A remarkable restoration project breathes life back into one of London’s unique music venues, writes Ellis Woodman
Photography by Hélène Binet
From the 1830s, when London pubs first established rooms for staging singsongs and free-and-easies, comic, musical and acrobatic entertainments became an increasingly popular accompaniment to an evening’s drinking and dining. By 1872, Greater London housed 78 music halls with a capacity of between 500 and 5,000, and as many as 300 smaller halls. This predominantly working-class culture thrived until the 1920s when licensing laws banned alcohol from auditoriums and younger audiences began to be lured away by the emerging swing, big band and jazz scenes.
Wilton’s is one of very few purpose built music halls to remain
Tucked away down a narrow alley in Stepney, Wilton’s is one of very few purpose-built music halls to remain in anything like its original form, and the sole survivor from the mid-Victorian era. The impresario, John Wilton, erected it in 1859, behind a pub and three adjoining houses that had earlier been knocked together to form one establishment. The whole ensemble would eventually become what we know as Wilton’s.
Destroyed by fire in 1877, the hall was rebuilt on the same essential lines but by the time work completed it had passed into the ownership of the Methodist Church, which ran a mission there for more than 70 years. The building was scheduled for demolition as part of a slum clearance programme in the 60s, but escaped thanks to a campaign headed by John Betjeman, and finally reopened as a theatre and concert hall 18 years ago. The fact that much of the site remained in a state of dereliction only contributed to its unique appeal, providing a resonant setting for productions such as Fiona Shaw’s staged recital of The Waste Land.
It was therefore with some trepidation that, in 2004, Wilton’s embarked on a project to address the building’s numerous technical and structural concerns. But happily, in Tim Ronalds Architects, it found a practice sensitive to the dangers of erasing the venue’s unique atmosphere.
Tim Ronalds Architects has kept everything that it possibly can
‘Do no more than essential’ served as the architect’s guiding principle throughout the course of what would ultimately amount to £3 million of building works. Rather than rebuilding collapsing brickwork, it has stabilised it through the introduction of dowels. Where it has doubled joists to support public loadings, the old floor and ceiling boards were numbered and returned to their original locations. From the remnants of old staircases that now rise to nowhere, to a bird’s nest uncovered in the course of construction, it has kept everything that it possibly can.
The hall itself retains much the elegantly dishevelled appearance it presented prior to the works, but has been discreetly equipped with ventilation and acoustic lining. The more visible change that Wilton’s regulars will notice is the provision of much-expanded front-of-house facilities. Previously the terrace fronting the hall could only be partly occupied, but Ronalds has returned it to full use, establishing a rambling sequence of connected bars on the lower floors of three of the properties. While the fourth has accommodated artists’ changing rooms, the back-of-house facilities remain basic with all stage entrances being made directly from a fire escape. The installation of a new lift and stair has significantly improved accessibility but the discrepancy between the once-independent properties’ floor levels remains a defining spatial characteristic.
No attempt has been made to artificially age new materials, but care has been taken to minimise potential contrasts with the older fabric. Any impulse to express the modernity of the more substantial interventions has been studiously resisted. The building therefore presents a paradoxical identity, being at once a palimpsestic accumulation of construction and yet seemingly frozen in time. On another site that conceit might rankle, but its theatricality feels entirely suited to Wilton’s dreamlike world. Ronalds has recognised that it is not just the building’s stage that offers a place of fantasy. The visitor is invited to suspend their disbelief as soon as they head through the door.
Wilton’s Music Hall by Tim Ronalds Architects
Architect Tim Ronalds Architects
Client Wilton’s Music Hall Trust
Structural engineer Cambridge Architectural Research
M&E consultant Max Fordham
Quantity surveyor EC Harris (phase 1), Bristow Johnson (phase 2)
Theatre consultant Carr & Angier
Acoustic consultant Ramboll
Access consultant All Clear Designs
Conservation plan John Earl
Project manager Richard Maidment (client’s adviser)
CDM coordinator Tim Ronalds Architects
Approved building inspector London Borough of Tower Hamlets
Main contractor Fullers Builders (phase 1), William Anelay (phase 2)
Start on site July 2012 (phase 1), July 2014 (phase 2)
Completed February 2013 (phase 1), September 2015 (phase 2)
Gross internal floor area 675m² (phase 1), 845m² (phase 2)
Form of contract or procurement JCT Standard Building Contract Without Quantities, 2011 Edition
Construction cost £740,000 (phase 1), £1.95 million (phase 2)
CAD software used Microstation