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building study

At Northington's The Grange, Studio E Architects has sensitively threaded a new opera building into a rural, Greek revival setting

The Grange, you could argue, is a building in perfect condition as a setting for summer opera - the 'house' is a Greek temple, derelict within, the decaying layers of successive architectural compositions unpeeling. You are detached from the everyday by this ghostly architecture in its isolated landscape setting, helped too by the dress of the operagoers and the Rajasthan picnic tents, ready for high art and to suspend disbelief of absurd conventions - not recognising a son because he wears a different hat, singing mezzo forte face-to-face. It is necessarily a world apart. As Grange Park Opera (GPO) chief executive Wasfi Kani says, their ambition is that you should 'live for a few hours in a dream'.

The Grange at Northington, eight miles north-east of Winchester, arrived at this oddly desirable state by an uncomfortable route. The main house was originally built in 1665-73 to the designs of William Samwell, but then completely recased as a Doric temple by William Wilkins between 1806 and 1816, when, mostly finished, it was sold. The new owner, the Baring family, continued, commissioning Robert Smirke to create a single-storey extension to the west in 1817. In 1823, C R Cockerell was commissioned to add a dining room north of the Smirke extension and also to continue the extension south with new apartments and a conservatory - now the opera venue. In 1852 the Cockerells were back, with F P Cockerell adding another floor to the Smirke wing.

There were some other additions but, generally, it was downhill from here on. In about 1890 an unknown designer remodelled the fine-glass and cast-iron conservatory as a picture gallery, removing all the internal ironwork and reducing the window areas, which had been fully glazed between masonry pilasters. Later uses included hay store and badminton court.

Today only Cockerell's eastern Ionic portico and pilasters to the south survive from the original. Generally, grounds and buildings degenerated fast from when the Barings sold in 1933. After years of neglect - the house was unoccupied from 1945 - the Barings bought it back in 1966. It was sufficiently derelict in 1972 for a pre-demolition sale of elements and materials. The dining room and Smirke wing had been demolished, the house largely stripped of fixtures and fittings, including marble wall linings in the entrance hall and the main staircase (now in the possession of English Heritage).

But by 1975 The Grange had become a Scheduled Ancient Monument (the house is also listed Grade I), and English Heritage was given guardianship of The Grange and its immediate two hectares (within 300 hectares of parkland). But it was unable to agree with current owner, Lord Ashburton (of the Baring family), any suitable future.

Some temporary works, mainly geared to safety, were carried out in the 1970s. Then in 1980-83, the Department of Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings carried out more concerted consolidation work. Primarily, it installed a new steel-framed, slate roof to the house, reconstructed the western house elevation, repaired render and reglazed all windows.

Then progress. Following an approach to Lord Ashburton by Kani there was an agreement between them, English Heritage, and subsequently with the local authority, that the conservatory could be used for 20 opera performances per year, and GPO was born.

Kani, architect David Lloyd Jones of Studio E Architects and engineer Charles Walker of Arup, who had previously worked together at Garsington Opera, carried out a first, modest conversion. The conservatory floor was strengthened, the ceiling stabilised.

Independent steel framing supported raked seating, a stage area and orchestra pit were created. Public entrance was through the eastern portico. It was far from ideal.

Cramped, a temporary backstage shelter had to be erected at the western end, with performers reaching the stage via knockedout windows. The nearby vaulted basement of the house served as changing rooms for performers and orchestra.

If this venue was far from ideal, other aspects of the audience experience were great compensation. The rural setting is dramatic and each performance also a social occasion. The terraces immediately around The Grange are decked out with Indian tents for picnicking, which resumes through a very prolonged interval. The eastern portico of the house serves as a champagne bar. And part of the house's derelict ground floor has become a temporary restaurant, with new flooring, nets overhead to protect diners from the risk of falling plaster fragments, mock chimney pieces in MDF and grand chandeliers. The success and evident appropriateness of The Grange for this style of opera occasion encouraged owner Lord Ashburton to accept GPO's next proposals for expanded and more permanent facilities, though as yet still licensed for a short season of 20 summer performances. There followed the development of a conservation plan by John Redmill, an analysis of development options based on the plan, and intensive discussions with English Heritage, the planning authority and other historic groups.

