Keith Williams was a partner in Pawson Williams Architects before establishing Keith Williams Architects in 2001. The London-based practice has worked in Ireland, Italy and Spain as well as the UK. Current projects include a private house in St John's Wood and a Library HQ in Co Monaghan, Ireland. Following the completion of the Athlone Civic Centre, which opened in 2004, the practice has been appointed to design the new Wexford Opera House in Ireland with the Office of Public Works.
Perhaps by chance or coincidence, two new theatre venues for children have opened within months of each other, one inhabiting an existing Grade II-listed shell in the historic city of Bath (AJ 10.11.05) and the other an entirely new building surrounded by mostly powerful new contemporary office buildings on the south bank of the River Thames near Tower Bridge in London. As well as the settings being the antithesis of each other, the approaches by both architects to the building of theatres for children also appear to be from very different perspectives. The former is wrought and scaled from full-size to that of a child, while the latter is a refined, grown-up building by adults to present theatre for children.
Both theatres avoid the patronising condescension of second-guessing children's tastes, which can change quite dramatically from early childhood to near adult (the Unicorn's target audience is from the ages of four to 12 years old).
Founded in 1947 by Caryl Jenner specifically to provide children in post-war Britain with an opportunity to experience high-quality, live theatre, the Unicorn began life touring in two ex-MOD trucks with a cast of professional actors, before sharing space at the Arts Theatre in London's West End from 1967 to 1999, when it vacated to move into a space of its own.
In late 2000, Keith Williams Architects won a competition to design the new theatre. From an early briefing, the Unicorn's artistic director, Tony Graham, encapsulated his aspirations for the new building as being 'rough, yet beautiful', developing on the spatial organisation set out in the competition design proposals.
The location of the new theatre on the north side of Tooley Street, between London Bridge Station and Tower Bridge Road, forms part of Foster and Partners' masterplan for the 'More London Development' surrounding the GLA building and providing a backdrop of giant, glazed office buildings. The Unicorn sits on a compact site with a reduced footprint, facing Tooley Street and a pedestrian passage - serendipitously named Unicorn Passage - which opens up a narrow vista to the Thames.
The constrained footprint of the site has influenced the vertical order of spaces within the building - leading to the main auditorium (the Weston Theatre) of 300-340 seats being set as a 'Theatre in the Sky' with a 'Grand Stair' forming the main approach to the auditorium. At ground level, the smaller studio theatre (The Foyle Studio), of 120 seats in flexible formats, acts as the main support for the overhanging form of the main auditorium, under which nestles the double-height volume of the foyer area. This arrangement supports the architectural play of interlocking volumes, voids and clear openings which runs like a leitmotif throughout the composition of the building and, indeed, much of Williams' work.
The internal layout of the building is parallel to Tooley Street, with the 'front' facing London Bridge and the 'back' facing Tower Bridge. Being exposed like this, it becomes more sculptural object than theatre, with a clear front and back.
When viewed on the approach from London Bridge, the grand stair is revealed behind the glazed elevation, turning into a reversed L-shape as it runs under the volume of the main auditorium to reveal the activity in the public areas. With the main theatre hoisted into the air, the staircase acts as a vertical foyer.
The landing levels are faux balconies, acting as rather elevated Juliet balconies above the foyer below, or simply as somewhere to perch while surveying the scene. Low, glazed cut-outs in the concrete balcony upstands provide places for children to look out.
From the Tower Bridge end, blue mosaic tiles brighten the elevation around the stage door and scene dock, while the composition of interlocking masses and elongated window openings continues to define the treatment of the elevation (Keith Williams cites 1990s paintings by the American artist Peter Halley as a painterly influence on the design).
The orthogonal mass of the main auditorium disguises the form of the theatre space within and is clad in pre-oxidised copper panels of varying widths which wrap around and continue internally under the volume of the space. Within the ceiling of the foyer, the copper is stripped away to reveal the cantilevered structural bones of the mass and troughs in which to recess the foyer lighting. Juxtaposed against the volume of the main auditorium, a contrasting white rendered mass of less than half the width of the auditorium hangs as another volume, which encloses the educational room at tree-top level and reveals the 'grand stair' below.
Williams describes the relative proportions of the spaces and volumes created: the height of the glazed stair volume is half of the enclosed mass above. The studio theatre, which is 12m x 12m in plan, is 6m in height, being half a cube or four smaller cubes side by side. In the main auditorium, the sectional proportion of the space is prescribed by a circle from the setting line at the front of the stage to the front of the first balcony, relating also to the circular plan of the seating at balcony level. At stalls level, the setting line is the mid line through an oval which kisses the back wall of the stage at one end and the balcony front at the other.
So do these geometrics make for good theatre spaces, particularly when the stage area is stripped back to reveal the basic space? There is no doubt that the interlocking realms of the auditorium and stage reinforce the contact between performer and audience, (a theory long propounded by Iain Mackintosh of Theatre Projects when describing the sacred geometry of theatre spaces), but when the stage area is laid bare, part of the strippedback, exposing-all ethos of the Unicorn's play-making, the large volume of the stage house is distracting and undoes the intimacy created in the auditorium.
Williams explains that a strict drawing of sacred geometry was not his starting point, but that he derived more from the simple principle of the story-teller gathering his audience around him in an arc, following the form that Peter Brook achieved at La Bouffe du Nord in Paris. This is the relationship created in the steeply raked stalls, when the first five rows of the pit are levelled to create a flat floor.
To be fair, the dressing of the stage house is the realm of the stage designer, and masking of the void in this area will be necessary to complete the circle and make sense of the geometry.
It should also be noted that the theatre is designed to address different seating/stage configurations, from end stage and in-theround to thrust stage (with the pit filled in and the focus brought forward into the auditorium, surrounded by the steeply raked stalls seating, the encirclement of the balcony and technical gallery above can come more into its own).
Backstage, the fine finishes revert to the more utilitarian economy of so many venues where, whatever the budget, there is never enough. However, this is not at the expense of the quality of accommodation provided. The dressing rooms are well appointed and the Green Room is rather special: it sits halfway in and halfway out of the building, providing a fully glazed box as it protrudes from the main envelope of the building providing clear views up and down Tooley Street. There is no doubting the quality of escape for those confined in darkness for many hours in the interior of a theatre building.
The other glass box that bursts half-in, half-out through the pre-oxidised copper box of the main auditorium enclosure is designated as the VIP/Board Room, but is also to be used for education and as a children's eating area when school groups attend. This is similarly detailed to the Green Room and provides glimpses along Unicorn Passage to the river beyond. From my perspective, this would have made a good foyer space for the 'Theatre in the Sky', as it always seems to be a long haul to the bar at ground level, even if only for the fizzy pop and chocolates.
But perhaps this is just grown-up thinking and kids are much happier hanging around on the stairs.
The only visible concessions to children's physical size are the height of the seats, the double-height handrails on the stairs, the ascending scale of the urinals in the gents' loo, the glazed drop in the concrete balustrade to the grand stairs and a small box seat in the ground-floor foyer, with a roof preventing grown-ups from sitting on it. Even the bar in the ground-floor foyer has a grownup feel about it, although it too has a lower shelf. It is in every other respect a 'grown-up' building, and the first entirely dedicated to producing theatre for children, families and schools.
'Rough yet beautiful?' Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the Unicorn Theatre is all about stimulating the child's imagination. Rough? It seems a remarkably refined 'rough' despite its tough materials and finishes. No doubt the kids will lend credence to this aspiration in due course and, in the meantime, the Unicorn has a very fine building in which to develop its art.