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Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, by Keith Williams Architects

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Keith Williams Architects’ considered reworking of the Marlowe Theatre will boost Kent’s cultural tourism, says Felix Mara

For over 500 years, Canterbury Cathedral’s stately and majestic Bell Harry tower has lorded it over the town and surrounding countryside. Climbing 76 metres from the cathedral’s crossing and corner-buttressed by sturdy octagonal towers, it masters the long nave then dissolves into the ether. Its closest rival, only half as high, is the stainless steel mesh-clad pinnacle of the Marlowe Theatre, named after the Canterbury-born playwright. It’s no upstart: just as the cathedral is the seat of the Primate of All England, Canterbury is the undisputed cultural capital of England’s most populous non-metropolitan county.

The Marlowe reopened last Tuesday, to all intents and purposes a new building designed by Keith Williams Architects. The new Marlowe’s auditorium seats 1,194 - 250 more than the converted 1930s cinema it replaces - and its sightlines, acoustics and comfortable seats put this previous incarnation to shame. There’s also a flexible studio auditorium for audiences of up to 300, along with much-improved foyers and back-of-house areas.

In some ways, this is a regeneration project. Deprivation does exist in Canterbury, but the town is relatively affluent compared to other parts of East Kent, such as Margate - recently graced by David Chipperfield Architects’ Turner Contemporary (AJ 28.04.11) - which seems locked into structural decline. Some might interpret Turner Contemporary as reification, but it would be difficult to say this about the Marlowe.

It will help to revive the region’s economy, and Canterbury itself, which has something of a carnival atmosphere, will continue to thrive on tourism and culture. But in a different sense, the new Marlowe, still essentially a receiving house rather than a production theatre, is regeneration - it spruces up a rather scruffy locale, and will attract larger, more varied touring companies while its studio space promotes experimentation and on-site production. John Bull Canterbury, where multiculturalism means francophone tourists, will become less parochial.

Canterbury rarely embraced Modernism; Charles Holden’s proposal to reconstruct areas bombed by the Luftwaffe foundered after locals formed the Canterbury Citizens Defence Association. And although owners Canterbury City Council envisioned the Marlowe as a striking, modern spearhead to a cultural renaissance, and definitely not a mealy-mouthed ‘intervention’ or pastiche, Keith Williams Architects’ cocky, heroic proposal was not universally welcomed by the community. ‘It helped that what was here before wasn’t great. The old Marlowe tower was arguably one of the ugliest structures in south-east England,’ says design director Keith Williams.


Adept as the British are at finding reasons to preserve buildings, few doubted it was time to say farewell to the ‘much-loved but extremely tatty’ old Marlowe, as Williams describes it - not to be confused with the original Marlowe Theatre in St Margaret’s Street, demolished in 1982.
‘One of the things we loved was that rather than just recognising the relationship with the cathedral, Williams actually embraced it,’ says Janice McGuinness, Canterbury council’s head of culture and enterprise.

This relationship is conceptual as well as visual. As with Williams’ Wexford Opera House (AJ 17.10.08), you only see the Marlowe from certain vantage points because of the tight network of buildings and spaces that surrounds it. Although it is a cluster of forms you can enjoy in the round in its immediate environs, it also has a quality of frontality when framed in set-piece views, where its layering is especially rich.

Dogmatists might say there are simply too many different external materials - render, anodised aluminium, stainless steel mesh, pre-oxidised copper and polished white precast concrete, which Williams sometimes calls reconstituted stone. But rather than being meretricious, these are essential ingredients of a vibrant architectural collage. For different, quasi-moral reasons, dogmatists might also object to pre-oxidisation and recon, but a rationale underpins these choices.

By wrapping the studio theatre in standing-seamed copper sheet that is pre-oxidised, like the cladding to his Unicorn children’s theatre in London (AJ 17.10.08), Williams establishes an exact and harmonious relationship with the colours of the local vernacular without aping it. The colonnade is sharp and precise, with an artificial quality that sets it apart from the cathedral’s Caen stone and a strong tonal contrast with Williams’ backdrop.

You might even see the diaphanous shroud of the flytower pinnacle as an abstraction of Bell Harry’s tracery. Viewed as if in profile from the Marlowe’s generous new piazza, it tilts upwards and gestures towards the cathedral - the apex of a sequence of stepped, spiralling volumes.

