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Aedas Arts Team's 'endearingly dotty' transformation of the Tara Theatre

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Robert Bevan explores the cultural fusion of Aedas Arts Team’s retrofit of the Tara Theatre

PROJECT DATAARCHITECT’S VIEW • CLIENT’S VIEW • ENGINEER’S VIEW • SPECIFICATION • PLANS • SECTION • DETAIL

Fusion is almost too obvious a word for the new Tara Theatre at Earlsfield in suburban south-west London – but it is kind of inevitable. Here, Victorian high street meets traditional India meets contemporary architectural gesture; here, the theatrical is entangled with the domestic.

Tara Arts, the Asian performance company, has been a small but respected force in English theatre since its first show at the Battersea Arts Centre in 1977. For years it toured before setting into its permanent home in 1983, a former shopfront chiropodist with a flat above and an 1896 mission hall squeezed behind, which once catered (the hall that is) for the navvies who built the adjacent railway embankment.

Tara’s 50-seat, low-ceilinged auditorium in the old hall was in poor shape when Network Rail offered to sell a 5m-wide sliver of land between the subsiding building and its embankment. Haworth Tompkins provided an initial feasibility concept, which won funding to rebuild entirely. Sensibly, the practice suggested using the additional land for circulation, freeing up space on the original site for a taller, 100-seat auditorium and ancillary uses. Then OJEU and Network Rail intervened.

Network Rail explained that the additional land couldn’t be built upon because it needed emergency access once in every whenever, while the OJEU process resulted in Aedas Arts Team being appointed to fit a Design and Build quart into a pint pot. The client and contractor were to fit out the interior with a container of architectural fragments sourced from a salvage warehouse in Rajasthan.

The result is endearingly dotty for the most part but with some wince-inducing moments in others.

Conceptually, the new building is a banyan tree growing up through a 19th-century commercial terrace; a tree in whose shade performances were traditionally carried out on the bare earth. Thus the stage is 50m2 of Jurassic Coast cob while a branching motif covers the exterior in window transfers and Sto render.

The reference to the decorative plasterwork of India is not entirely plausible 

Aedas describes the exterior branches as ‘pargeting’ – the vernacular decorative plasterwork of East Anglia. Why pargeting is relevant to this corner of south-west London – where even the later, Metroland version of the craft isn’t present – is unclear. A second reference to the decorative plasterwork of India is not entirely plausible as an explanation.

The frontage has been rebuilt as a copy of what existed before the works, complete with bodged shopfront and first-floor window that cuts into the Mission Hall entry’s pediment (a term used here in the loosest of ways).

A new solid-timber entrance door with an elaborate Indian lock (for decorative purposes only) leads directly into a combined front-of-house area with a ticket desk/bar to one side. The auditorium is straight ahead through a pair of brass-studded antique timber doors from Tamil Nadu. The theatre proper is an inviting, asymmetrical space lined with brick and timber and fitted out with seating recycled from Ian Ritchie’s temporary home for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

So that stage rehearsals don’t mean days spent in perpetual darkness, a high-level window is provided, complete with sliding screen (another piece of Indian architectural salvage), pulled closed with a nicely low-tech rope.

The basement below is back of house, with a secondary staircase leading to a trap in the corner of the stage, while above are three office floors contained within the rendered tower as it morphs into a domestic attic. Melamine kitchen workshops can feature at one end of the room; more carved Indian wooden doors at another.

At first-floor level is a small secondary rehearsal studio with the dimensions of a residential sitting room. The top, third floor, is reached via a spiral staircase running up past wall-mounted bookcases as the building becomes ever more homely. Each floor has corner Velfac windows designed to appear as wrap-around, although in reality they are not – a detail hidden when viewed internally by the enclosed structural steels at the internal corners.

This collage of typologies and decorative styles works only sometimes. The timber bar counter, for instance, is shockingly clumsy, but the Indian truck art painted inside the close-boarded cubicle doors is lots of fun. In the pleasant courtyard that has been created to one side, railway-sleeper retaining walls have been inset with small stone votive niches. Equally fun.

The vintage doors are beautiful, but small carved corbels attached elsewhere feel random rather than integrated.

