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FAVOURITE BUILDING

RAB BENNETTS TALKS TO CRISTINA ESPOSITO ABOUT THE NATIONAL THEATRE

About the time of the National Theatre's completion in 1977, Colin Amery wrote in The Architectural Review: 'From the outside the building appears to be deliberately primitive, a huge lumpen formation that rises from the riverbed like a concrete iceberg. To most eyes, the abstract and cubist forms of the exterior are still alien.'

But for Rab Bennetts, Denys Lasdun's iconic National Theatre remains his favourite concrete building. And although cosy intimacy might not be the first attribute one would associate with the theatre, Bennetts particularly appreciates this quality in the foyers. While the National Theatre is clearly a 'rigorously controlled piece of geometry, it is actually very intimate', he says.

Although Bennetts is known for his own much more finished, polished use of concrete, he admires the rough textured appearance of the National Theatre's exterior, in his opinion neither 'overstated or brutal'.

Bennetts muses that the National Theatre could have been tiled in thin travertine like Aalto's Finlandia Hall in Helsinki, but in this instance Lasdun's 'courage and conviction was right'. And although it is now difficult to envision the 'nightmare' that went into the on-site fabrication of the National Theatre's intricate shuttering, for Bennetts the process is one which 'defies common sense' but must be revered for its level of work and commitment.

Perhaps surprisingly, he would love to achieve similar finishes in his own buildings.

Bennetts finds concrete has a gravitas that is interesting. He tries to work with the integrity of the material and says that, if it were up to him, his concrete buildings would be left unpainted. Practice, however, has dictated a different approach, as Bennetts dryly observes that 'clients don't appreciate that level of rawness'.

On the Powergen building, with its ground-breaking use of exposed concrete on the interior for environmental reasons, the finish is an off-the-shutter painted concrete which has a quartz-like quality. The decision to paint it was not just a concession to popular taste. 'Painted concrete is more reflective of light, cheaper and easier to build.'

Bennetts first saw the National Theatre under construction in the 1970s. But its status as 'a beautiful piece of sculpture and composition' did not influence his own theatre design. The Hampstead theatre, completed this year, 'was a different scale, a different brief ', he says. The intention was to make Hampstead a small, intimate space in which actors are in dialogue with the audience. Although Bennetts says he would love to design something on the scale of the National Theatre, at Hampstead the effect is subtle and a far cry from the grandiose scale of the Lyttleton and Olivier auditoria.

For Bennetts, Lasdun's genius lay in his expression of what you could do with concrete. His respect for Lasdun's work began with a photo in a book. In the corner of Lasdun's office was a precariously balanced pile of some 30 discarded models of the National Theatre. Bennetts admits that, at the time, he had not recognised the effort that such vocations required.

His appreciation of Lasdun's work is reflected in his other favourite buildings: the Royal College of Physicians, which he says is 'just fabulous'; and Corpus Christi, Cambridge, which 'although it isn't without flaws, shows an incredible ability to manipulate precast concrete'. For one person to be able to design two such contrasting buildings as the National Theatre and Corpus Christi is a real tribute, believes Bennetts, to 'the architect's understanding of the material'.

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