What was proposed, and has been built by the same team, is ingenious, focused on further developing the conservatory, extending it to the north. After its depredations in the 1890s it has much less to conserve than the house - in terms of features mainly its eastern portico and southern pilasters. But the conservatory also has an important compositional role. While The Grange is approached from the north, the western extensions are largely masked by trees and it was the southern and eastern aspects that were the classic views, now reduced by demolitions. Where once there was a southerly panorama - house, extended Smirke wing and conservatory - there then stood the two now-separate buildings of house and conservatory on a plinth-like terrace. It was decided that the two buildings should be rejoined, a panorama reestablished.

The architect advocated design in a Modern idiom, but English Heritage's view prevailed and a wall has been constructed after the manner of Smirke, following the perimeter of his extension, single storey, the height of the conservatory cornice. As Lloyd Jones says: 'Studio E, slightly to their surprise, given current charges of historic deceit concerning historic reinstatement, found themselves researching the detail of the Classic vocabulary and materials employed by Smirke behind the facade, however, all accepted that the new building would be a contemporary, albeit self-effacing, design.'

The new facade is largely render on brick, as was the house in its time. The new panorama reads coherently but does not justify English Heritage's claim of restoring back to 1817. Smirke's wall was part of his windowed building, not scenery.

The ambitions of GPO's new works were primarily to increase seating capacity and create good quality (if still not ideal) stage and backstage facilities. Altering the Grade II conservatory was not a very contentious issue, with the west and north facades most changed in the past and the interior already stripped out. To the north of the conservatory lay the area of earlier demolitions, the only potential new-building land. The conservatory's north wall had always been an internal one, of no great architectural significance.

Removing this wall and inserting a steel goalpost mirroring the proscenium to be constructed in the new building, but set back within the auditorium, has allowed the whole of the conservatory to be used for seating, now turned through 90infinity to face the north wall. Crucially, seating capacity is raised from 366 to 500. Beyond the new opening the new structure contains a stage block of stage area and wing, and a scenery store.

The importance of the southerly panorama also set the height limit for the new building. There is no fly tower. Excavation went down by up to 8m to include an orchestra pit and stage undercroft. The audience enters the auditorium at outdoor terrace level, quite high in the section, at the back of the stalls, with a few steps up to the circle of boxes.

The new building is largely screened from public view, opening onto the delivery route to backstage. The stage block is oak boarded above a 2m-high base of knapped (split) flints edged in red brick - Hampshire's ethnic ashlar. This flintwork sends mixed messages. On the one hand the builder has been much more selective in rejecting flints than normal practice in order to produce a much flatter surface than is traditional in vernacular buildings, destined to stay looking relatively pristine. On the other hand the lime mortar is brush-finished to reveal its coarse texture, an artificial ageing that the weather normally does gradually.

The rendered scenery store runs out behind the Smirke-nouveau wall to the house's west facade, here breaking from Smirke's original design, incorporating a pedestrian archway. There is one opening window - the rest of the southerly wall face has blind windows. The scenery store stops short of the arch, but an apparent structure of trusses and rafters continues a little from its end wall as if the building was running down rather than coming to a definite end, not daring to touch the Wilkins facade Alongside the scenery store lies a partly sub-ground passage, turf-roofed, giving performers covered access to reach the changing rooms in the house basement (still in need of improvement). The stage-block roof is also planted with sedums, improving insulation, but more importantly here, preventing the drumming noise of heavy rain on its metal roof.

Inside the auditorium there was little to conserve. The architect has, though, preserved its residual sense of being a single volume, inserting the seating as separate elements within. The horseshoe layout, intensifying contact with the stage, draws on Smirke's layout at the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds (built 1819). Blockwork walls supporting the floor slab and seating create an underfloor labyrinth 150m-long, which, with the aid of two fans and pre-existing openings low in the south wall, provide near-free cooling via air outlet slots beneath the seating. (In this it is similar in approach to Bedales School theatre by Feilden Clegg, AJ 15.2.96. ) The stalls seating runs into the opening in the north wall, helping to bind the old and new together. The circle of boxes complements the often quirky character of The Grange experience. Upper boxes have jib doors - 100mm thick, plastered to line through with the curved walls of the boxes, with no visible hinges. Working these doors out was just one of the many contributions of builder Martin Smith, a man with his own extensive library of building books to consult.

And the quirks continue, with GPO installing glass-topped boxes within the auditorium floor to walk on which contain excavated china and glass from the site, and in one a functioning train set whose carriages are destined to bear sponsors' names.

