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Hallmark of success

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aj refurbishment

When a project budget falls from about £8 million to £3 million (hoped-for grants were not forthcoming), something has to give. So it is impressive how much remains of the essence of Penoyre & Prasad's competition-winning scheme to refurbish Wolverhampton's Civic Hall. The starting point was Lyons and Israel's original, won in competition in 1934 and completed in 1938, now listed Grade II. It is the work of a young practice finding its voice. What was done was done well. However, the building also reflects the differing architectural agendas of its time. The plan and massing are strongly Classical in their symmetry, especially in the portico; elsewhere Arts & Crafts shades into northern European brick Modernism.

Refurbishment has breathed new life into this period piece - respecting it, removing conflicting later accretions to restore much of the original clarity, yet improving the experience of audience, performers and permanent staff.Much of this improvement has come from creating two floors of new space along either flank of the building. The upper level is highly visible as glass boxes that at night shine as beacons to draw attention to this improving civic/cultural area of the city.

Wolverhampton seeks to stand out from the shadow of its much larger neighbour, Birmingham.

Sometimes the reduced budget does show in the extent of repair and restoration possible, although original ironmonger James Gibbons still had the patterns and has made replacements. Sometimes losses are might-have-beens, notably the envisaged electroacoustics that would have helped cope with the very varied uses of the hall.

Services have been reused where possible.

Occasionally, the cuts are a mixed blessing, notably a proposed extra tier of seating that would have increased capacity by 10-15 per cent at considerable cost, but which would have compromised the scale of the auditorium. (The whole building comprises the Civic Hall and the proscenium-arched Wulfrun Hall. Work on Wulfrun Hall was cut from the project. ) The section shows the neat move the architects made in creating extra space.

Along each flank of the Civic Hall the outer single-storey space has been reduced in ceiling height, allowing two storeys to be built above. The new mezzanine (lower) level is accessed from turns in the existing staircases and the upper level is continuous, with the existing gallery around the auditorium.

Each level is daylit differently. On the ground floor, the lowered ceiling rises near the window to light the WCs. At the mezzanine level, the windows are set back behind the existing parapet, focusing attention on the glass box which appears to float above.

This floating effect is increased by cantilevering the box floor edge and making it of glass. Inside, a deep shelf between the wall glazing and freestanding steel columns keeps people from standing on this floor (see Working Detail, pages 36 and 37).

Uses for the new spaces reflect their relative openness. The enclosed mezzanine floors are used mainly by performers as a hospitality suite and changing rooms, plus admin offices. The glazed upper floors are mainly bars, showing off their animation to the street, plus WCs behind stone louvres at each end. Even these WCs contribute, with coloured lighting at night.

Other backstage improvements for performers include upgrading the existing dressing/green rooms and installing a spiral stair and lift for reaching the stage directly.

Previously, performers had to pass through public areas to reach the stage. The modestdepth stage itself has become a black open box, a response to the changing uses of the hall. Originally this was used for civic functions, dancing and unamplified choral and small orchestral works. There was an arc of fixed chorus seating on stage and large plastered acoustic baffles above (Working Detail, AJ 13.10.38). Today all these uses remain but the main one, and the financial driver of the hall, is rock and other amplified music events. Bands want clear space to set up today's theatrical performances, so the fixed seating and baffles have gone. They also need lighting, so there are new lighting rig beams that can be lowered from the strengthened auditorium ceiling to floor level for setting up.

For today's audiences, restrained 1930s architecture may not have a club-like buzz, but the architect's restoration of much of the original does provide a sense of occasion, as well as looking much more cared for. The foyer - a shallow transition space, rather than the large gathering space you would expect of a new building - has been restored, with a later lift removed and replacement brickwork piers hardly distinguishable from the originals. In Lyons and Israel's original design, the foyer space flowed from one stair tower to the other across the front of the building, but today's fire requirements have led to separating the foyer from the staircase with fire doors. At gallery level of this fullheight foyer, the separation is with fire-resisting glazed screens, retaining much of the original flow of space.

Leaving the foyer and entering the ground floor promenades, you hardly notice the new fire escapes, although they were another key move. The hall has been operating below its full capacity because means of escape had been inadequate. These promenades reflected their day, with modest-sized WCs at either end and extensive cloakrooms between. All this happened behind striking aluminium-framed glazed screens - a mix of fixed glazed panels and double glass doors.

Their aluminium sections are solid, like steel, rather than modern extrusions. The fixed panels of the screen have been restored, but the doors are gone. Behind the screen now are more extensive WCs plus bars.

From the ground floor promenades you enter the auditorium through double doors with a porthole window, originally a semicircular glass sheet in each leaf. For the new replica doors, an aluminium strip containing intumescent along the glass edges does a discreet job of providing the fire performance at the meeting stiles. Once inside the restored auditorium you are struck most, in daytime, by the huge laylight in the auditorium ceiling, and by the original colour scheme - particularly the stripes of grey and yellow on the ceiling, which run at right angles to downstand beams. Paint colour-matching has been an important part of the work. Overall, this robust interior has survived remarkably the years of sitting and standing audiences - and their spilled drinks.

Edward Lyons designed the tubular steel, tip-up, removable seating - claimed to be the first to combine both functions, later mass produced. (The client is now carrying out a separate programme of phased replacement of the seating - total seating capacity on both levels is 2,215, standing 3,000. ) For those who walk up or take the new lift to the gallery level, the broad gallery promenades are separated only by a low screen wall from the seating and so feel very much part ofthe auditorium. New promenade carpeting is architect-designed. Along the outer promenade walls there used to be double doors to small exterior balconies and these are now the entrances to the new glazed bars.

The former exterior wall brickwork has been left exposed as internal walls in the bars, connecting old and new.

What would the original architects have thought of this contrast of old and new?

David Gray, surviving partner of Lyons Israel Ellis and Gray, approves.




ORIGINAL COST (1938) £100,000 (One shilling and 10d per cubic foot)


CONTRACT JCT 98 - Local Authorities with Approximate Quantities

CLIENT Wolverhampton City Council

ARCHITECT Penoyre & Prasad Architects: Neil Allfrey, Mark Devitt, Wayne Head, Gareth Hoskins, Indy Johar, Peter Liddell, Katherine McNeill, Jean Murphy, Ashish Kumar, Greg Penoyre, Sunand Prasad


M&E ENGINEER Max Fordham & Associates

QUANTITY SURVEYOR, PROJECT MANAGER Wolverhampton City Council Technical Services Department

CONTRACTOR Mansell Construction Services

SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS structural glazing, curtain walling James Gibbons Windows, Pilkington; precast louvres, copings Priory Cast Stone; louvre supports and installation Ancon, PCE; roof covering, insulation Sarna; specialist ductwork Coolduct; rooflights Vitral; ironmonger James Gibbons; oak flooring to bars and stage Hewetsons; rubber flooring Dalsouple, Freudenberg

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