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Bennetts Associates' new Hampstead Theatre in north London is an intimate and flexible space designed to open up new possibilities for the innovative theatrical company

The year 1964 was a memorable one for London theatre. Peter Brook's Marat/Sade opened at the RSC with Glenda Jackson in a lead part. Joe Orton's first play hit the West End, generating a furore. The National Theatre (the institution, not the Lasdun building, still a decade away) was just a year old and making waves. Arnold Wesker was turning the Roundhouse into a centre of experimentation and Joan Littlewood was working with Cedric Price on the Fun Palace project. Up in Swiss Cottage, Hampstead Theatre opened its doors, with a commitment to the innovative and the radical, which appeared to be endorsed by the incoming Labour government.

With the completion of its new building, designed by Bennetts Associates, Hampstead Theatre has now come of age. The old theatre was an extended box. Its successor has cost more than £15 million (two-thirds of which came from the Lottery funding) and has everything a 21st-century arts building needs, including an attractive cafe/bar and excellent educational facilities.

The architecture alone should be enough to draw in new audiences - this is one of Bennetts' best buildings to date. But, as the theatre's artistic director Jenny Topper insists, the innovative agenda remains in place - nurturing new writing is its key role and most of what is performed there is specially commissioned.

Topper was obviously a proactive client, with a clear vision of what she wanted.

'What we definitely didn't want was a '60s black box', she says. 'Nor were we very impressed with most of the recent theatres we went to see. You could say that we were looking for a building that combined comfort with the scope for experiment. The problem with many of the supposedly leading-edge theatres of the '60s and '70s is that they're actually inflexible and unpopular with actors and directors.'

One requirement was space for larger audiences. 'It's galling when we have a successful production to be turning away hundreds of people who are longing to see it, ' says Topper, who wanted to double the maximum capacity of the old house, which only had 175 seats.

The theatre could not have soldiered on much longer in its old premises, given everstricter regulations on fire, health and safety and accessibility. It had established itself in temporary accommodation at Swiss Cottage at a time when the surrounding area was in transition, with many existing buildings cleared and the road pattern radically reconfigured. The former borough of Hampstead (abolished when Camden was established) had planned a new civic centre here, with Basil Spence as the architect. Spence's library and public baths were constructed, but the remainder of the complex, not required by the new authority, remained unbuilt. During the 1980s, the north-western corner of the site was developed commercially with a slice along the eastern edge used for sheltered housing. The central portion was turned into a sunken playground, latterly a grim spot frequented by drug dealers.

Bennetts Associates was appointed to design the new theatre in 1994 as a result of a selection process in which Vincent Wang, as chairman of the theatre board, was influential. At this time, the plan was to build the new theatre on the site of the old, just north of the library. Bennetts' team felt the designated site was too constricted, and that there was scope to use the theatre development as a catalyst for the regeneration of the whole civic centre site, which Camden was seeking to achieve.

Removing the old theatre and moving its replacement to the north, on Eton Avenue, would open up the site. It was proposed that its core should be recast as a generous public space containing a landscaped square, children's playground and sports pitches. This strategy has been developed in the landscape scheme by Gustafson Porter and is now being implemented, with completion due by 2005.

The listed library is being carefully refurbished by John McAslan. Spence's pool has been demolished to make way for a Barratt housing development and a new sports centre by Terry Farrell. Construction work on the new theatre began in 2000, following the granting of Lottery funding the year before.

Placing the new theatre on Eton Avenue puts it directly opposite the Central School of Speech and Drama. The road is being closed and a new public square will be created there, close to the Underground exit. Bennetts' theatre is firmly rooted to the ground, with level access from the street. It reads as a semitransparent, two-storey orthogonal, steel-framed pavilion in which the sculptural form of the auditorium, clad in zinc, can be clearly distinguished, rising above the enclosure. 'I have a problem with gestural architecture', says Rab Bennetts; and this is a thoroughly rational and comprehensible building in the best tradition of his practice.

