Rory Olcayto finds a theatre using architecture to attract wider audiences
We often use geographical and natural landscape terms to describe man-made places with a real sense of feeling: a forest of columns, a mountainous building, streets like canyons, and so on and so on.
In Scotland, where I grew up, the temptation is especially strong. Mountains, meadows, river and lochs are always within spitting distance – even in the cities. In Edinburgh, for example, it’s almost compulsory to deploy geological metaphors, given its townscape is so obviously defined by landforms, such as the volcanic outcrop on which the castle sits.
Glasgow on the other hand – my city – is defiantly urban and defiantly man-made; the landscape sublimated – at least at first glance. This is not a place of ancient Scottish kings drawn to fortified mountaintops, but of Adam Smith and determined Atlantic traders – the same merchants who would inspire The Wealth of Nations and who famously ‘dredged the Clyde’ and draped a speculative gridiron across its many hills (or ‘drumlins’ to use a native term), as if to prove their dominion over nature. If Glasgow ever had a city centre volcano it would have long ago been put to industrial use.
While it engages solidly with the existing structure, it also revels in the art of showing off
Still, you’d be hard-pushed not to occasionally, lazily, fall back on natural metaphors when describing, say, Glasgow’s motorways – of course they’re like a river of steel and concrete, aren’t they? But instead of applying geological terms to individual buildings, or clearly defined spaces, perhaps we need more holistic metaphors – especially for Glasgow, which is so solidly defined by its grid.
This is where Nan Shepherd’s book The Living Mountain provides useful inspiration, especially her description of the Cairngorms as a single mass of granite, its plateau a single mountain, while individual peaks ‘though sundered from one another by fissures and deep descents, are no more than eddies on the plateau surface’. You could think of cities like that too surely; as single entities, with the occasional eddie-like flourish rising above a collective roofline. We may do this in a 2D sense quite naturally – that is what a ‘skyline’ is – but thinking this way in three dimensions is rare.
Ian Nairn of course got there first, some 55 years ago. In an article on Glasgow, which he wrote for The Listener following a visit in 1960, he described the city’s Victorian core as ‘a kind of topographical epic with the buildings as incidents, good though they are’. I cannot help but find this useful when I think of the work of Page\Park, which has added smartly here and there to Glasgow’s sandstone and concrete plateau – the Italian Centre from 1989 is still a fine piece of restorative urban design – as well as having fashioned a few eddies or ‘incidents’ for the city, such as its weird 1999 reworking of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Herald building, which includes the addition of a lead-clad tower alongside its two existing ones. The practice’s latest building, an extension to the Theatre Royal, is also in this category, in that it has sought to repair an existing building as well as giving it a new summit-like form.
In terms of topography, it works rather well because if ever one of Glasgow’s corners needed an architectural peak, this would be among the favourites. The site, at the north end of Hope Street – a canyon that runs for nearly a mile to the Clyde riverside by Glasgow Central Station’s glacial bulk – is the city plateau’s shorn cliff edge, where the motorway collides with the grid. And while the corner is in fact where Hope Street meets Cowcaddens Road, rather than the M8, it still feels like a tributary river feeding the mighty Nile.
Across from it on the other side of Hope Street, the corner is proudly taken care of by Honeyman, Keppie & Mackintosh’s lavish tenement for the 1903 Civic Improvement Trust. It is likely by Keppie rather than Charles Rennie, but that doesn’t make it any less diverting. As the Pevsner city guide says: ‘Not only is the round corner tower, with its shallow ogee dome, a showpiece, each red sandstone facade has huge curvy pediments hooding equally sinuous canted bays.’ Nice.
Ideally, in my eyes, the new building’s crown would reach a fair bit higher to become a genuine peak. As things stand now, it feels a little squat. Still, now both corners speak to one another, and form a gate of sorts, for one of the city’s grander streets. Hope Street is home to both Salmon and Gillespie’s incredible Lion Chambers (an early reinforced concrete proto-skyscraper) and, in a lane off it, Mackintosh’s Daily Record building with its primitive-naive Art Nouveau tilework.
In terms of what the building does for the Theatre Royal, it’s pretty basic stuff: the programme was focused on the audience journey from ‘street to seat’. That means, an improved approach and entrance, intuitive internal wayfinding and the provision of enhanced audience facilities. This has all been done with a fair degree of verve. Some of the work done is simply compliance. Lifts have been installed to provide full access to all upper theatre balconies to meet accessibility legislation. But the client’s desire to ‘open up’ the theatre, and opera as an art form, by using architecture to attract wider audiences will likely prove successful too. This is a building to linger in. And while it engages solidly with the existing structure in plan and section, and with the neighbourhood in terms of how it mirrors the opposing corner and frames roadside tower blocks to the north freestanding peaks removed from the grid, it also revels in the art of showing off.
Before Page\Park’s extension there was nothing here on this corner; just a gap site with the Hope Street facade stopping short of Cowcaddens Road. Now there is a glinting, corrugated drum of gold-coloured copper cladding and glazed strips enclosing an extravagant staircase, with a red carpet and black leather handrails. Each of the three column-free floors above the reception foyer is a generous deck, where the audience can mingle before a performance as well as during the breaks and afterwards, and much of this interior is visible from the street. This composition and feeling is theatrical.
