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Lasdun Group adds its objections to National Theatre plans

A group of six architects who worked on Denys Lasdun’s Grade II*-listed National Theatre in London have attacked Haworth Tompkins’ proposed £70 million revamp of the South Bank landmark

Former Lasdun employee Gordon Forbes, a member of the so-called Lasdun Group, is expected to single out a planned glass and steel extension at the rear of the theatre when he speaks at Lambeth Council’s planning committee tonight (29 September).

In a letter sent to the borough’s director of planning and development (attached), Forbes hits out at the proposed workshop extension claiming it ‘would have a strongly detrimental effect upon the carefully-considered south and east elevations and to the roof design - the fifth elevation.’

He adds: ‘It would be permanently damaging to our work.’

The Lasdun Group’s protests follow last week’s comments by architecture critic and friend of Denys Lasdun, William JR Curtis, who argued the proposals ‘do not go far enough’ and should reintroduce Lasdun’s original entrance and glazing line, which he describes as the ‘cathedral glazing’ of the Lyttelton Lobby (see story below).

However the scheme has been warmly welcomed by both CABE, which hailed the proposed alterations as ‘extremely well considered’, and English Heritage and has been recommended for approval by the council’s planning officers.

Previous story (AJ 24.09.10)

Curtis: ‘Don’t mess up the National Theatre’

William JR Curtis, architecture critic and friend of Denys Lasdun, has questioned Haworth Tompkins’ proposed £70 million revamp and extension of the Grade II*-listed National Theatre in London

The comments come despite CABE’s glowing review of the plans for the brutalist South Bank landmark and Lambeth Council’s planning officers recommending the plans for approval.

Curtis, author of a special edition of the Architectural Review in 1977 devoted to the building, claims Haworth Tompkins’ plans (pictured) for the existing fabric ‘do not go far enough’ and should reintroduce Lasdun’s original entrance and glazing line, which he describes as the ‘cathedral glazing’ of the Lyttelton Lobby (see comment below).

The scheme is due to go to committee next week (29 September).

Haworth Tompkins, which was shortlisted for the 2007 Stirling Prize with its Young Vic theatre, has also landed another modernist auditorium renovation project.

The AJ has learnt that the practice has been named restoration project design team for Powell & Moya’s 1962 Grade II*-listed Chichester Festival Theatre.

Director Steve Tompkins said: ‘It is a similar but less ambitious project than our study for the National Theatre. We will be looking at how to reinvigorate the theatre and make the auditorium more potent.’

William JR Curtis on the restoration of the National Theatre

It is 35 years since the National Theatre was completed. The building has been knocked about and cluttered up with ad-hoc modifications – the time has come for a major restoration.

Haworth Tompkins has several good ideas but it is not going far enough in respecting Denys Lasdun’s original intentions. The firm is doing much to clear out the lobbies and is removing the bookshop, which encumbers the entrance. But in my opinion, Haworth Tompkins should reinstate Lasdun’s original entrance and glazing line, the so called ‘cathedral glazing’ of the Lyttelton Lobby. It’s important to use this opportunity to restore the entrance areas, inside and out, to their original state.

In Lasdun’s architecture, buildings are linked to the city via transitional spaces and interlocking platforms, referred to as ‘strata’. In this architecture of ‘urban landscape’, space is as important as form. And in the case of the National Theatre, the linkage to the exterior took on extra meaning to do with the idea of a public theatre, with the city itself as a backdrop. It is crucial, then, to respect the architect’s intentions for the side of the building facing the River Thames and Waterloo Bridge.

The question of the ground plane was essential in Lasdun’s deliberations, so it is necessary to reinstate the bluish engineering brick where it has been replaced. The present carpet colour is also wrong (too pink) and should be reinstated to its original mauve, which was designed to harmonise with the brick and concrete.

I knew Lasdun (pictured with Curtis below) well and discussed his intentions for the National Theatre with him in the early 1970s, as it was being built. I was sometimes present in the ‘model room’ where crucial decisions were made. Lasdun would quote Le Corbusier, who said, ‘architecture is a matter of millimetres’. In a short text written by Lasdun shortly before his death in 2001, entitled ‘Don’t Mess Up the National Theatre: Some Notes’, he listed 11 points in all, among them the following:

 ‘1. Don’t impose the fashion
of the moment on a building that was clearly designed as a whole thing. To alter a part is to alter the whole and it must be for the worse.’
‘2. The recent past is just as worthy of respect as the far past – and it needs it much more.’
‘6. Buildings should be allowed to speak in the days to come in the way that their creators intended.’
‘7. Alterations are usually rash and are always regretted afterwards.’

The National Theatre is a historical monument of national and international importance. When restoring the building, it is important to make the most minimal interventions, in a manner that respects the architect’s original ideas.

  • William JR Curtis is the author of Denys Lasdun: Architecture, City, Landscape

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