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A new chapter for Chester: Bennetts’ Storyhouse

Storyhouse Chester images2

Bennetts Associates’ Storyhouse is an inspired attempt to rework and reinvigorate the model of regional and local cultural provision, writes Rob Wilson. Photography by Peter Cook

During the 1930s, with cinema the most popular form of mass entertainment in the UK, the Odeon chain expanded throughout the country, the majority designed by architect Harry Weedon. His designs were all variations of a distinctive ‘Moderne’, diffusion Art Deco style, influenced by his interest in the work of Eric Mendelsohn and Hans Poelzig: channelling a bit of Weimar Berlin to the high streets of provincial England. The example in Chester was toned down, cloaked in sober brick, rather than slick, glazed tiling. But it still must have provided a powerful shock-of-the-new when built, its ribbed, abstracted tower bookending one corner of the elongated square, off which the town hall and cathedral sit.

The cinema operated between 1935 and 2007, by the end divided up into a cluster of smaller screens occupying the cavernous Deco auditorium. When it shut down, it left the city cinema-less, which together with the recent closure of its theatre and its public library building no longer fit for purpose, meant a crisis in local cultural provision. Refreshingly, Cheshire West and Chester council stepped in with a bold plan of action: providing the bulk of a £37 million funding package to deliver a single new arts complex utilising the Grade II-listed cinema building, but combining theatre, cinema and library under one roof. It was the UK’s largest regional arts project and biggest capital development in Chester for 50 years, with Bennetts Associates commissioned as architects and arts producer Chester Performs appointed to run it. 

Storyhouse Chester images

Storyhouse Chester images

The result, just opened, is Storyhouse, its name, as artistic director Alex Clifton explains, coming from the rich element of storytelling that weaves through its offerings.

In layout, the 94-seat ‘boutique’ cinema, library, restaurant/bar and café occupy the shell of the Odeon. A new building containing an 800-seat theatre, 150-seat studio theatre and bar abuts at the western end. 

On the exterior, Bennetts’ new building echoes the striated brick and green copper roof of the original. The textured-brick form of the theatre, cut across by green tinged cast-glass panels and fins to service and circulation areas, is topped by a flytower and the protruding copper-clad box of the studio theatre, its current gleam due to weather to an oxidised green. Compositionally broken up, this nevertheless presents a mighty wall of building: akin to a close-coupled train or container lorry backed onto the high street. 

Storyhouse Chester images6

Storyhouse Chester images6

The original cinema entrance at the south-eastern end is now supplemented by a new theatre entrance at the point where old meets new, marked by the copper ‘head’ of the studio theatre above. The logic of this will become apparent when the existing bus station it currently faces is relocated. Here a new square will be laid out, leading to a new street running axially behind the town hall, enabled by the demolition of a 1980s shopping centre.

Internally, the new entrance leads into a glazed slot of space under the vivid red steel structure of the main stair and circulation gantries linking the different theatre levels. Its language of exposed steel and painted ply is one that Bennetts employs robustly and straightforwardly throughout the scheme.

To the left, a brick wall signals the enclosed bulk of the main theatre, while to the right, in contrast, the voided-out proscenium of the original cinema screen opens onto a lofty lobby formed from the eastern end of the old auditorium, much of its flowing Deco detailing still visible. At ground level the restaurant/café leaches into this. Above sits the cast-glass box of the new cinema – which can be lit like a glowing capsule. And beyond, the book-lined walls of the library are visible. This lobby provides a generous day-to-day central orientation and circulation space but is also intended for use in performances and informal screenings. A temporary screen can be lowered from the proscenium arch. It is clearly a space that excites Clifton with its programming possibilities. Architecturally, it’s the space where all the functions meet and where the ‘narrative’ of what the Storyhouse offers is articulated. 

Storyhouse Chester images4

Storyhouse Chester images4

However, the whole presents a visual and spatial clash. Its material plays of inside/outside, old/new, soft white Deco lines meeting sharp red steel resolve neither as a space of stasis nor of movement. 

