After six years of work, Stanton Williams’ refurbishment of the National Theatre is complete. (Who ever uses the ‘Royal’ adjunct to the title of the nt, incidentally?) The practice was appointed following a selection process in which Sir Denys Lasdun, architect of the original building, was involved. (Lasdun’s instinct was, that while he wished to have a say in what was done, the job should be left to a younger generation.)It seemed initially that implementing Stanton Williams’ masterplan, drawn up in close consultation with the client, would be a long-term goal. Lottery funding greatly accelerated the process, athough phase 2, backstage and technical improvements - invisible to the public and only marginally architectural in nature - will not be completed before 2002.
The commission was the most challenging that Stanton Williams had undertaken. Halfway through, the theatre, always regarded as a modern classic (and all the more so after the jibes of the Prince of Wales), was listed Grade II*, giving Lambeth planners and English Heritage control over every detail of the work. The theatre had to remain open throughout. In addition, the disapproval voiced by Lasdun for certain aspects of the project, notably the proposed demolition of a walkway/terrace linking the building at first- floor level to Waterloo Bridge, led to accusations that the nt was being ‘mutilated’. There was even an emergency meeting in the House of Lords.
Alan Stanton, as partner in charge, still believes that there was a case for the proposed demolition work. The terrace, he argues, was the outcome of 1960s planning policies, which clamped upper-level walkways on to every new building. Had it been removed, Stanton points out, there would now be a marvellous view across the river from the first-floor foyer. In truth, however, the II* listing in effect ruled out any major structural alterations.
The need to renew and upgrade services was beyond dispute. As Martin Taylor of Rybka Battle points out, the integration of wiring and ducting into the original concrete structure made for problems. Floors had to be lifted for the installation of a new trunking system. If the lighting gave a dramatic gloom to areas of the interior - which many visitors found attractive - the effect was not altogether deliberate. ‘In many areas, lights had failed long ago and never been replaced,’ says Taylor. By retaining Maurice Brill (who had worked with Lasdun) as lighting consultant, the nt ensured continuity. Lighting levels were generally raised in line with current health and safety guidelines, but the aim was to retain the sense of drama and contrast. Everything had to be done with the public in the building: a temporary blip in the alarm or emergency-lighting systems, for example, would have closed the theatre.
The central challenge in the project was to re-equip the nt for the twenty- first century without diluting its strong character or confusing the logic of its diagram. The building had never been well integrated into the city. The provision of road access along the riverfront disrupted a potentially attractive public space, and it was at the ground floor that people entered - the idea of the building being accessible at upper levels had never really been considered. There were also problems affecting movement inside the building: a lack of communication between the foyers of the Olivier and Lyttleton theatres and the complete isolation of the Cottesloe Theatre. (A quarter of a century ago, the detachment of the studio theatre, where it was assumed ‘daring’ and experimental performances would take place, seemed a radical move. Today, it is simply inconvenient.) For disabled people, many aspects of the nt were inconvenient - access issues did not loom large in the early 1970s. The half-levels in the building were out of bounds to those unable to climb stairs.
Critics of Lasdun’s building had always argued that the unrelieved concrete of the exterior attracted grime and looked unappealing. Lasdun’s solution was simple: clean it. This is exactly what has now been done and hopefully the operation will be repeated at intervals, as needed - how many times has St Paul’s been cleaned? In line with the general improvement of the public realm on the South Bank, the surroundings of the nt have been redesigned. The only vehicular access to the front of the building is now reserved for disabled people. A new riverside square has been created, complete with banners and posterboxes. It proved impossible to contrive an internal way through to the Cottlesloe, but a more clearly defined route, with tree planting, has made the approach seem less bleak. Stanton’s desire to ‘unlock’ the building is reflected in the new box office and bookshop located in what was the porte-cochere to the main entrance. Previously, the box office seemed oddly sidelined at one end of the building, while the claustrophobic bookshop sat awkwardly in the Lyttleton foyer. Removing these uses into the porte-cochere has diminished, perhaps, the drama of entry to the interior - the box office/bookshop area forms a sort of intermediate inside/out zone - but the amenities are undeniably much improved. By paving this area in granite, rather than in the engineering brick used elsewhere, Stanton Williams has marked it out as an intervention to the original.
A second radical move has relocated the glazed wall of the ground-floor Lyttleton foyer outwards, to provide more space for audiences to assemble. ‘The ground floor is where people naturally enter,’ Stanton says. ‘It’s the meeting place: the building isn’t quite used in the way that the original designers imagined. People have to be actively encouraged to go upstairs.’ The Lyttleton foyer is the venue for pre-performance music - a section of timber flooring marks the musicians’ position, looking rather out of place. (The nt apparently believes that they will not perform on a hard surface.)
The nt’s instinct, one senses, was more radical - in terms of transforming the image of the building - than that of the architects. There was a move, for example, to change the colour of carpeting, discarding the deep purple chosen by Lasdun to complement the hue of the exposed concrete. After much debate, the original pattern was simply remade. Concrete cleaning has extended inside the building, lifting the general effect.
Future generations may regret that the classic Formica-and-hessian look of the bars and buffets was discarded in the revamp, yet they looked tired and worn. Stanton Williams’ skill at designing interiors has produced elegant replacement fixtures in steel and slate which will wear well and which blend happily with the concrete. The Olivier foyer has been replanned to provide a neat new bookstall which locks up when out of use. The Ashcroft Room at this level, used for private functions, is interesting as an early prototype for Stanton Williams’ overall approach to the interior of the nt. Some nifty replanning has allowed a route from here to the ground floor to be implemented. For disabled theatre-goers, a particularly elegant new lift gives access at every level. Signage has been completely redone - there were constant complaints that it was indistinct.
A great deal of the substance of this scheme is buried away, with admirable ingenuity and tact, in the form of the new services. Strategically, the project is indisputably admirable. The more visible aspects of the work remain contentious, although the listing of the building was less problematic than it initially seemed. English Heritage was ‘very helpful throughout’, says Stanton. It helped that no changes to the well-liked auditoria were envisaged, though some fabric-covered acoustic panelling in the Olivier was replaced by metal. (‘I don’t think anyone has yet noticed,’ says Stanton.)
New bars, bookstalls and lifts are inevitable in a building serving an ever more demanding public. Worn-out wiring has to be replaced. Dirty surfaces should be cleaned. The more significant debate is whether the ‘unlocking’ of the nt has compromised a carefully contrived and interwoven series of public spaces. Stanton Williams has made the nt more accessible and more intelligible - and arguably more enjoyable. Some of the ideas which underlay the original designs have been finally discarded. You might say that the nt authorities should have tried harder to make the building - a great building - work as its architect (a great architect) intended, by implementing access, for example, at upper levels and employing more security staff. Try telling that to an organisation which, Lottery windfalls apart, is stumped for cash. The nt is a big-boned, tough building which can accommodate change. Its revamp could win it more admirers than ever.