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Opera House assessed

House style

The scheme which the roh submitted for planning permission in 1986 was inevitably claimed, by Charles Jencks and other critics, as a prime expression of Post Modern Classicism. Jeremy Dixon and his colleagues have never seen the project as Post Modernist - though they acknowledge its roots in a view of history which is not that of either the Modern Movement or the British High-Tech tradition and has a lively interest in the Classical tradition. It was, after all, Richard Rogers who proposed to reinstate the piazza frontage as an exact copy of the adjacent nineteenth century facades, while Dixon Jones bdp's piazza elevations represent a progressive development of strict historicism. Moreover, the historicist and even replicatory elements in the built scheme - none introduced without much consideration - are balanced by other elements which are clearly contemporary. A real city is a collage, Colin Rowe argued, and the roh's architects would concur. They have conducted an urban experiment on a grand scale, using compositional skills to mix stripped Classical, rational Modern and neo-Victorian building blocks in the pursuit of an agreeable and practical urban entity.

The question remains: is the new roh a building or a group of buildings? Does the device of breaking the development down into a series of distinct elements have a convincing rationale now that it is, in effect, a single arts complex and not, as once envisaged, a quarter where cultural and commercial uses would co-exist and interlock? The most conspicuous cultural monuments of the late twentieth century - like Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim or Libeskind's projected Spiral - are individualistic gestures, determinedly at odds with ideas of continuity and urban coherence. The roh was bound to be different. Apart from Peter Palumbo's iconoclastic proposal that the entire operation be uprooted to a new building on the South Bank, there was never any suggestion that the 1858 house would be either displaced, sidelined or altered significantly. If anything, the exclusion of an architectural input to the refurbishment of Barry's theatre - and the preoccupation with restoration even of 1950s kitsch under decorator David Mlinaric - has underlined the power of tradition. (The decision to retain the ugly conservatory which encumbers Barry's portico is a reflection of this backlash.) It is hard to imagine many British practitioners in the post-Stirling era balancing deference and the assertion of modernity with the success achieved by Dixon Jones bdp. Some financial backers of the project, it is reported, have expressed disappointment that parts of the scheme lack the dignity of a national opera house. If that is true, they show a strange misunderstanding of the character not only of the project but also of the roh.

Mitterrand's Bastille Opera, like the earlier Opera Garnier, is a national monument. The roh is, for all its prestige, just another of the London theatres which have as their context pavements, shops, pubs and restaurants. The redevelopment has set the roh in a context of 'background' buildings, with shops at street level. Again, it is hard to think of many other British practices which could manage this act of urban conjuring so easily.

But then the roh project is anything but parochial. Its confident urbanism is in a European tradition - in Italy, for example, the polarity between modernity and tradition which has preoccupied British architects for far too long is not an issue. It is this open-mindedness which the architects have been striving for over the last 10 years.

London has been given a twenty-first century opera house technically the equal of any in the world. Working conditions for around 1000 people have been transformed. The roh has been given the means to open up to a wider public - as it must do, for financial, as much as political, reasons - while giving its patrons an air-conditioned auditorium, civilised bars, decent lavatories and a sense of space and light. It is hard to imagine the reopened roh being anything but popular with performers, staff and audiences. If the roh is given the public subsidy needed to operate its new home, and the financial equilibrium achieved by the new management can be maintained, the artistic vision behind the scheme will be vindicated.

For London, the roh project, far from being a hang-over from Post Modernism, offers valuable lessons in how culture can be integrated into the city - precisely the issue being tackled, for example, by Rick Mather on the South Bank. If opera is seen as a cultural industry, and the roh as an arts factory, Dixon Jones bdp's project can be recognised as a rebirth of a traditional enterprise, a slice of real life in an area where reality, beyond the ever-changing fads of retailing, is hard to pin down.

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