Established in 1981, Ian Ritchie Architects is based in London but works throughout Europe. The practice has been shortlisted for the Stirling Prize three times, for the Crystal Palace Concert Platform in London, the Plymouth Theatre Royal Production Centre, and the Dublin Spire.
It is apt that the play chosen to open the Royal Shakespeare Company's (RSC's) Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon is that epic trilogy of rebellion and war, Henry VI. It and Ian Ritchie's new building seem absolutely compatible. Ritchie's exterior presents as a fortress. Inside, the centrepiece of the set is a tower welded from Cor-ten steel. Both the building and the play leave the impression of determined and resolute power.
One of the play's heroes, Lord Talbot, is said by Thomas Nashe, a contemporary of Shakespeare, to have been intended as a reproach to the 'degenerate effeminate times' of late 16th-century England, and the new Courtyard Theatre is certainly a reproach to the po-faced conservationist attitudes to building in historic centres in the early 21st century.
Due to the fact that it will be dismantled in 2010, the Courtyard Theatre may not be one of Ritchie's most enduring projects but, like Henry VI, it may be that the new building proves to be surprisingly popular. Built within the car park of the existing workshop theatre, the RSC's official line on the Courtyard is that it is temporary, it fits well into the town, and it is entirely fit for purpose. Its rusting red Cor-ten walls certainly match the red brick of Stratford's contextual built fabric, and there is both strength and integrity in the plain lines and sheer bulk of the building, even when softened and partially obscured by the summer curtain of mature trees that lines the river. From the banks of the Avon and the parkland it is a reluctant player and something that you have to look for. It certainly has less impact than the original Royal Shakespeare Theatre which stands, brooding, like an industrial mill.
Despite this however, Ritchie's building is an uneasy fit.
It is juxtaposed like a smelter plant dropped into a chocolate box setting. It is novel, provocative and powerful - and therefore perhaps an entirely fitting base for an ambitious and radical theatre company.
The building is 14m high and looks as though it is constructed from basic sheet piling. In truth, this is Ritchie's own bit of theatre. It was his original intention to use 10mm-thick Cor-ten A raw-sheet excavation piling and have it locked together to act as a sheer wall and take all the roof loads. A clever, inventive solution, if it worked. However, it proved difficult to test and develop this idea on programme, so the building envelope is in fact a specially produced Cor-ten A sheet, made in Holland by ZNS Van Dam to look like sheet piling. Columns are braced and hidden inside the profiled metal and connected to roof trusses which support the roof and carry the lighting grid and access bridges.
The columns are slim as the sheet cladding adds lateral stiffness.
Though not as interesting as the original idea, it allowed the building to be completed on time, to budget and more accurately.
Externally, it has retained a simple and strong sculptural quality and, despite the incongruity of its form and finish, it is contextual.
The context does not come from mimicking a structure built centuries ago - like The Other Place, the existing workshop theatre designed in the early 1980s by Michael Reardon - but from the creation of a building which is absolutely responsive to the needs of the company.
The theatre layout works well, wrapping intimately around the stage, the audience enveloped by the action - from the stage itself, from behind the seating areas and aerially. The Courtyard Theatre footprint echoes that of the Rose Theatre in London and the Swan Theatre across the road. It is a 'thrust' stage theatre, so the audience is completely immersed. The entire theatre, says RSC theatre designer Tom Piper, will be dismantled in 2010 and stored. It has an experimental, 'workshop' feel to it, and Ritchie's external aesthetic of rusting steel is echoed indoors in balustrades of industrial metal, and complemented by internal walls and seat-backs of raw plywood and a general feel of transience in the decor.
The developmental history of the new Courtyard Theatre is notable, for it has come about as a result of the inadequacies of its larger neighbour, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre - the existing home of the RSC - designed by Elizabeth Scott. 'The Royal' is a Grade II-listed Art Deco structure and has, since its completion in 1932, been found wanting by audiences and actors alike. Although able to hold 1,400 people, its stage is regarded as lacking sufficient proximity to the audience to promote any sense of intimacy.
Sight-lines are poor and both audience and players complain of a lack of sensitivity and feedback. The front of house is cramped and the support spaces and back-of-stage areas are shared with The Swan - a theatre converted from a Victorian building in 1978 by Michael Reardon and Tim Furby to recreate the atmosphere of an Elizabethan playhouse - and are awkward and difficult to use.
