A HYBRID SPACE OF ROMANTIC DERELICTION...THE EXPOSED STONE WALLS ARE MASSIVE, ROBUST AND DIGNIFIED, EVEN IN DECREPITUDE
Haworth Tompkins was formed in 1991 by Graham Haworth and Steve Tompkins. The studio has worked on schools, galleries, housing, offi ces, factories and shops. The Egg is the latest in a series of theatre projects that includes the Royal Court Theatre, Almeida King's Cross and the Gainsborough Studios, all in London. Theatre projects for the Young Vic in Waterloo and St Edwards School in Oxford are currently on site.
When reviewing a venue called The Egg, a writer could be tempted by the opportunity to beat the reader into submission with puns; commenting on how neatly the architect cracked the brief; describing the complexity of working within a Grade II-listed Victorian shell or dramatising the last-minute scramble before the first curtain call. This temptation has been resisted, despite its pertinence to this particular story; a story with a dense plot, on a dense plot; a story that proudly introduces The Egg - a new theatre for children, young people and their families.
The story began seven years ago when the Theatre Royal gave Haworth Tompkins its first job in Bath, the university city of director Steve Tompkins. The commission, through competitive interview, gave his team the opportunity to consolidate its experience as theatre architects. As with the practice's previous theatre work, this is a modest, yet highly worked project combining a sensitive approach to the re-use of a prime civic listed building with a commitment to practicality, modesty and user consultation.
Haworth Tompkins resisted the temptation to spend the limited (£2.3 million) budget on one or two big architectural gestures, opting instead to use minimum means to achieve maximum effect by filling the retained Victorian volume with a series of theatrical set-like backdrops designed to encourage performances, both spontaneous and rehearsed.
While maintaining the essential butterfly-inducing excitement and formality of a traditional theatre (complete with foyer, ceremonial stair and symmetrical three-tier horseshoe auditorium), the spaces blur the boundary between front and back of house, creating a vibrant theatre-school campus in microcosm.
A dedicated rehearsal studio and stage-set workshops allow young actors and audiences to gain first-hand experience of all aspects of theatre life. In a world where virtual entertainment gets children wired while parents reach for the plug, this building provides a healthy alternative. When it is full of children, the atmosphere is beyond electric, and unprepared adults should enter at their own risk. There are no stifling facilities-management regimes. Nothing here is precious. This is very much a building for children and this has everything to do with the building's design.
Even during the interview process, the client group included representatives from FUSE; a group of 12 or so six to 18 years olds, who have literally grown-up with the building and made a significant contribution along the way. Their input was critical in enabling them to produce a building that FUSE and future generations would adopt as their own. Imposing an adult's interpretation of what a child may or may not engage with would have been a waste of time, producing patronising gimmicks and unnecessary bells and whistles. As it was, a dialogue was encouraged that allowed an open trade of ideas. When the brief from the children was written as a narrative, the architect responded in a similar medium. Children and adults were encouraged to share ideas openly without fear of each generation sounding stupid to the other. The children were harsh critics, refusing to be patronised with naff ideas and often surprising the team with the sophistication and ambition of their responses.
Added to this, the design team had to accommodate an extremely demanding technical brief that included a 120seat auditorium, control, green and dressing rooms, a workshop, a rehearsal studio, a lively foyer, and adequate circulation space and also called for front and back of house links to the adjacent Ustinov Studio and Main House venues. The design strategy needed to absorb this high degree of intricacy on an extremely tight site on the corner of a complex precinct of historic buildings.
From an early stage, the design team acknowledged that the auditorium - as the heart of the building - would need to be treated as a discrete object placed lightly within the existing envelope. For reasons of practicality (accessibility, servicing and acoustics) an intermediate internal layer was needed that could isolate the audience from the retained facade and the new helterskelter staircase. The team did consider orthogonal box-in-a-box options, but the egg-in-a-box (with the 'leftover' space allowing for wings, side/backstage areas and entrance lobbies) quickly emerged as the popular choice. Clearly distinct in form from the adjacent Ustinov Studio, the Egg provides flexible performance space (it can be used end-on, in the round, with a flat floor or even transversely) and is able to double as a lantern-like beacon when seen from the street. It was also felt to convey the necessary glamour and ambition for the new theatre.
Viewed against the exposed external walls, the elliptical auditorium is as much an architectural delight as it is a practical, easy-to-use performance space. The architects talk at length about the quality of this hybrid space, which they see as a curious form of romantic dereliction. The exposed walls are the room's steady state; a moderator, an architectural baseline - massive, robust and dignified, even in decrepitude. Through a selective and painterly attitude to demolition, the architect sought to create a suitably non-specific backdrop, that remains curiously particular; a mode it is felt represents today's prevalent post-neutral-box attitude to contemporary theatre design. New window cases - richly lined in red felt - maintain the building's character and identity, while allowing the space to be fully blacked out or daylit. And, when coupled with the filtering effect of the translucent GRP egg-shell, the space allows for virtually any lighting mode in between.
The cross-section of the building demonstrates how the theatre's principal spaces are ordered, with the equivalent of six floors being compacted into a tight 15m four-tier arrangement.
In the original basement there are toilets and a props workshop;
the ground floor, which is compressed beneath the concrete seatpit, is given over to a single large foyer that links through to the Ustinov Studio; and a new mansard attic storey contains a plylined rehearsal studio and green room, held within a contemporary roof-form that has been distorted to respect English Heritage and local planning constraints. All six levels are then served by a circulation spine that winds its way nimbly through an existing light-well set against the Main House party wall.
Throughout the building, all details reflect the attentive care of an extremely well-mannered and sensitive contractor. From demolition to fit-out, contractor and architect worked side by side, without inevitable unforeseen as-found conditions raising endless contractual change-orders. Of particular note are the ply stair, carefully hand-made on site and painted black to reveal the subtle grain, not of the wood, but of the production rollers; the felt egg-shell walls, that soften the acoustics within each of the three terraced lobbies; and the rusted handrail, simply left in the rain before being sealed with beeswax.
From its past existence as a rather dingy cinema, this building now has a new life. The previously blind facades have new eyes onto Bath's charmingly hotchpotch cultural quarter.
Bath's West End hosts a new type of theatre, and Theatre Royal Bath has a less well-behaved sibling to sit alongside its more disciplined Main House and Ustinov Studio. Having avoided many of the more obvious puns, perhaps one could be forgiven for saying that, having experienced the chaotic cabaret of the opening night, there is a great deal of anticipation to see what will emerge when this particular egg hatches.