Initially, there were plans for two auditoria but these had to be scaled back in line with available funding. There are three storeys, one below ground, connected by the foyer. The lowest level has a much larger area than the other two, with plant rooms extending southwards below the new public park. Located at this level are technical and storage spaces, a large rehearsal room and a flexible education space, doubling as a studio theatre. The latter can be used in tandem with the lower level of the foyer, where the precast cantilevered columns supporting the auditorium are a prominent feature.

Wrapped around the auditorium at ground level are the cafe/bar space, box office and WCs - ramped bridges extend across the foyer void to access the auditorium. To the rear there is a large workshop space with access directly from the street.

The theatre has no stage door. Actors, staff and audiences enter by the same route.

Offices, wardrobe and dressing rooms are on the first floor, where there is direct access to the auditorium balcony seating and an overflow foyer area. Separate front- and back-ofhouse stairs provide the necessary dedicated circulation routes for public and staff.

For theatre-goers, actors, scene-shifters and administrative staff, the new bar, spacious foyer (envisaged as a setting for some performances), airy offices and wellequipped workshops and dressing rooms are very good news. But the heart of any theatre is the auditorium and stage, and the measure of its success is the way the two work together.

A great deal of thought went into the new Hampstead auditorium. The previous, narrow auditorium sometimes gave the effect of 'seeing a play through a letter box', says Jenny Topper. The aim in the new building, she says, is to 'retain the intimacy of the old place while opening up new theatrical possibilities'. The classic horse-shoe form was explored but eventually dropped in favour of a gentle ellipse, which means the rear stalls are as close to the stage as those in the old house. The ellipse is tilted forward, as if to embrace the stage, with the leading edges of the stalls and balcony incorporating seating areas that resemble traditional boxes.

Rows of slender columns in the rear stalls and balcony reinforce what appears to be a traditional image of the theatre.

With its red fabric-covered seats, carpeting and acoustically efficient timber-slatted walls, the auditorium certainly has a warm and comfortable ambience. Add the demountable proscenium and this looks like an updated version of a traditional plan. It is intentionally a fully designed room, not a nebulous space.Where 21st-century theatre designers have the edge on Frank Matcham or even Denys Lasdun, though, is their access to new staging technology, whereby a couple of people can completely reconfigure the Hampstead auditorium in an hour or so.

Banks of seating can be taken out and dropped to the basement via a large stage lift to create a thrust stage with seats on three sides. The rear stalls can be removed to create an open standing area and the balcony can be closed off behind the columns, reducing the seating to 150 from a maximum of 325.

Jenny Topper foresees productions where half the audience may sit on the stage, with the actors surrounded on all sides. The opening production, by Station House Opera, is being staged around the building; part guided tour, part play. There is nothing conservative about any of this.

With an exterior that is elegant and interesting (a mix of glazing, timber slatting, plus coloured light panels designed by Martin Richman) but also tough enough to register in the variegated context of Swiss Cottage, Hampstead Theatre is a worthy neighbour to Spence's library. It puts to shame other recent buildings in the area. For Bennetts Associates, it is something of a landmark: the firm's first performing arts building. But Rab Bennetts argues that the challenge of a theatre is not so different from that of an office block. The building was delivered virtually on time (the over-run was just a couple of weeks) and to budget (construction cost was £8.5 million). 'Working in the commercial sector breeds a certain discipline', says Bennetts.

Only the most hardened philistine could argue that this project was anything but a sound use of Lottery money, but the project raises further issues. When a notable practice known for the range of its work, but with its roots in the world of workplaces, can do something as good as this, what do the supposed specialists really have to offer?

Hampstead acoustics

The criteria for Hampstead

Theatre's acoustic design were established at the very outset of the project. First, the primary use of the theatre was to be for spoken word performance, and the client's aspiration was that the audience could hear and understand an actor whispering on stage.

Second, in order to avoid over-reliance on complex acoustic detailing, the means of achieving a good acoustic performance was to be inherent to the building's structure and fabric. This strategy affected the choice of ventilation methods, plant location, room shaping and materials.

