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National Theatre by Haworth Tompkins

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Jay Merrick discovers that Haworth Tompkins’ remodelled National Theatre hasn’t lost any of its magic

Sometimes, architects have to perform – quite literally. When the South Bank Board interviewed 20 architectural practices to design London’s National Theatre, Denys Lasdun presented his proposal alone – no design team – but with plenty of oratorical chutzpah. ‘The essence of designing a theatre is a spiritual one,’ he intoned; an interesting proclamation, considering that he also told them he knew nothing about theatres.   

‘Oh, my dear,’ said Laurence Olivier later, ‘we all fell for that. We knew we’d got by far the most suitable man.’ Lasdun’s spiritual essence rose, like one of the ectoplasmic manifestations of Blythe Spirit’s Madame Arcati, from the stepped radiuses of the Greek theatre at Epidaurus, and the idea of a theatre building as a formal stratified landscape.

National Theatre

‘Everything that Lasdun did is completely thought out,’ says Steve Tompkins, who, with project architect Paddy Dillon, led Haworth Tompkins’ £80 million remodelling and refurbishment of the theatre. The scheme was anchored to the practice’s NT Future masterplan, which had grown out of its 2007 conservation management plan.

‘The coherence of the design, at every scale, is amazing,’ he adds. The NT’s form and structure are synonymous: the architectural physique is an orthogonal mortice-lock of massive vertical, horizontal elements, punctuated with bifurcated corner elements.

Haworth Tompkins’ scheme has revised and added to Lasdun’s spiritual concrete in four moves: a reconfiguring of the entrance sequence and the ground floor spaces immediately off it; the transformation of the Cottesloe theatre into the Dorfman black box performance space; the insertion of a fully public upper-level walkway, which overlooks the vast new workshop volumes at the southern end of the complex; and the creation of a production design studio.

Lasdun described the NT’s site as ‘a magical place’ and revelled in the fact that its northern panorama stretched from St Paul’s to the east, to Hawksmoor’s western tower at  Westminster, with Somerset House in between. And yet he angled the theatre’s porte-cochère entrance towards Westminster, so that it turned away from St Paul’s and the eastern approach of the South Bank’s Queen’s Walk. He did it to establish the internal axis that runs diagonally through the plan to the Olivier Theatre. This wrenching of the NT’s river-facing frontage, and Lasdun’s positioning of the delivery access at the north-east corner of the building, compromised the approach to it, and tainted the otherwise magnificent perspective of the massive raking terrace struts running down the building’s eastern flank.

National Theatre

Anodised aluminium fins screen the exteriors of the Max Rayne Centre

Haworth Tompkins has remodelled the previously altered (and constipated) entrance sequence by creating a much simpler glazed symmetrical enclosure and moving the bookshop – which was jammed into the beginning of the threshold – to its far end. This reinstates Lasdun’s external ‘prow’ of five structural blade columns outside the entrance. It gives the entrance a transparent and engaging relationship with Queen’s Walk for the first time, and allows the Thames vista to be glimpsed from the ground floor foyer of the Lyttelton Theatre. 

Storage rooms at the north-eastern corner of the ground floor have been cleared out and replaced by a café which, along with the bar on the building’s eastern side, has completely re-energised this corner of the theatre. The bookshop now occupies a clarified volume at the end of the entrance sequence where the Lyttelton’s cloakroom used to be.

National Theatre

The remodelling of the original flank entrance and foyer for the Dorfman Theatre is rational and effective. A new threshold, stepped on its south side and aligned with the main foyer level to the north, projects from the entrance, signalling the Dorfman in a visible and open-handed way – you can see this threshold from Queen’s Walk. Internally, the stairs that once led to the Cottesloe’s gallery level have been replaced with stairs tucked away at the back corner of the Dorfman space. Lasdun’s original and rather nasty little foyer has become a convivial milling space, with the new Clore Learning Centre on the south side of it, in what used to be the props workshops.

There are four changes at first floor level. The Lyttelton’s foyers on the NT’s north-west corner have been refurbished, and Haworth Tompkins has transformed the dowdy mezzanine restaurant above the bookshop. The fine detail of the design has produced a wittily sophisticated vibe; the practice revels – with great skill – in this kind of spatial and atmospheric fine-tuning. The show-stopper, though, is the public walkway (accessed from the Dorfman Theatre foyer) that takes people to the new Max Rayne production centre, where they can gaze down on sets being made.

National Theatre

Workshop in the Max Rayne Centre

The design of the Max Rayne building will probably be applauded and reviled in equal measure. Steve Tompkins decided against an obsequious Béton brut ‘son of NT’ extension and has, instead, produced a stranger on the block: a refined Classical-Modernist metal structure whose glinting external ribs are infilled with deliberately wavering hand-cut mesh. Its glossily grainy surface is beguiling, and bound to be copied.

