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Stirling Prize 2012: Lyric Theatre by O’Donnell + Tuomey

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‘The architect has responded to a complex brief with a building which demands to be experienced,’ writes Joseph Rykwert

The Lyric has been a Belfast institution for more than half a century; its ‘players’ got their first theatre in a stable loft in 1952, and their first ramshackle building was put up in 1965. The decision to replace it led to an open competition in May 2003, though it took another five years for all the planning permissions, the funding and the organisation to come together. The old theatre was demolished - in 2008 - and construction having started in spring 2009, the players got their splendid new home in 2011.

When I first looked at the drawings and the photographs of that new theatre, I had an impression of a soft building; soft and rambling - but the reality which meets the visitor is hard. Hard and clear, though intricate, and welcoming. The intricacy responds to the sloping and roughly triangular site outlined by the downhill straight line of Ridgeway Street and the sharp angle it forms with the level embankment of the Lagan River. This intricacy is enhanced by the acoustic demands of the varied accommodation whose three elements - main auditorium, rehearsal room and ‘studio’ (which doubles as an intimate theatre and lecture room) - need isolation from each other and from the public spaces which surround and envelop them.

Photographs, even drawings, do not convey the building’s complexity or its materiality - and the materiality is crucial: Belfast is a brick-and-slate town, and the Lyric continues both colour and texture in its vertical surfaces, broken by the concrete horizontals - the main structure is of in-situ concrete. The continuity of the brick walls on Ridgeway Street is interrupted by a loading bay between the theatre and nearest houses that gives direct access to the stage; it provides a useful hiatus.

That insistent materiality is one of the project’s strengths, even if, where the floors in the main public spaces are brick-paved, there is a close and slightly grating miss-match here: the walls have wider and rougher bricks whereas the on-edge engineering bricks used for the floors are even harder, slightly darker and thinner.

Any such misgivings are mitigated by my admiration for other details, such as the cunning way the obliquity of angles is managed, how all the tucks and pockets are absorbed into the external workings of the building’s surface, as well as by the generous and contrasting use of iroko, in the form of grilles and slats but also as solid panels set in the glazing already taking on the soft grey colour that weathering gives it.

You enter from Ridgeway Street under a low canopy ample enough to shelter a queue as well as exiled smokers. This leads into the box office space and obliquely to a wide, light limestone stairway. A small detail here arrested my attention: the metal stair-railings are specially designed, alternating upright and oblique slats, which mimic and encourage the ascending visitors. Much of the ancillary accommodation continues the line and scale of the street: this includes offices, an educational department (McGrath Suite) and costume studio, and a well-appointed backstage. Unlike most theatres, many rooms have external windows.

The foyer and café branch off that main space over the stairway, which not only acts as the vertical focus of the whole building, but is also a crucial part of an integral control system which allows the central area to be self-ventilated by openings in the rooflight of that atrium.

The staircase leads the visitor up to the foyer on the right, whose double-height windows look over the tree-lined banks of the Lagan. It opens on to a terrace and steps leading down to the river bank, which provide an alternative pedestrian entry and exit to the theatre proper. The bar/café is on the left, and in turn opens further into a wide glazed rectangular bay, which also overlooks the river to become a very lively assembly point during the day.

The heart of the building is, of course, the theatre proper - its fly tower is the highest point. The materiality I noted excels in the auditorium: three obliquely faceted wooden shells cover a parabolically rising floor of the same wood; the unity of texture enhances the sense of enclosure in an auditorium seating just under 400, while narrow balconies create the impression of a magical cavern in which spectators are at one with actors. The shells and floor are acoustically calibrated, and the sound is near perfect.

Fly tower and auditorium are massed as a single volume under the butterfly roof, aligned with Stranmillis embankment edging the Lagan. The pitch of the roof allows lighting and effects operators to move freely over the acoustic shell. It unifies the bulk of the building and asserts its presence on the site, so that when seen from the embankment it becomes a modulation of butterfly roofs and varying rhythms of glazing.

The architect has responded to a complex brief with a building which demands to be experienced. O’Donnell + Tuomey has provided a wonderful home for one of the city’s crucial institutions.

Joseph Rykwert is Paul Philippe Cret Professor of Architecture Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania

AJ Buildings Library

See images, drawings and details of Lyric Theatre by O’Donnell + Tuomey

Q +  A: John Tuomey, director, O’Donnell + Tuomey, and Professor of Architectural Design at University College Dublin

What was your initial design concept?

‘A House for Lyric’ was our competition motto. The Lyric is a producing theatre and the company is like a family. Everybody who works there, whether in the box office or backstage, would say ‘I work in theatre’. We wanted to break down the conventional barriers between front and back of house.

Did the final scheme alter much from this concept?

The scheme developed significantly from the initial competition-winning design. The client brief changed after strategic review, placing a greater emphasis on the studio theatre and rehearsal room. Though the design changed the organisational concepts remained the same.

What was the most challenging aspect of the project and why?

The budget was the greatest challenge. The construction cost was capped at £13.8 million and no further funding was available. The site was restricted by its irregular outline and the sloping topography. The auditorium is the most complex element in the architectural design. The challenge was to resolve various technical requirements from different specialist sectors. Lighting, acoustics, sightlines and technical staging requirements for speech, music and dance - the interaction between all these factors determines the crucial relationship between actors and audience.

What is the main lesson you have taken away from the project?

To hold your position you must be ready to adapt with agile change. And the working relationship of mutual trust between client, architect and builder really matters.

Does the Lyric mark a turning point in the quality of civic buildings commissioned in Northern Ireland?

The project was supported by the government, arts council, and public and private sponsorship. The Lyric has strong roots in Belfast and rebuilding on the same site reflects that civic commitment.

What were the specific acoustic challenges of this project and how did you meet them?

We worked with Bob Essert of Soundspace Design and with Theatreplan to provide for all sorts of staging possibilities, from intimate theatre to pantomime, and to provide three acoustically separate performance spaces in close proximity on a tight site.

Where does this building sit within the evolution of the practice?

This project is the result of eight years’ immersion in the world of the Lyric Theatre. We had designed, but not built, a theatre before and we learnt a lot along the way. Every project takes us on a new journey. New strategies can be discovered by starting out from first principles. This is the pleasure and privilege of an architect’s life.

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