This feels like a form of architectural colonialism

More importantly, the provenance of some of this Indian salvage is, apparently, unknown, so there is always the danger that some historic Indian structure has been plundered – as they are to satisfy the Western decorators’ market. This feels like a form of architectural colonialism, which their placement within an Asian cultural building only tentatively alleviates.

Ultimately though, what could have been an intriguing antithesis between crisp, contemporary details and antique decoration has only limited success because the value-engineered, Design-and-Build contemporary details aren’t crisp enough, especially on the tower exterior; and because the decorative work feels more sentimental than considered. It will not wear well.

That doesn’t mean the theatre’s users won’t enjoy the building when it opens this month – the design’s amateurish elements banish any air of the institutional – but it fails as decent architecture, which is frustrating because one can see how, with some more discipline and cash, it might have been pulled off.

What remains impressive is the sheer amount of accommodation that has been created on a tiny, difficult site. But that is London theatre architecture’s history – from 19th-century city-centre structures that had to squeeze auditoriums into constrained sites, to such late-20th-century inventive work as Florian Beigel’s Half Moon Theatre in Stepney or Tim Ronalds’ Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn.

This is cultural fusion rather than cultural clash, comfort-food design; chicken tikka sandwich architecture. And what could be more contemporary English than that? Unfortunately the value-engineering couldn’t be more English either.

Basement plan

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

Ground floor plan

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

First floor plan

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

Second floor plan

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

Third floor plan

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

Section 

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

Detail

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

Tara wanted an earth floor, and much of the design story and building materiality flows from this requirement of the brief. An early concept model we made showed the new ‘box’ structure clad in a fluid design, which prompted a discussion about mud, earth, adobe render, lime render, pargeting and traditional English craft. What emerged was a building that expressed its cross-cultural lineage through the relationship between a restored stock brick London terrace and a ‘mud’-clad object, which told stories both of Indian decorative techniques and traditional English craft.

The use of the tree motif resonates in many cultures, and the idea of banyan tree sheltering a gathering space was an early concept. The tree is ‘rooted’ in the earth floor of the stage and unites the external expression and the materiality with the performance space at the heart of the building. This elegant expression, counterpointed by state-of-the-art technology in the theatre space and clean, modern finishes, sets up an exciting dialogue between the past of theatre and its future.

Internally the building is informed by the elements of its construction. Unadorned reclaimed brick and timber surfaces define the performance space. There is a strong sense of theatrical intimacy, which still allows performers and designers the space to create their own worlds.

Remarkable Indian artefacts are integrated into the remaining areas of the building. Beautifully carved doors, niches, corbels and screens add a layer of storytelling that gives the interior a unique quality.

Julian Middleton, executive director, Aedas Arts Team, and Jatinder Verma, artistic director, Tara Arts

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

Source: Philip Vile

Project data

Start on site October 2014
Completion April 2016
Gross internal floor area 493m²
Form of contract Design and Build
Construction cost £2.6 million
Architect Aedas Arts Team
Client Tara Arts
Structural engineer HRW incorporating Jane Wernick Associates
M&E consultant CES Clearsprings Environmental Services (from Stage E onwards)
QS HA Marks Construction
Theatre equipment consultant Theatreplan
Acoustics Arup Acoustics
Project manager Cragg Management Services
CDM co-ordinator HA Marks Construction
Approved building inspector Butler and Young Building Control
Main contractor HA Marks Construction
CAD software used MicroStation 

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

Source: Philip Vile

Architect’s view

The Aedas Arts Team was commissioned to design and deliver the new Tara Theatre after a competitive tendering process from Stage B. Issues relating to building on a strip of land leased from Network Rail became apparent at an early stage and as a result the original concept needed to be completely redesigned.

Arts Team’s design concept had two key aims:

  • The need to squeeze as much accommodation as possible from the very small envelope.
  • An opportunity for Tara Arts to express their identity, ethos and mission through the building.

The exterior of the new Tara Theatre is characterised by the relationship between the rebuilt terrace façade and the new ‘box’ structure that provides the upper level accommodation. A tree motif, created from render, wraps around the new ‘box’.