But the extension is also ambiguous. Despite being 17m deep, 14m high, and 44m wide – nearly half the width of Lasdun’s south elevation – the production building seems physically lightweight; and the bulk of it suggests no distinct typology, despite accommodating 150 production fabricators, working in what may well be central London’s biggest factory.

The Max Rayne building will be applauded and reviled in equal measure

And that architectural ambiguity leads to a smaller one. The chic glazed elevations at the south-west corner of the Max Rayne building, which contain the design studios, very nearly suggest bijou upscale apartments. Considered as a whole, the contrast between the Max Rayne building and the vast tonnage of the NT’s essentially mute, fortress-like southern elevation is interesting, or regrettable, depending on your tolerance of bold formal and material contrasts.

Ultimately, however, Haworth Tompkins has carried off significant improvements without any hint of architectural one-upmanship. This was not a design performance; thus, Denys Lasdun’s icon remains a brilliantly composed homage to Epidaurus. But his shrewdly deployed, Luvvies-R-Us spiritual parti has been subtly reworked to create a theatre whose architecture is now much more effectively about place, and blythe spirits.

The brief

The National Theatre has been remodelled and refurbished, including the creation of the Max Rayne Centre, which contains a state-of-the art scenic art studio. The theatre’s workshops have been remodelled to include a public viewing gallery, and workshop space converted to create the Clore Learning Centre. The Cottesloe Theatre – renamed the Dorfman – has been modernised, and its foyer upgraded.

National Theatre

The north-east corner of the river frontage – formerly the service yard – has been converted to bars and cafés, with the construction of a café atrium facing the river. The main entrance has been remodelled to create a new entrance, the Sackler Pavilion, while public foyers have been refurbished. Landscape and terraces have been redesigned. Sustainability enhancements include fabric upgrades, a combined heat and power unit, and a ground source heat pump installation to the Max Rayne Centre.

Paddy Dillon, associate director, Haworth Tompkins

Client’s view

The NT Future redevelopment project is transforming the facilities the National Theatre offers artists and audiences. Significant changes to the way people make, experience and learn through theatre have occurred since the theatre opened its doors on the South Bank in 1976. NT Future responds to these changes by allowing audiences closer engagement with the theatre.

Laurence Olivier and Denys Lasdun

Laurence Olivier and Denys Lasdun with model of the National Theatre in 1976

We have worked with Haworth Tompkins for many years to bring NT Future to fruition. It’s been an immensely collaborative and rewarding process, and we are thrilled with the results, which will open up Denys Lasdun’s wonderful building to the audiences and theatre practitioners of the future.

The new Clore Learning Centre, the theatre’s first dedicated space for learning, offers people the chance to explore theatre-making with events and courses. The Dorfman Theatre gives artists more flexibility and audiences improved comfort, with extended capacity and an innovative seating system allowing the auditorium to be swiftly converted to daytime education use.

Our new production building, the Max Rayne Centre, provides improved facilities for artists, designers and theatre-makers to pioneer new ideas. Situated at the rear of the building on Upper Ground, its eastern aspect is glazed to give the local community and passers-by views of scenic artists at work in the huge new painting studio. Visitors can see for themselves how theatre is made from the new Sherling High-Level Walkway.

NT Future also takes better advantage of the NT’s riverside setting and offers a greater welcome to audiences with a new entrance, the Sackler Pavilion, and improved signage and access. Attractive cafés and bars have replaced the old service yard on the riverfront. There’s a new bookshop and restaurant, and the terraces have been landscaped to create revitalised green public spaces.

Lisa Burger, executive director, National Theatre

Architect’s view

Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre, opened in 1976, is one of the seminal works of British Modernism, a superb essay in concrete abstraction, completed at the end of an architectural cycle and opened to a bruising public reception. Haworth Tompkins was appointed initially to prepare a conservation management plan. The masterplan that developed from this, NT Future, aims both to adjust the building to radically changed surroundings and to equip the theatre for continued artistic growth.

Over the past 20 years, Waterloo and the South Bank have come to life. Lasdun’s building, largely blank along its elegant workshop wall, was not designed to offer a welcome to the south, while the eastwards extension of the river walk wrong-footed the main entrance, and brought 12 million visitors a year past the service yard. The architectural challenge was therefore to reorient a building whose formal composition seemed closed, and to make it more welcoming without compromising its fundamental dignity. The solution was a series of interventions designed to respond to the strongly hierarchical nature of Lasdun’s architecture.

The key to the project was the Max Rayne Centre, a new building to the south of the original workshop. This allowed the service yard to be moved off the river, opening Lasdun’s dramatic north-east corner to public use, and enabled the entrance to be remodelled, restoring the original axial approach to the building. The theatre’s context was transformed through refurbishment of landscape and terraces.

The NT’s primary concrete shell was treated as sacrosanct. Organisational changes were achieved through modification of secondary elements such as brick infill panels and glazed screens, while Lasdun’s own interior finishes were respected.

Paddy Dillon, associate director, Haworth Tompkins



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