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Command performance

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Careful refurbishment of the Royal Albert Hall by Building Design Partnership will provide the Victorian monument with facilities fit for the 21st century

When you walk along Kensington Gore, alongside the Royal Geographical Society building, a white milestone set into the corner of the pavement shows London to be one mile further east. At the time it was laid, this area was indeed somewhat distant from the city, but was soon to be earmarked for one of the greatest metropolitan visions in artistic and scientific excellence the world has seen.

As a celebration of the possibilities of the Victorian Age, exemplified by the Great Exhibition of 1851, a 50-acre site in South Kensington grew to house the V&A, the Science Museum, Natural History Museum, Imperial College and the Royal College of Music, all magnificent edifices. The 1961 architectural awfulness of the RCA is offset by the splendour of the Royal College of Organists. And at the core of the development is the Royal Albert Hall, opened by the Prince of Wales on 29 March 1871.

Given that the motto of the Royal Albert Hall, writ large in the magnificent frieze around the top of the building, states that the 'hall was erected for the Advancement of the Arts and Sciences, and works of industry of all nations', it is a little disappointing to find that the modern events programme includes the likes of The Moody Blues, Willie Nelson and Chris de Burgh. Prince Albert may be spinning in his grave, but B-list stars are always going to take a poor second place to such an A-list building. Or should I say, Grade I-listed national monument.

Designed by Captain Francis Fowke and (after Fowke's death) General Henry Scott, the construction of the Royal Albert Hall was carried out under the vision and direction of Henry Cole. It took four years to build and cost £200,000, and at the time of erection the 400-tonne dome was one of the largest in the world, measuring 70.8m x 59.8m.

Even though it is an architectural treasure, the hall has been blighted by poor acoustics, heating, ventilation and spatial arrangements almost since it was built. The current refurbishment work, which has been on site since 1995 (masterplanned by BDP in 1990) and scheduled for completion next year, is being carried out at a total cost of £70 million. The bulk of the overall contract monies (there are 30 concurrent contracts in all) comes from the Arts Council Lottery Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund, but since the remainder has to be found from the hall's revenues, works have had to be undertaken with no disruption to the performance programme.

One of the central problems to be addressed has been the lack of amenities.

Sanitary and storage facilities had originally been housed in an adjoining building and subsequently crammed into the hall's envelope when the Royal Horticultural conservatory was demolished in the 1890s.

The masterplan also addresses access provision, external landscaping and general circulation and maintenance issues.

A significant portion of the work has been on the underground construction - three storeys below the building and extending out beneath the southern landscaped area. This massive undercroft houses the boiler house, loading bays, lifts, plant, ancillary accommodation, service routes and storage facilities, as well as some private car parking to recompense the neighbouring residents.

To create the links with the existing building, the 1m-thick hall walls have had to be underpinned with piled, steel and concrete goalposts to allow the original concrete foundations to be cut away. This 150-year-old concrete looks in very good condition and has been left visible as a piece of living archaeology in the depths of the service areas.

The formal landscaping to the south elevation, by Colvin & Moggridge, gives no indication of the massive spaces and complexity of services below; the only exception being the refurbished Memorial to the Exhibition of 1851, which now houses a ventilation and fire fighting shaft expressed by a doorway in the raised and refurbished plinth. All stonework had poultices applied to remove verdigris, and the reclaimed stone steps and balustrading are now laid out in a pristine modern version of the original gardens, the difference being that lorries can now also access the lower levels via the ramp from Prince Consort Road, instead of blocking up the main entrances.

'Previously, ' says architect Martin Ward, 'kitchen refuse was trundled along the main corridors and dumped in a skip in the street.'

The delivery and storage improvements eliminate the need for lorry parking outside the hall and will allow the demolition of the rubbish store (which was previously the chauffeurs' urinals), which currently occupies pride of place in the south-west courtyard.

For the past six years, Dutch acoustics consultant Peutz & Associés has been reviewing the performance of the main auditorium.

Using a one-twelfth model of the building, it has been able to replicate the acoustics as they would have been when the hall first opened, and at every stage in its history of remedial work. Because of its terrible reverberation, for example, only 20 years after it was built, a heavy drape had to be suspended under the roof to dampen the echo - to little avail. This was replaced by a fluted aluminium secondary ceiling filled with mineral fibre.

