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Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon by Bennetts Associates

Two ‘bold moves’ – a new viewing tower and an auditorium, designed to give the building a new identity - mark out Bennetts Associates’ remodelling the Royal Shakespeare Company’s home

‘We are at an exciting stage in the project,’ says architect Simon Erridge of Bennetts Associates’ remodelling of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) home in Stratford-upon-Avon. Two ‘bold moves’ – a new viewing tower and an auditorium, designed to give the building a new identity, are now taking shape. The whole project is due for completion in July 2010.

The RSC set Bennetts a tight brief to improve the functionality and appeal of the 1932 Grade II*-listed Art Deco building. The existing building was the result of a competition prompted by the destruction by fire in 1926 of the original 1879 complex, which comprised a memorial theatre, picture gallery, library, auditorium and Gothic viewing tower.

‘Since its completion, to designs by Elisabeth Scott, the original building has suffered various ‘tinkerings’ that we needed to counteract,’ explains Erridge. Bennetts’ remedies include the removal of a restaurant extension and reinstatement of a canal-side route.

A new restaurant will sit at the level of the old auditorium’s upper tier of seating, scrapped to create a more intimate theatre. The 4.5m-high glazing of the restaurant is being capped with a new roof.

Bennetts has resurrected from the Victorian original the concept of a tower, which will signpost the new entrance to the building, reconnect the RSC to the town and provide views of key Shakespearean landmarks.

The tower is linked to a new colonnade, which significantly improves and clarifies access for the public and provides passage for scenery in transit to the main auditorium. ‘There is nothing precious about the scheme,’ says Erridge. ‘Rather it is generous and industrial.’

This is reflected in the pared-down finishes in the building, especially the newly exposed wall of the old auditorium, which will remain as an untreated ‘memory’.

The new main auditorium is bounded by a single-skin brick wall and begins outside the building, creating a three to four storey-high teak-floored space between it and the original theatre boundary.

Across the road from its main home, the RSC owns offices – also designed by Bennetts. Plans to create a public square in-between, described by Erridge as ‘an impromptu place to hang out’ are being discussed with Warwickshire Highways Agency. The tower also provides a balcony at just the right height for an outdoor performance in this public space of Romeo and Juliet.

AUDITORIUM

While the existing building has been out of action, the RSC has performed in The Courtyard Theatre, a semi-permanent corrugated iron structure designed by Ian Ritchie Architects with theatre designer Charcoalblue.

‘The Courtyard Theatre was used as a prototype,’ says Erridge. ‘It is different from the new auditorium, but we learned a lot about sight lines and acoustics from it.’ The new theatre was designed with a thrust stage, extending into the audience on three sides. ‘The original main auditorium was heavily influenced by American cinema design,’ says Erridge. ‘But the fan format does not work for Shakespeare, because it lacks intimacy.’

Comparison of the existing and proposed auditoria reveals a more compressed space, with the ceiling following the rake of the upper tier and the rear sawn-oak wall hugging the back row of seating. The upper tier has been removed and capacity reduced from 1,400 seats to 1,042, but in doing so the maximum distance a theatre-goer will be from the stage is reduced from 45m to 15m. A new basement and fly zone increase scenic opportunities.

A series of mock-ups were produced to investigate the faceted balustrades and flat steel columns. ‘Usually the challenge is to design a structure-free space to prevent visual obstruction,’ says Erridge. ‘But the columns give a feeling of verticality to the space, frame views of the stage and divide the audience to create a more intimate environment.’

TOWER

‘The tower was not part of the brief,’ says the RSC’s project director Peter Wilson, former director of projects and estates at the Tate. ‘This was Bennetts Associates’ answer to our request for the building to be more welcoming and to encourage visitors, even those not coming
to see a performance.’

The form of the tower has gone through several transformations, evidenced by the series of models occupying a shelf in Bennetts Associates’ London office. The final design begins as an octagon at the base, tapering into a square plan at the top. ‘The taper is both a proportional and structural device’, explains Erridge. Visitors will reach the steel and glass-louvred viewing gallery by lift through the central concrete core and on their way down via the folded steel staircase, encounter a series of displays accommodated in niches in the walls.

‘Out of sympathy with the existing building, we decided on loadbearing brick with a York stone plinth,’ says Erridge. Due to the huge compressive force exerted, an industrial-strength brick was required, and Bennetts Associates selected a hand-made product from Coleford, which is used consistently throughout the project. ‘The colour variation works well with the original, but clearly marks out the tower as part of the new phase,’ says Erridge.

To maintain a smooth taper, the brick has a 3o battered face, and queen closers are used to accommodate the change in volume. A series of mock-ups were built to investigate the required depth of bed and mortar mix. Now one-third built, the brickwork trade contractor Lesterose, is using piano wire fixed to the steel plinth of the viewing gallery to create an accurate frame to follow.

 

Architect appointed March 2005
Start on site August 2007
Completion July 2010
Gross internal floor area 11,500m²
Form of contract Construction management
Total cost £112.8 million
Trade contracts cost £60 million
Client Royal Shakespeare Company
Structural/services/fire engineer Buro Happold
Quantity surveyor/planning supervisor Gardiner and Theobald
Construction manager Mace
Acoustic engineer Acoustic Dimensions
Theatre consultant Charcoalblue
Brickwork Lesterose
Steelwork CMF

 

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