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Historic and political context

House style

The re-opened Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (roh), is more a city quarter than a building - a product, according to Edward Jones of Dixon Jones bdp, of 'the counter-reformation of the 1970s' when traditional urban values were strongly reasserted, filling a vacuum left by the collapse of modernist town-planning orthodoxy (as laid down by ciam) and eventually becoming part of the mainstream of American and European architecture. Constructed in three years, the £134 million scheme has been more than 15 years in gestation, yet its urban agenda remains, in the British context at least, radical. As Jeremy Dixon remarks, 'we were preoccupied with the idea of not producing an object building'.

Jeremy Dixon and William Jack were appointed architects for the redevelopment of the Royal Opera House in July 1984. Dixon was best known for his housing schemes at Lanark Road and St Mark's Road, pioneering restatements of the traditional urban language of street and terrace. Jack was a partner in (and later chairman of) Building Design Partnership (bdp). While the sheer muscle of bdp was clearly a factor in Dixon and Jack's competition success, Dixon insists that 'it was Bill Jack who pushed me into entering, organised the submission and assembled the team'.

The competition brief demanded a strategy rather than a worked-up scheme, but Dixon admits that 'what we did was, in essence, a design, with model, drawings and the rest'. Overcoming a strong field, including in the final shortlist Cullinan and Rogers, Dixon and Jack proposed a solution to the perceived needs of the roh, front and back of house, which also addressed the issue of integrating the house into the fabric of London.

The degree of continuity, in terms of the look of the development, between what was proposed in 1983-84 and what has been built in 1996-99 is remarkable - particularly since the content of the scheme has changed radically. For the architects (Edward Jones joined the team as Dixon's partner in 1989 and Charles Broughton subsequently became project director after Jack's retirement), the issues which it addresses have not changed. Inspired to some degree by, inter alia, Rowe, Rossi and Krier, the project has always been about urban repair. The roh had been left stranded, after the departure of Covent Garden market, in a part-cleared wasteland, with the badly mangled Floral Hall - severely damaged by fire in 1956 and used as a scenery store - and a row of much-altered Georgian houses on Russell Street as the only surviving structures. It was this depressing site which the roh received as an endowment from the government in 1975, together with the clear message that there would be no further public subventions. Used as a dance hall during the Second World War, the house (with its resident opera and dance companies, installed in 1946) was in need of major investment. Only in 1980, however, did the freehold of the building (completed in 1858 to designs by E M Barry) finally become public property. In 1982, the roh completed the first phase of its redevelopment, in the form of gmw's seamlessly well-mannered addition (containing dressing and rehearsal rooms) on Floral Street/James Street. Further phases of gmw's project were abandoned in 1983, with the announcement of the competition.

With Margaret Thatcher in power, the commercial imperative became ever more pervasive - at the time of the competition, the economics of the project had been far from clear. The roh development board, set up in 1983 under Christopher Benson's chairmanship, pressed the architects for more office and retail space - up to half of the built area and approaching 20,000m2 in total. As the scheme became more obviously commercial, it became ever more entangled in the politics of development, with the Covent Garden Community Association (cgca) determined to derail it, arguing that the entire roh site should be devoted to cultural uses. When Westminster Council voted in 1987 to approve the scheme in principle, the cgca went to law. Almost a year elapsed before the legal challenge was finally beaten off.

Although doubts have been expressed (for example, by former roh general director Sir John Tooley) about the long-term practical and financial viability of the completed project, few regret the abandonment of the 1987 scheme. Developed against the background of a property boom, it would have left the resident companies (particularly the Royal Ballet) with departments still inconveniently out-housed in favour of speculative office space. By 1989, the roh, with Jeremy Isaacs now at the helm, was moving towards an increase in arts space in the lead-up to the granting of planning consent the following year. By 1990, however, the property market was in free fall. By 1994, when a revised scheme emerged, the National Lottery had been launched and was seen as the solution to the roh's problems. After a rigorous review by Stuart Lipton of Stanhope, the office element of the scheme was dropped entirely. This (third, essentially as built) roh scheme won planning permission in October 1995.

Although depressing at the time for all involved, it is clear that the delays to the project have produced real benefits. It was only during 1993-95, for example, that the reconstruction of the Floral Hall was developed to produce a truly grand public space, the dynamic focus of the renewed roh which finally lays the ghost of a house where audiences were as ruthlessly segregated as the grandees and the groundlings in Shakespeare's Globe. During the same period, the vertical circulation strategy was reconsidered and another vital element in the built scheme, the escalator linking the Floral Hall with the amphitheatre level, introduced. (An escalator link is, of course, a key move in Dixon & Jones's National Portrait Gallery scheme, due for completion next year.) The Studio Theatre, potentially set to transform the image of the roh, was also added to the project at this period.

Amid all these changes and refinements, the Classical elevations to the Covent Garden piazza have remained virtually unchanged, along with the determination to restore the connection between the piazza and the theatre which was a feature of the two earlier houses on the site. Although there have been several redesigns of the block on the Russell Street/Bow Street corner, the principle of making it subsidiary, and different in vocabulary, to the 1858 theatre has rightly stood. The element of restoration and what some would call 'pastiche' has grown - the enlarged flytower is now clad in Victorian dress and the new roof of the Floral Hall is a recreation of the lost original. 'The issue of the Zeitgeist doesn't worry us,' says Dixon. 'Where replication or reconstruction is the right approach, we're happy to adopt it.'

The following descriptions of the Royal Opera House building were written by Jeremy Dixon, Edward Jones and Charles Broughton

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