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Stage set for theatrical acclaim

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The curtains have gone up on two contrasting refurbishment projects by Haworth Tompkins Architects - the magical Open Air Theatre at Regent's Park and the dark, decaying Gainsborough Studios for the Almeida Theatre in east London

Haworth Tompkins Architects' most recent theatre projects - the Almeida Theatre at Gainsborough Studios in east London and the Open Air Theatre at Regent's Park - bring their environments inside the building, distilling them and making them bolder.

Both theatres' repertoires are based on a diet of Shakespeare, yet they could not be more different.

The refurbished Regent's Park Theatre is approached through the park, which becomes gradually more lush as you leave Baker Street.

Almost hidden by foliage, the theatre is a magical glade; the evening light filtering through the leaves acts as a counterpoint to David Ward's delicate light sculpture. In this setting Puck and Bottom seem quite plausible.

Gainsborough Studios is set in the industrial detritus of the Grand Union Canal. The small-scale neglect is transformed into dramatic urban decay, bringing the darker side of humanity to the fore - a fitting backdrop for the bloody fall of kings.

First used in the early 1900s, the Open Air Theatre at Regent's Park developed in a piecemeal way. The largest structure is a concrete auditorium by HKPA, built in the '70s. Before its transformation the entrance clumsily pushed the audience down steep steps into a lean-to bar on arrival while a corner of the car park, overlooked by concrete prison-camp style lighting towers, was designated a picnic area.

With the landscape architect Camlin Lonsdale, Haworth Tompkins transformed this layout with generous curves which open up onto the picnic area, now reclaimed from the car park.

Hazel hurdles act as fences and screens, satisfyingly masking the green prefabricated cabins housing the sponsors' area and theatre administration.

Climbing vigorously over the hurdles are Virginia creeper, clematis and honeysuckle that will gradually take over from the hurdles as they break down. Spray-painted Expamet is used for a more permanent trellis and supports Ward's twinkling lights.

Haworth Tompkins' original plans for Regent's Park were based on National Lottery money, but when the bid fell through the designs had to be simplified. 'There was not even enough to paint the loos, ' says Steve Tompkins of Haworth Tompkins.

But he is pleased with the result: 'The last thing we wanted to do was an architectural number.' The economies lend a sense of innocence to the site. Ian Talbot, the theatre's artistic director, appreciates the simplicity: 'We've lost none of the atmosphere, but it feels like we belong to the correct century.'

There was little done to HPKA's serviceable auditorium.Ninety per cent of the budget went on health, safety and access. Haworth Tompkins mapped out the positions for services using coordinates. The result was a complex diagram, hung this year at the Royal Academy's summer exhibition. The diagram also seems to have performed its function - services are now neatly stowed in trenches.

The experience at Regent's Park is as much of an event as the play. Arriving early you can perch on the 'wallflower' wall; picnic under the trees; or take a drink in the understated bar. Haworth Tompkins has increased the covered space for the bar, enlarging the technical deck above. Its rough underside and services are disguised by green canvas. The bar is partially enclosed by ephemeral Expamet and interior blends into exterior, the uprights of the plantcovered trellis mediating between the slender concrete columns of the undercroft and the tree trunks outside.

At Gainsborough Studios, nature is nowhere in evidence. It was built as a power station and was also used as a film studio before Lincoln Holdings bought it for conversion into apartments and live/work spaces by Munkenbeck + Marshall.

The Almeida Theatre seized the opportunity to use the temporarily-unoccupied spaces as an extension to its much smaller base in Islington, north London, for one summer season.

At Gainsborough, Haworth Tompkins has created a harsh world with no room for artifice.With exposed wiring, stained plaster and standard clip-on lights, the refurbishment resembles a building site.

The real drama comes at the entrance to the 800-seater auditorium, an old turbine hall. The bar spaces hardly prepare you for the size of the theatre and the extraordinary gash that dominates it. The fissure is the real architectural feat of the theatre - the bricks hang perilously, apparently defying gravity. It was requested by Almeida stage designer Paul Brown and has tested Haworth Tompkins' and structural engineer Alan Conisbee and Associates' nerve. They insisted on a few struts for strength and repointed the brickwork. Someone comes in every two weeks to check for loose bricks - the theatre cannot afford to take any risks with its imported star, Ralph Fiennes.