The new performance spaces, on the other hand, are a triumph, particularly the main auditorium. Its raw black plywood and steel interior can be adapted by a floor slid across at lower circle level to create a more intense 500-seat thrust-stage, cleverly maintaining sightlines and allowing Storyhouse to accommodate both larger touring shows and smaller productions. Above this, in the copper pavilion, sits the 150-seat ‘studio’ theatre space, prioritised for local organisations’ use (although, says Clifton, with a gleam in his eye, still leaving slots for a touch of ‘1920s German Expressionist theatre’).  

At the other end of the building the original entrance, foyer and stairs have been simply restored, with their long, low, Art Deco detailing. This serves as the main street entrance for the new restaurant/café off to the left, which orientates back to the street through a large strip of glazing punched into the original brick façade. The restaurant specialises in Levantine food: traditional sharing platters underpinning both the social ‘sharing and connecting’ narrative running through the scheme as well as providing a key all-day food and drink offer. 

Storyhouse Chester images3

Storyhouse Chester images3

Off the lobby to the right is the entrance to a children’s library, taking advantage of the smaller scale of linked cellular spaces converted from a row of once-discrete retail units to provide a series of reading, workshop and storytelling spaces. These are kitted out in flexible plywood furniture and fittings and provide an appropriately community-facing street presence for Storyhouse. 

The rest of the boasted 700m of library shelf-space is less satisfyingly spread around the edges of the restaurant, upper foyer and glazed capsule of the new ‘secret’ cinema at mezzanine level. While the latter’s rich, cocoon-like interior, lined in crimson velvet curtains and bringing to mind the cabaret space in the dream sequences of Twin Peaks is a reprise of the high-level cultural offer and functional clarity of the theatre spaces, it serves to underline how library users seem to have got the raw end of the deal at Storyhouse. The shelving flowing around such ‘other’ spaces is clearly an attempt to break down the old stuffiness and barriers of the traditional public library and increase engagement and cross-pollination. But, despite a couple of nooks, it represents poor provision for those library-goers who might just want to sit down to concentrated study or to read, in what remain primarily distracting, busy circulation spaces. At worst, the books can appear like ‘storytelling’ shop-dressing. 

Despite this sense that the powerful narrative of the Storyhouse project at times outstrips its actual spatial resolution and combining of functions, overall this scheme presents an inspired attempt to rework and reinvigorate the model of regional and local cultural provision. 

Storyhouse Chester images5

Storyhouse Chester images5

Architect’s view

The main cinema volume of the old Odeon had been subdivided into five screens with many original features removed. Stripping out these sub-divisions and the redundant balcony structure revealed an enormous internal volume which retained much of its original streamlined Art Deco plasterwork, and this has become the focal point of the new building. Café and bar are at ground level below a 100-seat cinema screen, which is accessed from a new mezzanine level.

The full scale of the proscenium plasterwork that once surrounded the Odeon’s screen is now visible. With the screen removed, the foyer space now continues right through the old proscenium opening to reveal the brick-clad main auditorium of the new-build theatre, built as a new extension. Red-painted steel stairs and walkways to the theatre and studio theatre above are suspended like theatre scenery in the glazed gap between the old and new buildings.

The extension containing the theatre and studio is conceived as a companion piece to the Odeon. The main auditorium and flytower volume which form the armature of the extension are clad in brick. Steel-framed audience circulation walkways flank the brick auditorium enclosed by glazed cladding. The main theatre itself is designed to operate as an 800-seat theatre with a programme of touring productions for some of the year, but is reconfigurable to a 500-seat thrust-stage. The 150-seat studio sits on a series of steel transfer beams and columns which provide acoustic isolation. Clad in copper, it creates a distinct element on the skyline.

Simon Erridge, director, Bennetts Associates

Site plan

Site plan

Theatre consultant’s view

This is one of the few spaces of this scale to successfully combine a traditional proscenium stage with a ‘thrust’ stage (audience on three sides).

