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In character

Burrell Foley Fischer has sympathetically conserved the best elements and features of Islington's Almeida Theatre, while improving facilities and creating a new front of house

As a venue, the Almeida Theatre in north London is idiosyncratic. More than most, the building and its history shape the theatrical experience. The main volume was built in 1837 to a design by architect Roumieu & Gough as the Islington Scientific and Literary Institute. Beyond its front band of reception rooms and library was a stage at basement level, with raked seating rising to an apsidal end at the rear of the building.

By the end of the 19th century it had become a disreputable club. It was then bought by General Booth as a Salvation Army citadel; the building was gutted and floored over at ground floor level, with new stalls and balcony seating focused in the opposite direction on an open-floor area in the apsidal end. The existing interior architecture of stalls, cast-iron columned balconies, dark colour and brick-faced apse - now the stage area - all date from this period.

The stage has never been framed, nor had wings. The floor simply runs continuously from audience to performing area. This, and the capacity of 209 in the stalls and 112 on the balcony, creates very intimate contact between audience and players, never more than 12m apart.Without a backstage area for scenery and little space for the actors, there would be times when members of the theatre company moving through the leaky space along the eastern flank of the main building would mingle with the audience awaiting the performance. This sense of audience involvement, of it being a working area, remains in Burrell Foley Fischer's (BFF) new front-ofhouse design. As the plan shows, this area, hemmed in by adjoining buildings, is small (and was much more constricted before). It was common for people to overflow the foyer on to the pavement - another characteristic BFF has responded to in the redesign.

In designing these front-of-house and technical areas, it has been possible to address the Almeida's presence on the street.

The smooth white-rendered Classical Institute building, in a run of rendered houses, does not immediately say 'theatre'; nor is it itself greatly animated by comings and goings, since the main entrances for both the theatre company and the audience are not on the front but on the eastern flank.

Fortunately, the site is quite wide along the pavement on this side (though it narrows soon behind). A cafe/bar and main entrance have been created on the street in an abstract composition of planes of rendered insulation, zinc and glass, respecting the Institute building by being set back from its building line and stepping down in scale. This set-back also deepens the pavement area for theatregoers to appropriate. Endstops to the new work echo the massiveness of the square columns of the Institute, while their horizontal joints, in slightly undulating pre-weathered zinc sheeting, read with the new long, low lines.

In keeping with the appropriation of the pavement, the cafe/bar has one large window on the street whose glazing and mesh security screens can be retracted completely on tracks to allow conversations through the wall. BFF partner Mark Foley cites as inspiration the Moorish mashrabiyya (a projecting window with a mesh screen).

The main entrance screen, apparently double doors in a glass surround, can also retract completely to allow in vehicles delivering scenery and other supplies. The foyer area thus remains appropriately robust, with a tough concrete floor and raised loading dock at the end. It suits audiences, too - the hard acoustic helping to create a buzz of anticipation. Echoes of the past can be found in the existing boundary wall brickwork, exposed particularly in the cafe/bar and behind the counter (bar extension).A concrete ramp and the raised dock are edged by removable balustrading for ease of delivery. And at the back of the foyer a render wall panel will come to be used for publicity. Regulars will be particularly aware of the new, watertight, largely glazed roof. The foyer is a sheltered rather than tightly-controlled environment, particularly animate when the sun shines, more conservatory than atrium in atmosphere (though there is underfloor heating).

Off this foyer are new WCs and a small scenery workshop/store - larger scenery workshops and storage, rehearsal space and offices have to be on other sites.

The rendered flank wall of the Institute provides a backdrop within the foyer, which although not immediately drawing the eye is where main auditorium entrances for the audience are located, as well as a new large door for bringing in scenery to the stage area.

While the front of house has markedly stepped up from being a backyard partially roofed in crinkly plastic, changes to the auditorium are less evident. Some repairs have been done over the years, starting from the theatre's inception in 1978 when Pierre Audi and Chris Naylor found the building unused and riddled with dry rot after several post-war uses, including time as Mr Beck's Carnivals and Novelties Factory. During the 1980s the balcony front was raised to improve sightlines in the stalls, though they remain tight overhead.

This time around seating has been renewed, while retaining the Almeida tradition of benches rather than individual seats.

The interior of exposed brickwork and a dark chocolate brown paint are atmospheric but perhaps a bit sombre.Mark Foley is considering a little enlivening on the moulded, painted balcony fronts, maybe with a redbrown. He and project architect Anna Joynt have lost count of the number of times they have been asked when the apsidal wall encircling the stage area is to be rendered. This brickwork is a feature of the Almeida and has simply been consolidated and cleaned.