So too are the polished concrete facades, that bookend the exuberant metal and glass drum. In terms of scale, they mitigate the roofline heights either side of it, but their Modernist form and expression is so removed from the brazen corner setpiece that on first sight you might assume these were elements already in place before Page\Park was commissioned.
I like the clash of styles: it lends a degree of mystery to the composition, and it will at least elicit double glances from passers-by. Whether you will be able to determine what it is you’re looking at is debatable. What you will understand, however, is that this is one of Nairn’s ‘incidents’ in the topographic whole.
What would Nairn have thought had he toured Glasgow in 2015? I’m no expert, but after a double whisky in one of his favourite bars, I think he’d have thought it braver than most recent additions to the city’s impressive gridiron. As for Nan Shepherd, I have no idea – although if you read The Living Mountain you’ll sense that cities were not for her.
The brief for the Theatre Royal was to provide new front-of-house facilities for the audience in a new extension directly linked back to the historic theatre. Scottish Opera desired welcoming and open foyers to help build audiences for both opera and the other performances staged at the theatre. Driven by the practical need to improve access to the upper balcony levels, the extension houses new entrances, box office, café, bars, toilets, lifts and cloakrooms. The foyers are open throughout the day and the roof terrace at balcony level offers views across the city to the hills beyond.
Our work at the Theatre Royal for Scottish Opera focused on the audience’s journey from ‘street to seat’ through an improved approach, entrance, intuitive internal wayfinding and the provision of enhanced audience facilities in the form of new open and welcoming foyers.
The form of the extension is seen as an echo of the splendid Category A-listed elliptical Victorian theatre space, within which is an overlapping twist of stairs. A key planning strategy has been to manage the audience movement from the back of each existing auditorium floor level to the bars, support spaces and these linking stairs.
To provide a column free interior to that volume, the structural articulation of the various plan levels plays various roles: cantilevering in one direction towards the free-standing middle of the plan, sheltering the ground level approach, and finally shaping the roof-line expression. The structural columns require significant depth to carry out these roles. Their lateral length is exploited to frame a perimeter of bays around the foyer, enclosed by an in-and-out metal cladding and curtain wall screen, wrapping the structure and associated acoustically tempered ventilation boxes.
Over the project’s four-year gestation, we worked closely with the client through various iterations of the form and external expression of the building, constantly testing the developing plans. Uniquely, Scottish Opera’s own stage joinery workshop constructed and installed the high-quality joinery work.
This significant city cultural project as envisaged by Scottish Opera has been seen by the office as an opportunity to create a major new piece of civic architecture within our practice’s home city.
Nicola Walls, lead architect, Page\Park
Built in 1867, Theatre Royal is Glasgow’s longest running theatre. Scottish Opera bought it from Scottish Television in 1974, turning it into Scotland’s national opera house. Since then much work has been done to preserve and restore the Category A-listed Phipps auditorium, including a major refurbishment in 1997 to reinstate the original French Renaissance gilded design. But none of this helped solve the day to day problems of cramped and poorly functioning Victorian public spaces, very limited accessibility, inadequate facilities, poor ventilation and large numbers of restricted view seats.
Our audiences expected more. The theatre needed bringing firmly into the 21st century.
The opportunity to fix these problems presented itself when commercial property developments around the theatre resulted in a gap site right next door becoming available.
Our vision was for spacious, accessible foyers that could easily cope with 1,500 people during an interval, but which, as well as serving performances, would be a relaxed and inviting ‘third place’ for casual daytime use. There was a need for modern, dedicated and flexible education rooms, supporting projects to engage the local community and introduce the performing arts to people of all ages. And it was important to us that audiences would respond to finding their way around the theatre intuitively.
Rather than design to the gap site, Page\Park proposed knocking down the unremarkable existing café and offices to make full use of the 450m2 site this would create. Their elliptical design, with the upper floors overhanging the pavement, meant that foyer space could be maximised. The top floor would boast Glasgow’s only publicly accessible roof terrace. The creation of ‘window bays’ caught the imagination of our supporters, providing a welcome boost to our fundraising.
The natural materials palette of the interior includes a sweeping double-spiral staircase clad in birch ply. When it came to the bespoke joinery, it proved almost impossible to find a company willing to take on the complexity of the ceilings and staircases.
Our own carpentry workshops – more used to creating scenery than buildings – took on the work, skilling up to make and fit the bespoke joinery panels that are a major feature of the building. Doing this blurred the lines between client and contractor, and at the time felt like a real risk, but the quality of the finished building is testament to the workshop’s talents and the transferability of skills.
We love the building Page\Park and the team have created for us. Since the foyers opened, we’ve been delighted by how graciously and effortlessly they are able to host a full-house audience. They also provide space that invites people to gather, and the café and box office have been well used since day one. People naturally gravitate to the window bays with their drinks, looking out on their own unique Glasgow postcard view. Everyone is delighted by the lifts, and many choose to linger on the staircase on their way down, seeing and being seen, which has always been one of the pleasures of theatre-going.
Alex Reedijk, general director of Scottish Opera
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