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Stirling interview: 'The Everyman Theatre is quite gobby'

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Practice founders Graham Haworth and Steve Tompkins talk with Everyman executive director Deborah Aydon, artistic director Gemma Bodinetz and the AJ’s Richard Waite about the Stirling Prize victory

Did you think you had a chance of winning?
When the videos of the other finalists came up it was interesting to see how strong they were. Some really surprised me, particularly the Mecanoo library. But we felt very confident about our position. A lot of people in the office had bets on us to win.

DEBORAH AYDON I had money on at 8 to 1. Ding dong.

STEVE TOMPKINS But it was an amazing shortlist. When you get to this position all bets are off. It can depend on so many factors other than architecture, such as the judges’ inclinations and personal preferences. We are big fans of O’Donnell + Tuomey and the LSE. It is a fabulous building.

Does the acceptance of the building by the people and city of Liverpool mean more than the Stirling Prize?
In the end I think it does. The building has such a strong relationship with the city. The thing that came over so strongly was both the love which the city had for the theatre and the jeopardy of getting it wrong. We were encouraged to innovate and take risks but at the same time we were so aware of this duty of care.

GH Liverpool is an amazing city [in which] to do something like this. Glasgow is probably the only other city which could push it – to do the same kind of thing these [clients] have done.

ST What a site. It is one of the great urban spaces of Europe. [The building] has got to assert itself and to announce itself as this new public presence. On the other hand it has got to defer to the cathedrals, it has got to be part of an urban wall, it has got to do its duty as a piece of urbanism. If it gets too strident and gets too shrill, then the whole thing falls apart.’

GH It is an amazing balance. Because it is really strident. It is a really powerful building and yet people don’t feel overwhelmed by it.

SH Something Meredith Bowles from Mole Architects said – he was on the national jury and came round the building – he said “Do you realise how radical this is?”

We have slightly got into the language of underplay, in the narrative we build up around the building. But it is quite gobby.

The scheme took 10 years to complete. Did you ever think you wouldn’t pull it off?
I don’t think artistically we ever had that thought. There were funding issues. But our team was very secure that Steve’s practice was digging deep into the vision statements we had written.

There must have been some ups and downs. … but there were things we never let go of, and we asked a huge amount of Haworth Tompkins.  

The brief was ridiculous for the footprint

The brief was ridiculous for the footprint. The ethos was a mass of oxymorons.

Admittedly There were a few things we had to let go of. There was a building next door which we thought we might be able to afford, to make the footprint bigger. But that theatre is pretty much what we fought for and what Steve envisaged.

GH The building is just a physical manifestation of years of chat and options; input from lots of different people. It felt a really organic thing as opposed to an iconic, architecturally designed building. It is just a building that ‘is’ and we just happen to be the architects of it.

GB That is being a little unfair. The choice of Haworth Tompkins was because of somebody who understood theatre. I remember just before we opened I was sitting in the auditorium getting very overwhelmed by how beautiful the auditorium had turned out, and Steve made me go outside into the front of house area and said ‘I want you to imagine you are a member of the audience coming into that environment, into the auditorium, and feel it.’

He wasn’t talking to me about the soundproofing or soffit. He understood it was a humane art form.  That is a very rare thing.

Why has the scheme been described as civil rather civic?
We didn’t want the building to feel civic in a municipal, authoritarian, establishment way. On the other hand it is a centre of civil society – it is a place where the day to day of civil society plays out. Now that we have lost our churches, our standard congregational models, live theatre is one of the few sites where this stuff can happen in a rich and meaningful way.

GB We wanted something special. People kept saying to us they didn’t want to dress up to come to the Everyman, but by the same token they didn’t want some sort of warehouse. They wanted a night out. We kept throwing those kind of contradictions at Steve.

How has the building been received locally?
The morning Deborah and I opened the building to the public on a Sunday and they were already queuing round the block, we were having kittens – but we knew within two minutes that people loved it.

It feels like the Everyman

DA The overwhelming response was: wow it’s amazing. And it feels like the Everyman.

When we started we could see that the spirit of the Everyman was constrained and very limited by the old building and leaking roofs and ceilings. But the people kept the faith. And they have allowed us to do this very, very radical surgery.  They know that the spirit has been able to inhabit a new body, which allows us to thrive.

GB There is magic in this – there is smoke and mirrors. You have to create that. And so many new theatres fail to – or struggle to. It is personal but big enough for huge stories. And yet utterly humane.

Every tactile moment in that theatre is about one person taking something larger han themselves – a Shakespearean story orpiece of architecture and relating it to their own immediate, personal experience.

Do some people think it is exactly the same building they remember from before?
Oh yeah. Which is perfect because it means it still feels like home. They don’t need to notice.        

GB They may notice the fly towers or that they can get in by wheelchair. But otherwise that is the really brilliant trick that you’ve achieved Steve. It is new and will last many, many decades, but which doesn’t throw out the joys that people have had there.

It manages to capture [the essence] and make those things better for a whole new generation.

What message does this Stirling Prize victory send out?
GB ‘[It is a recognition of] the quality of detailing – the nosing of a stair -, the sustainability, the accessibility, the ability to take the ethos of a building and turn it into something new.  

The judges come around and you try and second guess it. I remember one of them saying “I’ll have to tell Steve off for this” – and it was a bit of the plant that you could see from the roof – “Because that’s the only thing he has got wrong”.

What will the victory mean for you as a practice?
We have celebrated that idea of semi-anonymity. We are not big name architects.

GB You are now matey.

GH Well, that may be an issue [in future]. [At the moment] they couldn’t spell my name right, nobody knows what we look like – and there is something really fantastic about that. There is not the same amount of pressure as if you had that recognisable persona.

We’ve celebrated that idea of semi-anonymity

We sauntered in [to Portland Place] earlier on and people didn’t know who we were. It is fantastic to walk into the RIBA and be anonymous.

The worse thing would be if [people rang up] and said “I want an Everyman”    

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