Violence and delicacy in the city
Jeremy Dixon's talk to the Urban Design Group on the Royal Opera House revealed how far rapidly changing city conditions can affect a large- scale architectural project. The roh redevelopment, which has been in gestation for 17 years, and is due to be finally revealed when the building reopens on 6 December, was presented as a 'town-planning project', conceived mainly in response to its environs rather than as a catalyst for development.
The overriding motive for this enormous project was the institution's need to 'put itself technically on the map', specifically in relation to its European counterparts. Dixon points out that there were no architects on the jury, and that half of the scheme amounts to 'oil-rig-scale engineering supporting the auditorium - an odd condition for an urban block'. Thus, the design task was substantially introverted in character, focussed on the planning and technical realisation of an incredibly complex internal programme.
After all the acrimony engendered by the development of the scheme, and its recent receipt of lottery funding, it is inspiring to contemplate the ambition and heroic endeavour by all those involved in the reconstruction - particularly the construction workers themselves and the specialist craftsmen. The 'violence and delicacy', as Dixon put it, going on at the same time on the site takes your breath away, revealing the intense physical processes involved in realising architecture as the embodiment of tremendous human collaborative effort and vision.
The scheme that will be ready for the Opera House to resume operation soon is the result of treating the building complex as a 'city within a city', allowing 'a degree of diversity' which in turn generates some 'contradiction in style and attitude.' The new arcade, which was deliberately not designed to replicate the Inigo Jones arcade, has no apparent relationship with either the plain, Modern Bow Street facade, or the gestural, Post- Modern-ish Russell Street facade, and none of the elevations exhibit much family connection with the restored conservatory structure of the Floral Hall, which will be the decorative, illuminated focal point, containing the main public foyer - so that 'the Opera House will no longer be remote and enclosed'.
One point Dixon is keen to make is that the much-criticised lottery grant amounts to only one-third of the total project cost (£210m), the remainder having been raised from private sources; the project released the Russell Street corner of the site, which had from the outset been designated for office development to fund the project, for Opera House accommodation which would otherwise have been forced underground. Now, Dixon points out, an office block would be an embarrassment - while the arcade of shops, for which 'the motive was not financial', has been valued at £70m. Such economic changes are difficult to predict and difficult to control, and make it notoriously difficult to design complex projects on an urban scale for long-term institutional use.