The GRP 'mushrooms' that hang from the ceiling have been reasonably successful in assisting the acoustic performance of the hall. Now a much-loved part of the interior decoration, the mushrooms have been refurbished and set out at a more efficient pattern which will give better views of the restored ceiling and an improved acoustic reverberation.

The 30m-wide x 31m-high organ, made by Henry Willis in 1874 for £7,500, is now being refurbished for £1.4 million and scheduled for completion in 2003.

Externally, English Heritage has insisted that the roof be repaired using glass and glazing mullions to replicate the originals, even though natural light is irrelevant to the workings of the hall and is blocked out by the aluminium ceiling. This work has been complicated by the building's non-elliptical geometry such that to achieve parallel mullions at the lower level of the roof means that the glass has to be cut at an angle and staggered. After this costly and time-consuming work, English Heritage's insistence that the mid-roof pediments be replaced in wood was dropped when it was realised that the 1970s GRP replacement pediments are included in the listing.

Upgrading the services was central to the refurbishment. The original structure had a steam-driven ventilation system which pumped fresh air (tinged with eau de cologne) under the floor, up the wall cavities and into the auditorium. Unfortunately, this had never worked well and to compound the problem, in the 1950s it was realised that a continuous void delivering air to all areas presented something of a fire hazard. BDP has cleverly adapted the original principle with a more rational approach, using pumped air together with a passive system.

The original network of steam heating pipes is too much an integral part of the structure to be stripped out and so these are being retained, upgraded, and supplemented. Ward notes that the building has huge thermal inertia and can get very hot in the summer months, but because of the new works it no longer gets draughty in winter;

cooling is therefore the main priority.

To this end, a 2m-diameter, hand-dug, concrete-lined tunnel has been constructed under the main auditorium (allegedly by two men with a pick and a wheelbarrow). The slight curvature on its 55m route was necessary to avoid a freshwater well that was discovered en route. The tunnel takes air from either the HVAC plant on Basement 3 level, or passively from a fresh air supply duct at the base of the landscape memorial.

This passes along the tunnel to the centre of the building, and is taken vertically and distributed around the building through proprietary ducts in the thickness of the structure, emulating the original concept.

The entrance at the south porch is the final piece in the jigsaw and has just started on site. To bring this entrance up to the grandeur and proportions of the other entrances, BDP has designed a new porch to enclose the existing.

At the moment, the delicate terracotta plinth blocks are being bonded to mass concrete upstands, but in general the construction will be historically accurate;

1m-thick walls of terracotta and matching facing brick, fully infilled with commons with 3-5mm facing mortar joints. The original walls were built using strong sand/cement mix, no expansion joints and dark tuck pointing, but this pointing will not be replicated as much of it has eroded.

The new porch should be a fitting point of arrival on the grand stepped landscape approach from Prince Consort Road. Internally, a staircase will rise through the original archway to a new restaurant on the Grand Tier level, and the external arches will be fully glazed using clear structural glass, to avoid the heavy transoms in the northern porch.

All this work has taken place while the building functions as normal. Famously, Cliff Richard had to be literally wheeled through the building site in a hard hat to allow him to pop up centre-stage in one of his concerts, while work continued below.

Bums on seats, luvvies; the show must go on.

Fortunately, with a predominantly touring programme, most performances do not require rehearsals, but the afternoon that I was there the tannoy called for silence three times. Downtime has been built into the construction programmes, and painters and decorators in the auditorium, for example, do what they can, when they can.

Internally, the decor is being redone throughout, replacing Hugh Casson's mustard-coloured Portaflek for greens, creams and reds and stippled friezes recreated from original fragments. In the auditorium, a concealed gantry rail has been fixed behind the high-level decorative plaster moulding running around the perimeter, so that the ceiling can be comfortably accessed and repaired and the 4m-high scrolls can be replaced.

The only work that entailed shutting down the building was the replacement of the ground floor stalls, which now accommodate more seats in greater comfort.

Simple seats, set in steel cups, pivot for more comfortable viewing of performances in the round or on the main stage.

The straightforward appearance of this part of the refurbishment, however, belies the complex engineering design beneath.