The building was conceived as a freestanding pavilion isolated from its neighbours. But despite the apparent openness of the site, there were planning constraints on the building footprint and height, which resulted in the need for a sizeable basement extending beyond the line of the above-ground building. This earth-sheltered basement annexe provided the ideal acoustically remote location for most of the noisy plant in the building. The air-handling plant for the two performance spaces is located here, linked to the rooms it serves by large, low-velocity duct runs, helping to reduce the transmission of plant noise. The plant itself is generously sized with components carefully selected for individual acoustic performance rather than packaged convenience.

For both the auditorium and education studio, air supply and extraction are designed for very quiet operation.

The main auditorium and stage are enclosed within a steel-framed, in situ concrete enclosure. This, in turn, is surrounded by naturally ventilated 'servant' spaces, such as offices and dressing rooms. Circulation routes and voids form the interface between served and servant accommodation. These interstitial spaces provide a good degree of acoustic separation without the need for the complexity of fully isolated construction.

Design studies of the auditorium shape revealed an early preference for semicircular or elliptical plan forms, as these most successfully fulfilled the theatre's brief for intimacy and connection with the stage.

While these curved shapes do have an acoustic benefit in bringing the audience close to the performers, in their simplest form they can lead to a focusing of sound from the stage, resulting in rogue reflections and disorienting acoustic effects. The challenge was to create a room of curving visual and acoustic intimacy in which sound would be neither focused nor excessively absorbed.

The solution lay in developing a language of joinery screens and balcony fronts to visually define the curved shape of the room and in constructing them from materials with a high degree of acoustic transparency. Behind these screens, fixed walls and panels could be shaped in convex or faceted patterns to scatter sound around the room while remaining hidden from view.

Study models and calculations revealed that screening formed from 25mm timber slats with 25mm gaps provided the most acceptable visual and acoustic effect. On the balcony fronts, these slats conceal faceted MDF panels.

Against the side walls of the auditorium, full-height slatted screens conceal large radius plasterboard 'blister' shaped wall linings.

Further curved slatted elements are used to screen out circulation spaces, such as stairs within the auditorium. These help to reduce the apparent size of the room and enhance the feeling of intimacy.

Simon Erridge, Bennetts Associates, and Ian Thompson, Arup Acoustics

WEBLINKS

Hampstead Theatre Foundation www. hampsteadtheatre. com

Bennetts Associates www. bennettsassociates. com

Curtins Consulting www. curtins. com

Buro Four Project Services www. burofour. co. uk

Citex Bucknall Austin www. citexprojectservices. com

Arup Acoustics www. arup. com/acoustics

Dove Brothers www. orourke. co. uk

CREDITS

GROSS INTERNAL AREA 3,358m 2

COST (ENABLING WORKS) £1,400,000

COST (MAIN WORKS) £7,050,000

CLIENT Hampstead Theatre Foundation

ARCHITECT Bennetts Associates: Rab Bennetts, Denise Bennetts, Simon Erridge, Yvonne Gibbs, Anja Grossmann, Bjork Haraldsdottir, Michelle Hood, Steve McKay, Chris Pope, Elisabeth Stockinger, David Tordoff

STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Curtins Consulting

SERVICES ENGINEER Ernest Griffiths & Son

THEATRE CONSULTANT Theatreplan

PROJECT MANAGER Buro Four Project Services

COST CONSULTANT Citex Bucknall Austin

ACOUSTIC CONSULTANT Arup Acoustics

LIGHTING DESIGNER Robert Bryan

LIGHTING ARTWORKS Martin Richman

MAIN CONTRACTOR Dove Brothers

SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS Structural steelwork Rowen Structures; precast concrete columns Trent Concrete; curtain walling Reynears; external render Sto; zinc cladding supply Rheinzink; zinc cladding fabrication Carlton Southern; FSC-certified hardwood supplier Ecotimber; internal joinery A Edmonds & Co; architectural metalwork P&R; M&E installation RTT Engineering; passenger lift Kone; goods lift Brittanic; theatre sound, communications and production lighting Northern Light; seating wagons, overstage rigging Centre Stage Engineering; stage elevators Delstar Engineering; auditorium seating and staging Steeldeck

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