Storyhouse’s main space is a modern interpretation of a proscenium theatre, designed to the highest standards for audience comfort and sightlines. The same rigour has been also been applied to the adaptation of the space to a thrust format within this proscenium envelope. 

A mixed-use theatre space also requires flexibility within its technical systems to work well, and the room needs to work hard to cater for both formations. 

Above the auditorium, a series of lighting bridges provides positions for rigging technical equipment and locating follow-spot positions that have been carefully sited to provide the optimum angle for lighting in both thrust and end-stage formats. 

The stage lighting and audio‑visual systems have been designed to accommodate both formations, with Storyhouse having all the technical tools it needs to operate a strong and varied repertoire.

The building also needed the further provision of a 150-seat studio theatre. This intimate space will most likely become the hardest working room in the building. Retractable seating has been incorporated to allow for a flat floor for workshops and rehearsals, while as a performance space its intimacy allows for a close relationship between actor and audience. 

Gary P Wright, project lead, Charcoalblue

Existing and new ground floor plans

Existing and new ground floor plans

Client’s view

In January 2013, Chester was a city with no building-based cultural infrastructure.  It had no theatre or cinema and its library was well past its sell-by date. In response to growing public unease and irritation, Cheshire West and Chester Council allocated substantial capital funds to transform the city’s derelict Art Deco Odeon into a cultural centre. In what would become a groundbreaking project, the new centre would combine live performance, digital art, film and literature.  

Key principles emerged at the outset that informed and influenced our thinking throughout. The centre was predicated on the notion of a fully integrated offer. The building would be run by an Arts Council funded organisation, working alongside the city library service.  To customers there should be no visible divide between function; whether they were borrowing a book, seeing a show or visiting the cinema. It was equally important to deliver a high-quality iconic  building, which celebrated and respected the Odeon’s history. The building would be reimagined and styled in order to secure its future for another 100 years. 

It was important to ensure the design process echoed these key principles of integration, style, quality and operational viability. Equally important was to ensure the appointed team was fully experienced in dealing with a complex project of this nature, which had to be delivered in a highly contested political environment. Bennetts Associates and Charcoalblue have more than stepped up to the brief. The result is a beautiful building that has been immediately embraced by the local community and its stakeholders.

Graham Lister, project director 

First floor plan

First floor plan

Project data

Start on site January 2015 
Completion May 2017
Gross internal floor area 7,439m2
Form of contract NEC Design and Build contract through North West Construction Hub Major Projects Framework
Total project cost £37 million
Lead architect Bennetts Associates
Delivery architect Ellis Williams Architects
Client Cheshire West and Chester Council
Structural engineer WSP
M&E consultant Foreman Roberts
Theatre consultant Charcoalblue
Accoustic consultant Sandy Brown
Planning consultant WYG
Main contractor Kier North West
CAD software used Autodesk Revit Suite
Annual CO2 emissions 26.5 kg/m2 (estimated)

Sections

Sections

Detail

Spatial constraints of the site meant that Chester Storyhouse’s new-build auditoriums had to be stacked, with the studio theatre placed directly above the main house. The close proximity of the two performance spaces presented a number of technical difficulties, not least in avoiding acoustic transference. 

The main auditorium is conceived as a brick-clad box, structurally and acoustically independent from both the Garret studio theatre above and the audience walkways to each side. The brick box is bridged by a ‘steel table’ structure which both supports and isolates the studio and bar. This table forms the ceiling of the main auditorium (from which the technical gantries are resiliently hung) and the floor of the studio.

The studio theatre is further isolated within a box-in-box construction, with the internal walls and floors acoustically separated from the primary structure. The requirement for box-in-box construction led to double concrete slabs and deep structural zones between the studio and main auditorium. The internal height of the main house and the oversized structural and acoustic zones led to the studio bar and theatre being elevated high above the streets of Chester. We have sought to take advantage of this elevated position by maximising views of the city and the Clwydian hills beyond. To achieve the dramatic overhang of the Garret studio and bar, a steelwork frame cantilevers from the table structure out over the street. 

Daniel Kew, associate, Bennetts Associates

Section through new build

Section through new build

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