The tree has particularly resonance in Indian culture; at the heart of many rural Indian villages stands a Banyan Tree, India’s national tree. Tara’s tree wraps itself around the theatre, inviting audiences into the space to hear stories – while externally the tree provides a lively urban marker. The auditorium contains an earth floor and the rest of the building incorporates a series of Indian doors and architectural features sourced by Claudia Mayer (Tara) and Julian Middleton (Arts Team) from Delhi and Jodhpur. 

The collaborative relationship we established with Tara has meant that the entire design process, including public consultations, the tendering for the Design and Build contractor and the planning processes has been a very meaningful and joyful project to work on.

Julian Middleton, executive director, Aedas Arts Team 

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

Source: Helene Binet

Client’s view

Tara’s aspirations were, quite simply, to create the country’s first multicultural theatre building that would make apparent the dialogue between theatre’s past and future. The ambition for the building, and the project, was to create a beautiful landmark that demonstrated Tara‘s vision for a modern, multicultural sensibility, creating a luminous focal point for shared cultural experiences in the neighbourhood.

The design process was a genuine collaboration between Tara and its architects, leading to a strong shared aesthetic understanding through the life of the project.

As a combined team, Tara and Aedas quickly established a shared design language and vision based upon precedent studies and travels. We drew heavily on Aedas Arts Team’s spaces at the Donmar Warehouse, Winterflood Theatre and Northern Stage, as well as theatre designs in India.

Integral to this mix was theatre consultant Theatreplan, which was invaluable in guiding the technical installations with practicality and flair. This dual sense of collaboration and luck continued with the other critical partners: project manager Nick Cragg and lead contractor HA Marks – the one in providing guidance through the plethora of contracts, the other in its responsive approach to the challenges of construction.

My determination to be involved in every aspect perhaps made this building project akin to putting on a production – albeit over a more protracted period and on a grander scale than I’ve hitherto been used to. Building a theatre needs its creative head to get down and dirty.

Jatinder Verma, artistic director, Tara Arts

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

Source: Helene Binet

Engineer’s view

The objectives Tara Arts had for their new home were ambitious in all aspects – including their environmental strategy. Although they started from a fairly low base in their dilapidated Edwardian building, the company had participated in The Theatres Trust’s Ecovenue advice scheme, which helped to raise awareness and address issues that smaller arts venues encounter when improving their environmental performance. 

Under BREEAM 2001 Bespoke the theatre achieved Very Good status. The bespoke process of BREEAM is to select and amend criteria for the specific requirements of the project, to reflect the unique use and sustainability opportunities of the building project and its location. 

Sustainable principles adopted through the building included the use of responsibly resourced materials, green roofs, photovoltaics, LED lighting, high performance U-values and thermographic surveys. 

Critical in any performance space is the ventilation and heating of the auditorium. On a site constrained in both plan and section it was a challenge to achieve a displacement system with air delivered under the seats and extracted at high level. Balancing this with the needs of a highly adaptable performance space had to be tested and modelled as often as the client dreamt up new ways to create performances in their new space.

Paul Downie, managing director, Clearsprings ES

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

Tara Theatre by Aedas Arts Team

Source: Helene Binet

Specification

Render

StoRend Flex Cote render and StoDeco system for Banyan tree motif

Bricks

7,500 reclaimed bricks (from the original demolition) reused in the new auditorium

Windows

Velfac 200 series aluminium and timber windows

Doors and screens

Indian doors, screens and decorative items sourced in the salvage yards of Delhi and Jodhpur with modifications detailed by Aedas Arts Team, with assistance from engineer HRW, and work to Indian items carried out by HA Marks

Cob floor to stage area

25mm sealed cob on timber substructure by cob building specialist Kevin McCabe

Sedum roof

Extensive sedum plug planted and wildflower seed green roof by Blackdown Greenroofs

Fixed theatre seating

Reclaimed from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Courtyard Theatre

Floorboards

12mm Br UV lacquered oak Natura engineered floorboards for Wood n’ Beyond

Sound insulation

BuzziSkin pinnable sound-insulating wall covering

Acoustic ceiling

British Gypsum Rigitone acoustic ceiling to third floor office

Sanitary items

WCs, sinks and taps from Burlington Edwardian and Regal ranges

Courtyard paving

Tegula Priora permeable paving

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