Stoke-on-Trent is not a city in the conventional sense, but a conglomeration of six small towns united by the once-dominant pottery industry. One of the characters in the 'Five Towns' (what became of the sixth?) novels of Arnold Bennett is Edwin Clayhanger, 'a frustrated architect'. Looking at Stoke, one can understand why he was frustrated. The place lacks not just civic identity but, with a few exceptions, memorable buildings and possibly the will to create them. (The recent civic centre in Stoke is, predictably, a banal design-and-build box.) Of the individual towns, only Hanley has something which approximates to most people's idea of a city centre. Even so, the town hall there is a gruesome affair, run up in the 1860s as a hotel and casually sited away from the main streets - an odd preface to the town's Victoria Hall, one of the more revered second-rank public halls of the Midlands.
It reopened last November, after a refurbishement and extension by Levitt Bernstein Associates which has given a new lease of life to a venue with a great musical tradition. Beecham, Barbirolli and others extolled the hall's acoustics, but, apart from the regular visits by the Halle and other ensembles, it had to earn its keep by hosting pop concerts, wrestling bouts, political rallies and dog shows.
Opened in 1888, the Victoria is a sturdy and capacious, rather than a particularly beautiful, structure. Its red-brick exterior is minimally detailed in the Classical manner. Inside, the great trusses of the roof are left clumsily exposed. Galleries on three sides - the plan is not unlike that of a grand Nonconformist chapel - look down on a floor area which could be cleared or filled with seats as required. There was virtually no foyer space and facilities for performers were, at best, rudimentary.
According to Axel Burrough of Levitt Bernstein, the renaissance of the Victoria Hall came about because the Stoke area was identified as a 'hole' in the network of performing arts venues, a natural point for growth in the hinterland between Birmingham and Manchester. Working with arts consultant The Arts Business, the practice looked at all the existing halls and theatres in the area. The existence of the established (but increasingly inadequate) Victoria Hall and the nearby 1929 Regent Cinema (which had closed but had potential for re-use as a theatre), along with a decent 1950s art gallery, made Hanley the natural choice for Stoke's new cultural quarter. 'We didn't know who the final user would be,' says Burrough. 'We had to develop a hypothetical brief for the two buildings.' This led to a successful bid for Arts Lottery funding for the £22 million Victoria Hall/Regent project. In the event, both have been let to the dynamic Ambassadors Theatre Group, run by Howard Panter and making a big impact on the provinces. So far, atg reports, the Victoria Hall is doing excellent business, providing the sort of shows, and the front-of-house facilities, which 'Stokies' want. (The Regent is currently nearing completion.)
The Victoria Hall was in generally sound condition. Its Grade II listing ruled out major alterations to the auditorium, but the latter worked well, in any case - though its 1357 seating capacity is half that of the 1880s, when modern standards of safety and comfort did not apply. Its most obvious deficiencies were poor soundproofing and ventilation. There was a clear need, however, to provide a new foyer, with bars, wcs and access for the disabled (previously non-existent). Decent dressing rooms and up-to-date backstage facilities were equally vital.
Cleared land to the south of the hall provided space for expansion. To the north, the building was physically linked to the town hall, which had in the past housed law courts. A self-contained, redundant, block of police cells provided good raw material for a new area housing well- equipped dressing rooms and green room - this has been converted with a minimum of structural change but some feeling for the original fabric. Backstage spaces have been rationalised and extended to provide more convenient access and storage for props and equipment.
The most dramatic change at the hall is front-of-house, where a four- storey addition, built on to the south facade of the Victorian building, contains much-needed audience amenities, box office and administration. The new structure, says Levitt Bernstein project architect Colin Muir, had to combine value for money with a strong public image, helping to win new audiences and give the hall the external identity it previously lacked.
Externally, the new block has a tough, semi-industrial look. Most of the ground level is faced in vandal-proof, graffiti-resistant concrete/resin blocks, rather than the fragile terracotta used above, with relatively little glazing. Since the adjacent cleared land is scheduled for development, Muir explains, there was little chance of the building being seen head- on - 'incidents', like the accentuated staircase towers, were used to enliven oblique views. It is best seen, perhaps, after dark, when its essential transparency is made clear and areas of glass blocks sparkle in the reflected light.
After the relative severity of the exterior, its red cladding echoing the adjacent Victorian brickwork, the full-height, daylit 'street' inside comes as a surprise. Despite his background in High-Tech practices, Colin Muir's approach is one of 'rethinking tradition' and trying to create (in the tradition of Levitt Bernstein) a practical, popular modern architecture which can work in apparently unpropitious situations. The 'street' is really a glazed arcade (topped in low-cost Calcurve rather than glass) linking a building of the 1880s with one of the 1990s. The latter reads as a separate, solid structure, penetrated by staircases and balconies, with strong colours used to emphasise its sculptural, Corbusian qualities. The two blocks are linked by lightweight glazed bridges at first- and second-floor levels. A lift, with fully glazed car, forms a freestanding element in the central space. Ideally, this should be a busy place during the daytime, but location and local habits have so far limited its use, despite attempts to jolly it up with displays of artworks. In the evenings, it comes to life and the architect's vision is realised.
Adjustments to the auditorium, carried through in consultation with a 'supportive' English Heritage, involved widening the stage (and consequently cutting back the first floor balcony) and raising the main floor - thereby reducing the previously intimidating height of the stage. Ventilation ducts run under the floor, which is supported on a series of brick 'sleepers', and are carried up the sides of the hall in unobtrusive 'pilasters'. Sound insulation has been much improved by reglazing and the use of heavy acoustic curtains. (Lower windows giving on to the new foyer space have been bricked up, upper windows have been left open and sound-proofed.) Lighting and fittings have been overhauled, and period fittings retained, with new stage lighting hung from bridges which sit behind the massive roof trusses. Existing seating has been refurbished, though the capacity of the (frighteningly steep) main balcony has been reduced.
All of this has been done for a building cost of around £7.5 million, relatively little of which seems to have come from local sources. Stoke- on-Trent seems to have got a bargain, and to a demanding schedule - Levitt Bernstein came to the project in 1996, and construction took place in 1997-98. As in other recent projects (the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham and the King's Lynn Corn Exchange) the practice has achieved striking results by welding old and new together, stylishly but with a clear regard for practicality and economy. It is these projects, rather than the costly Lottery headliners, which point the way ahead for arts provision in the next century.