(The whole project is financed solely by private fundraising. ) Thoughtful lighting, including 800 fibre-optic points, and the soft salmon colouring, focus the eye on seating and stage, distracting from the ceiling where a cobweb of nets again protects opera-goers from risks of falling plaster fragments.

These nets point to the fact that, at the end of a successful project for GPO, the longer-term questions of consolidation and maintenance of The Grange remain unfinished business, so too the immediate landscaping, which has passed through several historic phases. Friends of GPO are maintaining it and theatrical pot planting is a regular seasonal addition (the landscape beyond is outside English Heritage's guardianship).

For GPO, in only its sixth season, this has been spectacular progress, both in creating an opera programme and realising this project so soon. The built result has a clarity that comes from completing a new phase, yet opens up surprises as you explore within, a continuation of The Grange's multi-layered history.

Smirke's wall

Both Wilkins and Smirke took up then-new technology, using render made with Parker's Roman Cement. It was patented by James Parker in 1796 (the patent subsequently bought by Charles Wyatt in 1810).This render was much more durable than the vernacular materials of the day based on lime putty, and stronger, though not as strong as the later-developed Portland cement render.Mixed 1:1 with coarse sand, it was difficult to apply as it set within 15 minutes; probably why the final coat on Wilkins'building is only 3-4mm thick.

Manufacture stopped before World War II so a substitute was needed for repair and for new work - the Smirke wall and scenery store.A render was developed based on hydraulic lime. It was mixed with washed gritty sand and a red sand from Exeter to give the very light brown original colour.

A bonus is that it did not harden for one-two hours.Mouldings were run on the Smirke wall using the same material.

Copings are concrete, their moulds lined with Portland stone dust cement.The delicate capitals and bases are in Portland stone.

Based on Marin Smith's research Studio E's wall Another new old technology is the green oak boarding to the stage block, which will weather to silver-grey.Over 12-18 months the boards will shrink and move, so, to avoid splits in the wood, stainless steel nails secure the boards through predrilled, over-sized holes.

When it rains the boards will initially leach tannic acid, risking staining adjacent materials a resinous black and corroding unprotected metalwork. A concealed stainless steel gutter has been incorporated at the bottom of the boarding, over the top of the brickwork, to carry this damaging acidic solution away.

Based on David Lloyd Jones' design report

CREDITS

COMPLETION DATE 90 per cent complete for 2002 summer season - ahead of programme Completed for 2003 summer season

TOTAL COST £1,974,672 (exc VAT, contingency, seating and fittings, work to main house and external works) CLIENT Grange Park Opera

ARCHITECT Studio E Architects: Akira Koyama, Alan Addison, Crawford Irvine, David Lloyd Jones, Diana Hare, Paulo Delfino

STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Arup

VENTILATION CONSULTANT Max Fordham

CONSERVATION ARCHITECT John Redmill

CONSTRUCTION CONSULTANT Stuart McGee

PRINCIPAL CONTRACTOR RJ Smith and Co

M & E ENGINEER RS Brich

STAGE LIGHTING, FLYING SYSTEMS Stage Electrics

AJS PLANNING CONSULTANT Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners

ARCHAEOLOGICAL CONSULTANT CKC Archaeology

ACOUSTIC CONSULTANT Colin Beak

PLANNING SUPERVISOR WSP Group

SITE SURVEY Glanville consultants

SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS Smoke vent, environmental control supply Colt; smoke vents, environmental control installation AES Environmental Services; architectural steelwork Alresford Steelwork; Kalzip green roof supply, standing seam roof, structural steel Corus; seamed metal roof Broderick Structures; green roof installation Blackdown Horticultural Consultants; structural frame, staircases, auditorium steelwork fabrication Littlehampton Welding; dry lining British Gypsum; partition installation Parsons Construction Services; reinforcement Pre-Pour Services; scaffolding RBS Scaffolding; electrical services RS Birch and Partners; Smirke wall capitals and basesWells Cathedral Stonemasons

WEBLINKS

Grange Park Opera www. grangeparkopera. co. uk

Studio E Architects www. studioe. co. uk

Arup www. arup. com

Max Fordham www. maxfordham. com

RJ Smith and Co www. rjsmith. co. uk

Stage Electrics www. stage-electrics. co. uk

AJS www. ajs. co. uk

Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners www. lichfields. co. uk

CKC Archaeology http: //members. aol. com/ccurrie260

WSP Group www. wspgroup. com

Glanville Consultants www. glanvillegroup. com

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