Steel support beams, prefabricated tiered flooring, steps, handrails and seats were installed before the existing floor was stripped out - and all in four weeks. The underside of the raked soffit thus created has been insulated, lined and air sealed to act as a plenum air feed from the main inlet supply, as described above. Passive air flow through this plenum is not only released though each of the seating tier risers in the main auditorium, but it also feeds into the other side of the partition - into new spacious foyers, public bars and waiting areas.

Ward has tended to this once-in-a-lifetime project with evident dedication and resolve; and a similar commitment has manifested itself throughout the design and construction teams. He says that 'the foyer project provides new facilities for a section of the audience that until now had no foyers at all. This sums up what our work at the Royal Albert Hall has been all about.'

Through seeing Bizet's Carmen, I was able to experience the improvements at first hand. It became clear that the hidden drama of the architectural refurbishment is further testimony to the hall's successful credo of 'the advancement of arts and sciences'.

In the end, Albert would be pleased.

CLIENT'S COMMENT From the outset, the hall has consulted widely, published newsletters and held meetings with stakeholders to keep everyone informed. The masterplan, prepared by BDP in 1991 was itself the subject of wide consultation. Taylor Woodrow, as construction manager, employed solid object modelling to illustrate the impact of the building development on critical projects and attended weekly meetings to coordinate the works with the hall's diary of events and operations.

The confluence of ideas has produced many startling innovations. For several months,1,000 meals a day were prepared in temporary kitchens distributed through the hall. Stage and arena floors were rebuilt from below to avoid conflict with events; principal dressing rooms and artists'corridors were rebuilt while in continuous operation; the stalls, circle and choirs were each reconstructed in under a month. The entire cove above the auditorium is being restored from a gantry suspended high above the audience.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of undertaking such ambitious work within this busy operational environment, without a prolonged closure for the construction, has been the degree of ownership shared by both the staff of the hall and the construction team. Despite the years of disruption, the hall's enthusiasm for the benefits delivered by the development is undimmed and the future for the hall looks very bright indeed.

Royal Albert Hall Cost summary PRE 1997 WORKS 3,000,000 SOUTH STEPS South steps enabling works 2,000,000 South steps structure 17,000,000 South steps fit-out 2,800,000 SOUTH PORCH South porch and offices 4,300,000 Pedestrianisation 1,000,000 SOUTH FOYERS South foyers 1,250,000 Prince Consort restaurant 950,000 PUBLIC AREA Public lavatories 1,000,000 Stairs 5 and 8 and balcony corridor 800,000 Signage 300,000 Access panels and ground floor corridor 400,000 Grand tier corridor 1,400,000 Second tier corridor 450,000 Grand tier, second tier and loggia boxes 150,000 BACK OF HOUSE/FUNCTION ROOMS Elgar room 400,000 Royal rooms 100,000 Dressing rooms and artists' facilities 1,000,000 Show and technical facilities 600,000 ROOF AND RAINWATER SYSTEM 1,700,000 LIFTS AND STAIRS 1,100,000 SUB ARENA Battery room 50,000 Stage lifts and sub arena access 1,750,000 Arena foyers 1,700,000 AUDITORIUM Acoustics and cove works 1,000,000 Gallery refurbishment 650,000 Amphitheatre seating 1,400,000 Arena and boxes seating 50,000 KITCHENS 1,200,000 EAST AND WEST PORCHES Bars and glazing in of east/west porches 800,000 ORGAN REFURBISHMENT 1,400,000 TOTAL CONSTRUCTION COST 51,700,000 NOTE: The overall construction management contract value is £70 million. The cost breakdown above includes prelims but excludes construction managers' fees, professional fees, surveys, temporary works and direct costs.


renovation of memorial and stone balustrades Cathedral Works Organisation; south porch, kitchens and ground floor corridor HBG; south steps structure, ventilation tunnel and major penetrations of footings John Doyle Construction; bored secant, contiguous and bearing piles Stent Foundations; fit-out of south steps dressing rooms, workshops, etc Scanmoor; seating solutions for circle, stalls and choirs Audience Systems; rebuilding stalls, choirs, box office and refurbishment of north, east and west entrance foyers Coffey Construction; roof refurbishment Kelsey Roofing Industries; cove access system Unusual Rigging; arena foyers Alandale Construction;

cove plasterwork restoration Jonathan James; south porch terracotta supply Shaws of Darwen; boxes and corridor refurbishment Bell Projects

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