Its angular form and aqueous qualities also resonate with its sister project, Turner Contemporary. The view from the cathedral is less formal and civic, and here the thin layer of the eight-metre high colonnade, which provides some protection from rainfall and solar gain, has an appliqué quality.

The internal spaces and volumes are integral with these external forms. Williams has stacked up three levels of seating in the auditorium - as at Wexford, a classic horseshoe configuration that is far more compact than its single-raked predecessor, so now everybody sits within 22 metres of the stage.

This enables the Marlowe to reach its target capacity while leaving space for a thin layer of foyer accommodation to wrap around on three levels. The compressed external volumes are therefore easier to manipulate and the theatre’s footprint is minimised, providing the added thermal and cost benefits of reduced external surface area. The old Marlowe’s foyer was so small that large crowds of theatre-goers congregated outside, overlooking a former secondhand car lot.

Now there are directional slithers of space, along with pockets and dead ends where people can linger - all animated by bars, cafés, new views across Canterbury, and a processional staircase with solid guardings that reads as a sculptural volume within the double-height entrance foyer. Open seven days a week, these spaces are also venues for events and exhibitions, and connect with the new piazza and riverside walk.

Engineering is very much the servant of architecture here. The ground-level foyer is relatively column-free because the upper floors hang from the roof and composite decks with false ceilings connect to painted CHSs. The backspans of structural engineer Buro Happold’s cantilevered balcony supports, which must be stiff to hold the stage lighting steady, are carried by RHSs hard up against the curtain-wall mullions, with thermal breaks at roof level.

The foyer staircase cantilevers from the upper floors and, when the remains of a Roman villa were found on the site, Buro Happold devised a shallower substructure and lighter construction, allowing more time within the programme for archaeology. Because the adjacent river Stour is prone to flooding, part of the ground-floor slab rests on stilts, reducing its footprint. ‘This has a different vibe to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre,’ says Andy Hayles of theatre consultant Charcoalblue, who also worked on Bennetts Associates’ transformation in Stratford-upon-Avon (AJ 16.12.10).

Unlike the RST, the Marlowe alternates between lyric, musical, drama, classical music and theatre productions, so it uses elevators and seating wagons to provide various orchestra pit sizes, and its engineered American black walnut balcony fronts have integrated channels which accommodate the cable management system (see also AJ 16.12.10). These resonate with the leather upholstery, a unique orange which comes as a nice surprise after the muted colours elsewhere.

It is understandable that Canterbury council chose Design and Build procurement. ‘It’s so easy for these things to spiral,’ says McGuinness, possibly thinking of the costs of Snøhetta’s visionary but doomed proposal for Turner Contemporary, which ultimately shot through the roof.

Traditional procurement might have enabled the Marlowe’s detailed execution to come closer to perfection, perhaps with flashgaps where the white foyer columns meet the black ceilings. But it would be churlish to dwell on these aspects of a project that is such a resounding success, and will hopefully be emulated in the near future.

Time-lapse construction video


Start on site April 2009
Completion September 2011
Gross internal floor area 4,850m2
Type of procurement Design and Build
Total cost £25.6 million
Construction cost per square metre £3,700
Client Canterbury City Council
Architect Keith Williams Architects
Structural engineer Buro Happold
Fire consultant Buro Happold
M&E consultant Max Fordham
Lighting consultant Max Fordham
Theatre consultant Charcoalblue
Acoustics consultant Sandy Brown Associates
Landscape and ecology consultant Lloyd Bore
Quantity surveyor Rider Levett Bucknall
CDM co-ordinator Rider Levett Bucknall
Project manager Drivers Jonas Deloitte
Main contractor ISG Jackson
Approved building inspector Canterbury City Council
Estimated annual co2 emissions 32.7kg/m2
Curtain walling Schüco FW60+ silicone jointed
Insulated render to back-of-house area StoTherm Classic
Foyer and forecourt granite paving Marshalls GRA921 black flamed
Concrete pavers to riverside terrace Acheson & Glover Terrapave
Resin-bound gravel to riverside walk Sureset 10mm Sterling natural aggregate
Block paving to service yard Marshalls charcoal grey Keyblok
Single-ply roofing Sika Trocal
Main auditorium seating upholstery Pelle Frau
Main auditorium and main stair solid hardwood, bars American black walnut
Bars and counter fronts Formica F2297 / Terril
Painted dry lining to front-of-house areas LaFarge GTEC Partition System
Passenger lifts Otis Elevator Company
Safety vinyl wet area flooring Altro Marine

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