‘Arrested decay’ is how FCBS describes its approach to restoring the huge 19th-century theatre
Alexandra Palace’s East Wing has reopened following a £27 million restoration by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios – £17 million of this spent on the actual construction. The Heritage Lottery Fund-backed project has brought the theatre back into use after 80 years of neglect.
FCBS’s work creates a public communal space with a café and Creative Learning Zone in the East Court, once a grand exhibition space. Inside the theatre, retractable seating has been installed in place of the previous raked floor and the decorative ceiling has been stabilised for the suspension of production equipment.
Alexandra palace theatre2 c richard battye fcbstudios
Source: Richard Battye
While this project had a not-insubstantial budget, this was spread out over the vast spaces of the East Wing, meaning FCBS had to be tactical in where it chose to spend the money: choosing which elements absolutely needed to be replaced or reworked or where restoration could remain – as they term it – at the level of ‘arrested decay’.
Inevitably then, a lot of the budget necessarily went into the more invisible elements: the structure and services that make the two vast biggest spaces of the scheme in particular – the East Court and the theatre – structurally sound, weather tight, dry, accessible and serviced. So new banks of WCs and lifts have been fitted in, all simply, robustly and relatively neutrally detailed, topping and tailing the smooth running of events in both spaces. These events will range from Shakespeare to gigs in the theatre and markets and pop-up festivals in the East Court, where in the daytime a café and Creative Learning Zone will open next year.
The result is what feels like quite a broad-brush restoration, visually at least – big simple moves and additions that act like armatures, enabling and restoring the two main spaces not to their exact original decoration, but more importantly to their role: venues to stage large events.
It’s an approach that feels totally appropriate. The ‘Ally Pally’, as it became known fairly quickly after opening in 1875, was built as a speculative project, paid for by private subscription. Somewhat thrown up in the boom of world exhibitions and trade fairs of the late 19th century, it was not designed as a palace for arts and culture but a venue for attractions and entertainments. It was on a new scale too, requisite to the new scale of London as it spread out in the 1860s and 70s. Burnt down within two weeks of its original opening in 1873, a slightly cheaper, cruder version of the palace was then built in the original’s place. Overall the structure has the feel of being designed to maximise enclosure of space rather than for any other, more subtle, spatial or architectural merits.
Alexandra palace east court c keith armstrong 4
Source: Keith Armstrong
Given this, FCBS has chosen to help tie the whole sequence of spaces together by focusing materially on the one surface everyone comes into contact with: the floor. In the East Court, where previously damp, badly fitted blue carpet tiles dominated, a new floor slab integrates servicing and underfloor heating. Above this, a new timber floor frames central panels painted in a vivid abstract pattern designed by graphic artists Art+Believe, acts like a huge piece of public art underfoot, brashly celebrating these spaces as a ‘people’s palace’.
Meanwhile, the original raked floor in the theatre has been levelled – while reusing many of the original timbers – to enable it to be far more flexible in offering different formats of staging and audiences. FCBS sees this as just a further layer of adaption in a space that was never designed successfully as a classic proscenium theatre – it always had bad sight lines and acoustics. Subsequently, it had a life as a chapel during the First World War, a cinema in the 1920s, an internment camp during the Second World War and a prop store for the BBC in the 1950s.
Alexandra palace theatre3 c richard battye fcbstudios
Source: Richard Battye
Now with sight lines and acoustics improved, more enveloping banks of seating have been installed, retractable at lower levels. The seats are upholstered in an odd ‘salmon’ hue which somehow works – treading the line between the crimson velvet musical hall originals and slightly Deco film seats, spare, efficient yet sensuous to touch and to sit on. It’s another example of FCBS putting money into the haptic experience for audiences at the lower level, while higher up the walls and ceiling are left, even expressed, as a palimpsest of the past. Their scarring, loss and damage is not just evident but celebrated through the lighting of the space. It gives it a richness that the dead-hand of a perfect restoration could not bring out.
This is, overall, a very successful, sensitively judged restoration – or rather ‘arrested decay’ of the building – by FCBS, a practice that celebrates its own 40th anniversary this year. At a time when some practices might already be entering their own ‘arrested decay’ stage, it feels to be firing on all creative cylinders.
Coms 1745 pres 01 ground floor plan
Walking into the theatre five years ago was an experience I’ll never forget. What you get is a sense of perspective in time, of looking back through the 140 years of this room’s existence. You can almost hear the echoes of the last performance 80 years ago before the curtain came down. Its walls carry the scars of several decades’ use by the BBC as a props store, and of subsequent abandonment and decay after the BBC left.
All of this is legible on the surfaces and in the fabric of the building, and could have been swept away by well-meaning repair. Some far-reaching interventions were called for, but what seemed of paramount importance was to keep the layered character that made these spaces unique.
The Victorian theatre was always too long and narrow in proportion. The newly levelled floor is a major insertion, and this enables performances to be drawn out from the stage house into the auditorium itself – including in-the-round and traverse formats. We wanted the audience to wrap around performances. Seating was added above the two side corridors built in a 1920s remodelling; we also inserted an entirely new circle balcony structure immediately above the original, to increase the rake and improve sightlines into the middle of the auditorium. The result is a sense of intimacy that’s surprising for such a large space.
The roof structure has been re-engineered to support a grid of 64 ‘strong points’ which carry the lighting, rigging and audio equipment necessary for modern productions. This involved significant reinforcement of the Victorian timber trusses, as well as careful consolidation of the elaborate plaster ceiling.
Elsewhere, the project has been about the exercise of restraint: of knowing when to stop. We used the term ‘arrested decay’ to describe an approach of consolidation rather than restoration. In treating rooms as found spaces, we’ve addressed the mechanisms of deterioration, removed elements that were unsafe or could not be viably repaired, and presented the result to public view as a direct manifestation of the stories embodied in all of these spaces.
By avoiding restoration, elements that are new are legible as such. They are informed by the super-scale of the Victorian palace and the ambitions it represents, so need to be assertive to find their place in this context. At the same time, this is one more layer added to many previous ones.
Matt Somerville, associate, FCBS
Coms 1745 pres theatre section
Start on site April 2017
Completion November 2018
Gross internal floor area 5,920m²
Form of contract Traditional
Construction cost £17 million
Architect Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
Client Alexandra Palace
Structural engineer Alan Baxter & Associates
M&E consultant Max Fordham
QS Mott MacDonald
Main contractor Wilmott Dixon Construction
Theatre consultant Charcoalblue
CAD software used MicroStation