As artistic director Michael Attenborough points out, it is a stage area equally appropriate for the epic and the domestic, for the classical and the new. (The architect did try to remove some of the existing render patches but the process had a deleterious effect on the brickwork. ) A lot of the project budget (57 per cent Arts Lottery Fund, 43 per cent Almeida) has gone into upgrading the audiovisual infrastructure. There is a major new lighting rig above the stage area, plus new cabling and equipment. There is also a new ventilation system with comfort cooling. In the basement, too, are major improvements, with a full understage area dug out, including two side access stairs to the stage above and two refurbished changing rooms, one new one, and improved wardrobe space.

All this began about five years ago with the then artistic directors Jonathan Kent and Ian McDairmid (1990-2002) initiating planning and fundraising. For the new director, Attenborough, it is a 'gloriously improvised space, not at all posh; comfortable and welcoming'.He is highly enthusiastic as he begins to explore the building as a tool of his trade.

WEBLINKS The Almeida Theatre Co www. almeida. co. uk Burrell Foley Fischer www. bff-architects. co. uk Alan Conisbee Associates www. conisbee. co. uk Max Fordham Partnership www. maxfordham. com Arup Acoustics www. arup. com Theatre Plan www. theatreplan. net JGP Associates www. w-a-w. co. uk Banner Holdings www. bannerholdings. co. uk

COST SUMMARY

Cost data based on tender sum Cost per m 2Percentage (£) of total DEMOLITIONS/ALTERATIONS 113.74 3.7 SUBSTRUCTURE 198.58 6.4 SUPERSTRUCTURE Steel frame, concrete encasement 100.88 3.3 Upper floor, gallery 36.29 1.2 Auditorium/stage floor 26.94 0.9 Roof refurb, acoustic works 98.96 3.2 New roof 58.80 1.9 Rooflights, smoke vents 10.58 0.3 Staircases, ramps, balustrades 76.40 2.5 External, party walls, including render repair, decoration 119.31 3.8 Windows refurb, acoustic works 8.51 0.3 New windows, doors, inc entrance 115.57 3.7 Internal walls, partitions 55.78 1.8 Internal doors, inc roller shutter, scene dock door 40.49 1.3 Group element total 748.51 24.2 INTERNAL FINISHES Wall finishes 62.16 2.0 Floor finishes 74.21 2.4 Ceiling finishes 63.32 2.0 Acoustic panels 29.06 0.9 Group element total 228.75 7.4 FITTINGS AND FURNITURE 177.37 5.7 SERVICES Sanitary appliances 19.47 0.6 Services equipment 97.29 3.1 Disposal installations 2.55 1.1 Water installations 43.38 1.4 Space heating, air treatment 329.64 10.6 Power, lighting 221.59 Electrical supply 35.15 1.1 Emergency lighting, fire alarm, intruder detection/alarm 91.47 3.0 Sound/communications 86.85 8 Builders'work in connection 37.56 1.2 Group element total 994.95 32.1 PRELIMINARIES AND INSURANCE 639.98 20.6 TOTAL 3,101.88 Cost data supplied by David Dilley, Roger Rawlinson Associates CREDITS TENDER DATE August 2001 START ON SITE DATE October 2001 CONTRACT DURATION 60 weeks GROSS INTERNAL FLOOR AREA 1,120m 2PROCUREMENT JCT Standard Form of Building Contract;

Private with Quantities (1998 edition) TOTAL COST £3,474,133 CLIENT The Almeida Theatre Co PROJECT MANAGER Tony Hudson ARCHITECT Burrell Foley Fischer: Mark Foley, Anna Joynt, Helen Grassly, Georgina Holden QUANTITY SURVEYOR, CONTRACT ADMINISTRATOR Roger Rawlinson Associates STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Alan Conisbee Associates M&E CONSULTANT Max Fordham Partnership ACOUSTIC CONSULTANT Arup Acoustics THEATRE CONSULTANT Theatre Plan ACCESS CONSULTANT Lisa Foster, Jane Toplis Associates PLANNING SUPERVISOR JGP Associates MAIN CONTRACTOR Banner Holdings SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS M&E subcontractor CEC Engineering; theatre seating Auditoria Services;

external sliding glazed screens Pollards Fyrespan;

glazed roof Cantifix of London; zinc cladding supply Rheinzink UK; zinc cladding fixing CU-Tech;

insulated render system Rockshield; signage Modulex; WC cubicles C&B Systems; ironmongery James Gibbons (Format);

bar, vanitory tops Durcon;

timber floor Hardwood Flooring Supplies;

acoustic scenery door Clark Door; doors Leaderflush + Shapland; roller shutters, metal door RNB Doors + Shutters; leather cushions Davison Highley

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