As well as developing a look of neglect - 'an aesthetic to meet the budget' as Tompkins says - Haworth Tompkins has had to make the studios workable as a theatre. It took out the first floor in the turbine hall and set up a courtyard configuration - the audience seated on three sides of the auditorium on scaffold seating. Windows were blacked out and soundproofed and an enormous raked concrete stage gives the actors a solid platform for their performances. Front-of-house original stairs have been replaced and the back wall of the turbine hall cut into for exits to comply with fire regulations.

Backstage, the attitude to safety is more lax.

Bright yellow cabins are stacked on the canal-side of the studios, linked by rickety makeshift stairs.

The warren of passages and the clutter of props and costumes contrasts with the scale of the auditorium.

The aesthetic has worked but budget constraints have resulted in sacrifices having to be made. Tompkins hunted around for affordable air conditioning units and found some scrapheap bargains. But the units are so loud that they have to be turned off during the performance, leaving an already tightly-packed audience sweating through the drama of Coriolanus or Richard II.

Haworth Tompkins' previous theatre project, the Royal Court Theatre in London's Sloane Square, is a solid piece of refurbishment, isolating the audience from the area rather than embracing it. At the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park and Gainsborough Studios, Haworth Tompkins has demonstrated a lighter touch. Both projects are temporal. The Open Air Theatre will gradually be taken over by climbers and creepers while at Gainsborough Studios, the curtain is about to come down on the Almeida Theatre's stay.

Haworth Tompkins' 10-week contract includes five weeks of demolition work to remove all traces of the theatre - only the facade will then remain.

CREDITS: REGENT'S PARK

TENDER DATES First stage: 21 June 1999 Second stage: 9 August 1999

START ON SITE 18 October 1999 CONTRACT DURATION 29 weeks

GROSS EXTERNAL FLOOR AREA 0.66ha (excluding auditorium)

FORM OF CONTRACT IFC 98 TOTAL COST £1,755,000

CLIENT The New Shakespeare Company Limited

ARCHITECT Haworth Tompkins Architects: Keir Black, Steve Tompkins, Eric Lawrence, Dan Cox, Matt Lunn, Claudia Marx, Michael Pawlyn, Nigel Reading, Geoff Shearcroft, Matt Watts

LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT Camlin Lonsdale Landscape Architects

THEATRE CONSULTANT Theatre Projects Consultants

STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Price & Myers

SERVICES ENGINEER Max Fordham & Partners

QUANTITY SURVEYOR Citex Bicknall Austin

ACOUSTIC CONSULTANT Paul Gillieron Acoustic Design

ACCESS CONSULTANT Centre for Accessible Environments

MAIN CONTRACTOR Ashe Construction

SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS M&E Cheshire Contracting; Landscaping Frosts Landscape Construction; specialist wiring The Oxford Sound Company; hazel urdles Peter Bond; prefabricated buildings Temporary Kitchens; Steelwork/Metalwork Robinsons Metalwork; Stage Equipment Delstar Engineering; telephone systems Switch Communications; joinery West Oak Joinery; carpentry R Baranowski

CREDITS: GAINSBOROUGH STUDIOS

TENDER DATES (Various packages) from November 1999 to January 2000

START ON SITE 10 January 2000

CONTRACT DURATION 10 weeks (including five weeks demolition)

GROSS EXTERNAL FLOOR AREA 2180m2

FORM OF CONTRACT Construction management

TOTAL COST £730,000 CLIENT Almeida Theatre

ARCHITECT Haworth Tompkins Architects: Steve Tompkins, Roger Watts, Matt Lunn

ACOUSTIC DESIGN Paul Gillieron Acoustic Design

CONSTRUCTION MANAGER Citex

STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Alan Conisbee and Associates

SERVICE ENGINEER Atelier Ten

SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS demolition GriffithsMcGee; seats Kirwin and Simpson; temporary structure Premier Scaffolding; electrical installation Stage Electrics; builders work TP Building

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