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Art of the possible

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The specialist Arts Team @ rhwl uses its expertise and enthusiasm to create arts venues which are accessible and inclusive while retaining a sense of magic

To work with the Arts Team @ rhwl, you have to be (as the outfit's promotional leaflet puts it) 'passionate about the performing arts' and happy to spend two or three evenings each week watching plays, opera and dance. Intervals are likely to be spent quizzing members of the audience about seats, sightlines and sound quality rather than enjoying a drink. The findings of all those nights at the theatre are distilled down in meetings back at base in Long Acre, Covent Garden. The Arts Team, a division of rhwl, moved there a year ago, at the time it acquired its distinctive identity, and inhabits a spacious top-floor eyrie, day-lit and decorated in bold colours, with agreeably self-contained workspaces as well areas for meetings and socialising. There is quite a lot of the latter, it seems - this really is a team, with a strong sense of commitment to, and enjoyment of, what it does for a living. People tend to stay around. 'You get hooked on this sort of work,' one associate explains. 'The buzz one gets on an opening night in a new theatre is simply unique.'

Nick Thompson, the most senior of the four partners (with Barry Pritchard, Robin Derham and Norman Bragg) who lead the Arts Team, sees the move to Long Acre as part of 'a cultural shift'. The new office is a short walk from the main rhwl office in Endell Street, where Thompson and colleagues were divided between two floors. There is no divorce from the rest of the partnership, Thompson insists, 'but we feel much freer here'.

The Arts Team's expertise is not limited to theatres and concert halls - it has the resources to tackle gallery and exhibition design, for example, and is refiguring Brighton Museum and Art Gallery as part of the dome project. But the wealth of experience gained since rhwl built the Crucible, Sheffield, in 1968-71 - Nick Thompson's first big job - is formidable. The firm's achievements since then include the Warwick University arts centre, The Anvil at Basingstoke, the Derngate Centre in Northampton, Manchester's Bridgwater Hall, the revamped Donmar Warehouse, and the new Sadler's Wells (with Nicholas Hare), not to mention restoration and refurbishment work at many of the finest historic theatres in the uk. (Designer Clare Ferraby, Nick Thompson's wife, is probably the best-known historic-theatres specialist in this country - she has been working recently on the London Palladium.)

The essence of the Arts Team's past success, and the key to its future (as the practice sees it), lies in its ability to provide stylish, high- value venues with, in many cases, a flexible role. A few years ago, the future of the performing arts seemed to lie in huge National Lottery subventions, and large sums were committed to rebuilding existing venues, regardless of cost, or constructing new ones. That era has already faded into history, though the future of some of the projects it encouraged remains uncertain - the curse of the lottery is a reality - while others remain in limbo. Why should the lottery fund a total reconstruction of the main theatre at Stratford-on-Avon - a Grade II-listed building, incidentally - when, as the Arts Team proposed, it could be refurbished within the existing walls at lower cost?

'We are very much into breaking down barriers,' says Thompson. The barriers are those between the public and the commercial and the arts - in the narrow sense - and other forms of leisure and entertainment. Basingstoke's Anvil, for example, is an adaptable performance/conference centre, built for a mere £10 million and with a 1400-seat hall highly rated by musicians. It is heavily used and attracts audiences from a wide area of the south - to a town which used to be seen as a cultural desert. There would surely have been sense in investing in half a dozen more Anvils for the price of one lottery mega-project.

The Malvern Theatre is a good example of lottery money well spent. The three existing auditoria, built between the 1880s and late 1920s, have all been retained and refurbished in the Arts Team's £6 million scheme, providing better facilities for performers and audiences, but have been linked together by a new foyer space containing bars and restaurant. At moderate cost, a well-used regional venue has been given added appeal and hence the ability to generate more revenue for itself. The Arts Team believes that theatres and concert halls should be convivial places, where you can get a decent meal - The Anvil's restaurant is regularly packed at lunchtimes, being one of the few decent eating places in the centre of Basingstoke.

New Labour's parsimony where the traditional arts are concerned, its stress on community, education and training, and dislike of 'elitism' is setting a new agenda for arts buildings which the Arts Team is determined to address. The Arc at Stockton-on-Tees replaces an existing arts centre in a shabby area of the town. It offers facilities for theatre, cinema, cabaret and dance, with studios alongside performance spaces, while the striking glazed foyer is intended to pull in passers-by. The total bill was £5.5 million. In terms of cost per seat, just £6700, the Arc seems even better value. (The equivalent cost at the Royal Court in London, the recipient of lottery mega-bucks, is over £36,000.)

The arts building of the future, says Nick Thompson, will be part of 'a framework for arts and events - a place where you come to do things', not a monument. It will be multi-purpose, one-class, financially sustainable and, of course, 'accessible', but there must still be that vital sense of occasion, of something beyond the routine. 'People need to feel involved,' says Thompson. 'You get that feeling, for example, in the 'gods' at the London Coliseum. We were amazed to discover that people who used to go to the old Sadler's Wells still recognise 'their' place in the rebuilt house - continuity matters'. Today's audiences also demand comfortable seats, pleasant bars and adequate wc provision. The subsidised sector led the way forward, but it is no accident that the Arts Team is working on refurbishment schemes for a number of commercial West End theatres, many of which are still sub-standard.

The magic of the theatre, opera house or concert hall lies in the empathy between audience and performers, a process in which directors, set, costume and lighting designers, and, the Arts Team argues, architects, play a vital role. The theatre of the future will be an interactive, rather than a passive, place, it insists. The auditorium should be something more than just a lot of seats; it can be used, in visual and auditory terms, as an extension of the stage. One of the key features of the new Sadler's Wells is that the sense of performance pervades the whole auditorium. When an office or retail building, say, is completed, the architect goes away and the client takes over. Most Arts Team projects are ongoing, with the architect on hand as consultant on the use of the building and on its adjustment to new techniques and technologies. It is the dynamism of the performing arts, rather than the vagaries of funding or government policy, which motivates the Arts Team - and infuses its own work.

Photographs by John Walsom except the Duisburg Musical Theatre (Graham Phoenix, ldp), Bridgewater Hall (Dennis Gilbert), rsc original building (Herbert Felton)

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