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The tortoise & the hare: The Shed by Haworth Tompkins

Haworth Tompkins’ Shed runs rings around the National Theatre, but is it more than a sideshow? asks Felix Mara

I sit in the Espresso Bar of the National Theatre, exchanging Denys Lasdun stories with Steve Tompkins. Steve is a director of Haworth Tompkins, architect of the NT Future redevelopment of Lasdun’s masterwork, its first phase due to finish next year. Out of the corner of my eye I see the entrance to The Shed, a temporary theatre docked against the National and opened in April as part of this enterprise.

The whole complex is steeped in legend. It’s said Lasdun drank a bottle of whiskey every day while working on the National and that the project architect was taken off site in a straightjacket. ‘Denys was one of them,’ Lasdun’s partner John Hurley once said, likening him to former National director Lawrence Olivier. ‘He was larger than life.’ Lasdun’s appointment was announced on the day JFK was assassinated and the National opened in the year the Sex Pistols recorded Anarchy in the UK. From ’60s positivism to chaos in 13 years.

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We both admire the spatial complexity and drama of Lasdun’s foyers, which remind me of Adolphe Appia stage designs, but when I reflect that he designed few theatres, Tompkins, by comparison a veteran, says the National’s proscenium-arched Lyttleton auditorium is symptomatic, as the conversation turns to critique. Tompkins first refers me to Michael Elliot’s Not Building for Posterity diatribe, delivered on the wave of megatheatre projects in the 1970s, and then to his own The Unfinished Theatre comment piece, written with Andrew Todd and published in The Architectural Review in July 2007.

The Unfinished Theatre highlights tensions between the aspirations of architects and the theatrical profession. ‘The great Modernist creators of space seem to have been temperamentally unsuited to making buildings that should serve as incomplete, responsive vessels for other creators to fill,’ it argues. ‘Elliot’s plea was for a more ephemeral, more demotic, loose-fit theatre architecture, the antithesis of the cavernous municipal theatres then so much in evidence.’ Better to have simple, temporary and found performance spaces. This resonated with the thinking in Peter Brook’s 1968 publication, The Empty Space.

Conceived and realised in 12 months as a temporary replacement while the experimental Cottesloe theatre - designed by Iain Mackintosh as part of the National complex - is being refurbished, The Shed was financed by revenue from the National’s New York production of War Horse and was less expensive than hiring a West End venue for the same length of time. Informed by these critiques, it is in nearly every way the subversive antithesis to the National. NT Future aims to bring the National up to date with current thinking in theatre design and make it more permeable, approachable and sustainable and, along with the refurbishment of the Cottesloe, which is to be renamed the Dorman Theatre, it involves adding new production and learning centres and regenerating the river front and foyers. Although the language of future construction will contrast with existing, it will look much more permanent than The Shed.

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Clad in stained rough-sawn softwood and Rodeca panels, with unfinished internal steel members and Key Clamp balustrades, The Shed is meant to look raw and temporary and its integrity has an affinity with Lasdun’s. It was inspired by Aldo Rossi’s Teatro del Mondo, a temporary floating theatre designed for the 1979 Venice Biennale, ‘a favourite architectural moment’, says Tompkins and a project he likes for its archetypal quality. He was reminded of it when working on the 2012 Biennale. The Teatro del Mondo itself had its roots in 18th century floating theatres designed for Venice’s Carnevale. If only The Shed could have been a movable structure. But as Tomkins points out, it occupies the only available space on the site.

The Shed’s red stain, chosen for its luminosity, contrasts with and revitalise the greys of the National and forms a vibrant backdrop that throws it into relief. The red boarding continues across the felt roof, which is highly visible. The red corner ventilation towers, suggesting a diminutive Battersea Power Station or a naïf inverted table, would have looked odd sitting on a black roof. ‘Although the red roof had questionable value, it says a lot about the National as a client with an interest in scenography,’ says Tompkins.

In other respects, but not in a forced way, The Shed is integrated with its host, responding to its bold geometric towers and board-marked concrete with similar modules, not only in its vertical setting out but also in its division into five bays, the same number as on the original fly tower.

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‘The Shed’s not something you’d want to keep,’ says Tompkins. ‘It’s too “in your face.”’ It also blocks daylight and views from the foyer. Its temporary quality, the antithesis to the National’s enduring monolithic concrete forms, is its defining characteristic. As a short-term commitment, it offers  more potential to experiment, without agonising about how it will weather and what future generations will think. Haworth Tompkins regards it as both an R&D project and an installation. A temporary theatre, with these festival qualities, must also have been a trump card because of its appeal to the theatrical profession’s love of spontaneity and improvisation.

Haworth Tompkins’ original idea was to design something flexible, but this would have carried a high premium. Whereas Lasdun’s unique take on Modernism involved notions of timelessness, which led him to a spiritual home in the ancient Greek theatre at Epidaurus - the inspiration for the National’s Olivier Theatre - Haworth Tompkins focused on two objectives. The first aim was to design an intimate venue with the popular thrust stage configuration, also reconfigurable as a theatre in the round, an arrangement which none of the auditoria at the National currently provides. The second aim involved further exploring the possibilities of sustainable theatre design.
The Shed’s materials can be 100 per cent recycled and it is fitted out with re-used seating. ‘Was it designed to be easy to re-erect?’ No, that would have been more expensive. It’s naturally ventilated, with low-level external perforated aluminium panels.

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‘We always knew we wanted it to be unplugged,’ says Tompkins. There’s no mechanical safety net, either. When I visited, I could hear external pneumatic drilling and Tompkins remembers an evening performance when there was a saxophonist playing outside the theatre.

‘It doesn’t need to be NR10,’ he says. We can only indulge The Shed’s blemishes and accept it as more than a sideshow because it is temporary.

Although The Shed has evolved in a disciplined way from a critique of the National, the relationship between the two buildings ultimately reminds you of Aesop’s fable of the Tortoise and the Hare. On the one hand, The Shed is agile like Aesop’s hare and seems to be taunting its neighbour, travelling lightly and playing ‘catch me if you can’, like the mysterious red-coated figure in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. The National, on the other hand, is like Aesop’s tortoise, which slowly and calmly perseveres and finally triumphs after the complacent hare takes a nap.

The interpretation of this analogy is that, despite its flaws, one should not write off the National. As The Unfinished Theatre argued, many different types of theatre are needed. In my view, there is still a place for vast, unwieldy, permanent and symbolic, but also elaborate and deep, complexes such as the National, albeit augmented and updated by projects such as The Shed.

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