Certainly, the difference between the centre stage experience in the Courtyard and The Royal is remarkable.
The Courtyard seating surrounds the stage, embracing and supporting the actors. The audience can see the actors' faces, read every nuance and hear every aside remark. The 1932 Royal building has a fan-shaped auditorium more characteristic of a cinema, its proscenium arch layout keeping the public at a distance and making it difficult for the actors to engage directly with their audience.
Since the early 1990s the company has been planning to transform the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in order to improve the auditorium and bring the actors and audience closer together.
Bennetts Associates has been appointed to rework the original theatre, improve visitor facilities, create a new public square and entrance, and enhance the river walkways to make the building adapt better to its setting. Most significantly though, the theatre will be turned from a proscenium arch layout into a thrust theatre, modelled on the Courtyard.
The transformation of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre will be a £100 million project, with half of the funding coming from Arts Council England; £20 million from a grant awarded by Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency; and the rest from private donations and other sponsors. The work is scheduled to start in 2007 and will take three years to complete.
Shakespeare is very big business. The bard is calculated to bring £55 million into Warwickshire each year in tourism and tourist-related revenue. Fundamental to the whole Shakespeare experience is a visit to the home of the internationally respected Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon and the chance to see one of their productions. The RSC itself contributes £32 million to the region each year. Any loss of continuity would inevitably disappoint tourists and Shakespeare purists alike, and so the planned refurbishment of the theatre gave the region and Stratford Council a real problem of what to do during its closure.
Ritchie's temporary Courtyard Theatre was the solution.
Ritchie's building accommodates an audience of 1,050 in comfort, although admittedly there is little luxury. His team, the RSC designers and their theatre consultants, Charcoalblue have created, in a very short space of time and for relatively little money, a genuinely provocative envelope to an extraordinary working theatre. Its temporary nature, much stressed by all involved, does however militate against an authentic debate on how we should build contemporary works in historic centres.
This statement building suggests that such architecture could be visionary and bold and that there is merit in taking an unapologetic approach. Looking at the circumstances pragmatically, it is unlikely that the building would have gained planning permission had it been intended as a permanent structure.
Even though it will definitely be taken down in 2010 no matter how popular it becomes, says the RSC, there is still opposition to it from conservationists in the town. It is interesting to speculate what Ritchie's attitude would have been to a permanent theatre on the site. Would the building have been softened at the edges, to salve the ire of conservationists? I hope not. Other new buildings adjoining the site are, in the main, a disappointing pastiche.
All in all, Ritchie's building works well, its form and structure the essence of simplicity. The choice of material is quixotic and has few, if any, concessions to refinement. Interfaces, like the junction between the older workshop building and the new, are handled without any fuss. It is disappointing that you have to enter the Courtyard Theatre through the original entrance for The Other Place, and the red-and-black decor of the foyer is clichéd and somewhat tawdry. Once inside however, it is clear that the building has integrity and rigour. It is a metal tent for wandering players; Shakespeare would have doubtless approved.
The original structural concept was to construct perimeter walls formed of interlocking steel sheet piles to provide a continuous load-bearing perimeter skin. The Larssen LX12 sheet piles chosen were available in Cor-ten and in suitable lengths. Once locked together, each sheet-piled wall elevation would act as a shear wall, eliminating the need for any cross-bracing to stabilise the walls. The continuous load-bearing perimeter skin would impose a uniformly distributed line load around the base which would then only require simple mass concrete-strip footing foundations. Within the sunken slab area the perimeter strip footing would act as a retaining wall. Off-the-shelf, proprietary 'Metsec' roof trusses and purlins would form a simple shallow pitched roof. However, the built structural solution is a series of shallow-pitch portal frames, braced in the longitudinal direction, and clad with 5mm thick Cor-ten steel. These are brake-pressed into a sheet pile profile. They incorporate weather strips at the panel junctions, and are partially welded. The columns of the portal frames are located within the re-entrant profile of the Cor-ten cladding. This solution was proposed by ZNS Van Dam, just before planning permission was granted, to enable it to guarantee the building tolerances between the walls and the roof beams - very difficult to achieve with sheet piling - and to improve on the erection time of the building envelope. The concept of providing a continuous perimeter trench footing has been retained by reinforcing the footing locally to account for additional forces at the column bases. The permanent formwork system aided the construction of the trench footing alongside the adjacent The Other Place building, removed the need for concrete blinding, and reduced the amount of digging. Ensuring the structure and foundations were independent from The Other Place minimised the impact the new auditorium structure would have on the fabric of the existing building.
