-Victorian workshop, beyond which is a delicately glazed Bauhausian 1960s building: the character and streetscape value of these nominally ordinary buildings have been accentuated by the Everyman’s unexpectedly superb rump.
Internally, the qualities of the spatial situations are anchored to the public areas on the ground and first floors, and the main staircase that rises up the south-western outer corner of the auditorium. It’s a finely wrought Raumplan that is particularly engrossing from the lounge bar in the piano nobile. From here, there are angled vistas into several volumes on three levels; loose-fit becomes precisely Loos-fit, achieved by careful study of 1:25 models.
The perspectives in the piano nobile are accentuated by the raking concrete beams and structural columns - the latter held back from the glazed facade - and by straight rows of small copper-disc light fittings with softly lucent LED bulbs. These reappear in the sepia gloaming of the basement café, hanging in a Heath Robinson pulley system which allows people to adjust the height of the lights. It’s a particular pleasure to absorb - by eye, touch and shifts of atmosphere - the material details: tables made of reclaimed iroko lab desks; wall-facings contrived from shuttering boards and ply cut up into ribs; heavily grained handrails made of recycled tulipwood; three different types of concrete finish; unplaned oak floorboards; and the brusque bricks of Hope Hall. These fittings and surfaces give subtle tractions to the sense of space, and shifts of light and shade.
It cannot be long before Derek Hatton, aka Degsy, pitches up for a performance. The Trot-turned-property developer (agitrotprop?) has now morphed into an avuncular, perma-tanned motivational speaker who says he ‘believes passionately in keeping fit, eating the right things and takes 27 vitamins a day’.
The city prefers oriental remedies: Chinese investors are being wooed to finance the proposed £10 billion redevelopment of tracts of land on both sides of the mouth of the Mersey. The quality of architecture and placemaking will be left to the tender mercies of those visionary masters of floorplate development, Peel Group.
At the northern end of Hope Street, history and expressive contemporary energies have been regenerated by something more potent than PowerPoint hallucinations: an architectural duty of care which has, as Tompkins suggests, produced ‘a building that’s grounded and alive in the moment’.
Jay Merrick is architecture correspondent of the Independent