Costs refer to gross internal area.
Cost analysis based on tender sum.
SUBSTRUCTURE Foundations/slabs £92.01/m 2Excavation, reinforced-concrete strip footings, reinforced concrete ground slab and retaining walls
SUPERSTRUCTURE Frame £96.98/m 2 Composite-steel roof trusses, supporting columns and secondary purlins, steel frame to new mezzanines in existing building Upper floors £81.90/m 2Plywood upper oors Roof £52.50/m 2 Profiled-steel roof decking and sound insulation with single ply membrane roof Staircases £111.76/m 2Steel stairs, high level bridges and balcony fronts External walls £163.02/m 2 Cor-ten steel cladding with sound insulation and plywood lining. Brickwork to core in existing building Windows £2.57/m 2Hardwood windows to existing building External doors £15.05/m 2 Cor-ten-faced doors to new building, hardwood to existing building Internal walls and partitions £48.03/m 2Metal framed internal walls with ply or plasterboard lining. Proprietary WC cubicles Internal doors £38.38/m 2Metal acoustic doors, softwood non-acoustic doors
INTERNAL FINISHES Wall finishes £11.43/m 2Generally self-finished. Clear lacquer to ply linings Floor finishes £32.47/m 2Carpet to auditorium, vinyl to other areas Ceiling finishes £6.63/m 2Generally self-finished
FITTINGS AND FURNISHINGS Furniture £147.61/m 2Bars and counters, theatre seating and stage equipment
SERVICES Sanitary appliances £6.86/m 2Disposal installations £10.76/m 2Extension of existing system Water installations £10.42/m 2Space heating/air treatment £124.74/m 2Displacement ventilation to auditorium with underseat supply in stalls and overhead fabric ducts to upper levels Electrical services £163.67/m 2Electrical supply, mains distribution, lighting throughout, including auditorium house lighting, emergency lighting, fire alarm, stage lighting system and dimmers Lift installations £9.18/m 2DDA compliant lift to existing building serving two oors Communication installations £88.36/m 2Theatre sound and communications, video system, paging and intercom Builders' work in connection £3.08/m 2
EXTERNAL WORKS Landscaping, ancillary buildings £54.71/m 2Electricity substation to serve new building, making good roads and pavings
PRELIMINARIES AND INSURANCES Preliminaries, overheads and profit £219.24/m 2 Credits Tender date January 2005 Start on site date 2 May 2005 Contract Duration 58 weeks Gross internal floor area 3,570m 2 Form of contract 3 separate JCT with Contractors Design Total Cost £5,681,146 Client RSC Board Members RSC Courtyard Theatre Team Led by Simon Harper (RSC Courtyard project director), Anna Anderson, Sara Aspley, Caroline Barnett, Alan Bartlett, Trudi Boon, Simon Bowler, Elizabeth Brown, Pat Colcutt, Felix Davies, Jeremy Dunn, Jane Ellis, Steve Haworth, Madeleine Henry, Vince Herbert, Geoff Locker, Alistair McArthur, Roger Mortlock, Chris O'Brien, Tom Piper, Flip Tanner, Harry Teale, Andy Williams Architect Ian Ritchie Architects: Rui Dias (project architect), Ian Ritchie, Anthony Summers Structural engineer WSP Acoustics Paul Gillieron Acoustic Design M&E engineer King Shaw Associates Theatre services Charcoalblue Quantity surveyor Gardiner & Theobald Project manager Drivers Jonas Contractor for The Courtyard Theatre ZNS Van Dam Geveltechniek Contractor for The Other Place AMEC Planning consultant Thurley Associates Access advisor Shape Subcontractors and suppliers Auditorium electrical contractor Stage Electrics; stage engineering contractor Total Solutions; seating and carpet contractor Kirwin & Simpson; balcony fronts Steeldeck; air-handling system EIC; carpentry Desert Oak; lighting Strand Lighting; production-related automation systems Stage Technologies; fit out works, including automation room and box office AMC Contracts; shop fi t out and programme counter Concept Display Systems