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Theatre design: Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury by Keith Williams Architects and the New Entertainment Venue, Guildford, by Austin-Smith: Lord

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Technical study of two performance venues by Austin-Smith: Lord and Keith Williams Architects. By Felix Mara

Performance venues can be one of the most difficult of building types to design – funding is often limited, budgets and sites are frequently restricted and they have to address complex functional demands as well as accommodate large volumes of people. Keith Williams Architects’ Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury and Austin-Smith: Lord’s New Entertainment Venue in Guildford, currently on site, have particularly exacting briefs and sites.

Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury

Named after Shakespeare’s contemporary, Canterbury playwright Christopher Marlowe, this performance space replaces an existing theatre in a former city-centre cinema.

It comprises a 1,200-seat auditorium with balconies, flytower and orchestra pit, a 150-seat secondary space, a café and bars, along with rehearsal and backstage facilities and is treated as a single composition, but steps up from the smaller scale of nearby buildings to the pinnacle of its flytower. A three-level foyer unites the public spaces and auditoria forming a crystal ribbon by day and a blade of light by night.

The flytower will be the city centre’s tallest structure after the cathedral and is modelled to create a dynamic silhouette, rather than a rectangular functional shape. It is nine metres taller than its predecessor and clad in a stainless steel mesh, in front of silver grey aluminium cladding, dematerialising its form and subtly reflecting the sky. It will be dramatically lit at night.

The secondary auditorium is above entrance level, allowing the foyer to slide below and connect with the river. Its pre-oxidised copper cladding distinguishes it from the main auditorium, connecting with Canterbury’s red and brown roofscapes.

Reconstituted Stone Colonnade

A high-quality polished reconstituted stone colonnade provides a civic presence, unifying the main auditorium, flytower and neighbouring buildings and shields the south-facing foyer from sunlight, acting as an intermediary between the public spaces and riverside terraces. It has minimal visible fixings and joints, so it looks monolithic.

The 6-tonne columns were cast in single pours, in hand-made timber moulds, and some incorporate concealed downpipes. A soffit of fair-faced precast secret-fixed panels, hung from precast beams, spans the colonnade and the steel frame on the foyer glazing line, interconnected with stainless steel dowels and suspended to provide a thermal break at the glazing line. The colonnade’s leading edge beam provides lateral restraint.

Steel columns on the glazing line were placed first and precast columns were then lowered into place. The columns are tapered below ground   and the bases provide feet through which they are bolted to an in situ ground beam. The soffit beams were then connected to dowels fixings at the heads of the steel and concrete columns and the soffit panels were bolted to the concrete beams from above.

The precast soffit continues into the foyer, providing visual continuity and thermal mass. The colonnade’s geometry carefully reconciles even spacing with a curved setting-out.

Auditorium balcony fronts

The form of the timber balcony fronts responds to the auditorium’s acoustic qualities and the need to house visiting production companies’ sound and light cabling. It was a challenge to fabricate its complex double-curved form in timber. The original design envisaged horizontal strips of timber, with minimal visible joints, but the mock-up identified high stresses generated by two-directions curves. The balcony front modules were integrated with the steel frame and handrail posts, minimising deflection caused by imposed loads from the mobile stage lighting mounted to hanging rails on the balconies’ leading edges. The revised design has vertical black American walnut veneered strips, with wider joints accommodating larger tolerances and the reduced predicted movement in its modular sections.

A point cloud survey of the in situ balcony steelwork was undertaken to ensure that the modules fit the installed steelwork.


Start on site April 2009
Completion date Autumn 2011
Estimated annual CO2 emissions 32.7kg/m2
Form of procurement Design and Build
Gross internal area 4,800m2 (approx)
Cost per m2 £5,416
Total cost £26 million
Client Canterbury City Council
Architect Keith Williams Architects
Structural engineer Buro Happold
M&E and lighting consultant Max Fordham
Quantity surveyor Rider Levett Bucknall
Theatre consultant Charcoalblue
Acoustic consultant Sandy Brown Associates
Fire consultant Buro Happold: FEDRA
Landscape and Ecology Consultant Lloyd Bore
Current BREEAM rating Very Good


New Entertainment Venue, Guildford

This venue will accommodate events ranging from orchestral performances and rock concerts to conferences and theatre, using sophisticated mechanical and acoustic technology. Austin-Smith: Lord’s theatres cornerstone Ashley Davies says: ‘It is essentially a music venue and its auditorium will therefore be less intimate than a typical theatre venue.’ It includes a versatile studio space, conference and seminar rooms, bars, foyers and a café. And it is designed as a landmark, improving on the facilities of the Civic Hall that stood on the site, without extending its footprint or compromising the building’s relationship to the adjacent park.

Austin-Smith: Lord exploited the slope of the site to provide two entrances on separate levels, interlinked by a double-height foyer. These provide a public circulation flow through the building, linking the main High Street approach with the park and the route from the car park, encouraging more people to visit. 

The planners encouraged Austin-Smith: Lord to achieve a BREEAM ‘Excellent’ rating. Bennetts Associates was involved in this project at the outset and Austin-Smith: Lord then redesigned the venue.


‘This was never going to be a shrinking violet. You can’t hide a black box,’ says Ashley Davies. In fact, the planners encouraged Austin-Smith: Lord to express the auditorium in the building’s exterior. The main auditorium roof, which is visible from higher ground levels, is a double wedge. The outer wedge, seen internally in the foyer, is a lighter colour recycled porcelain and the inner section is a contrasting porcelain with metallic finish.

The building forms an island accessible on all sides, but the south and east elevations are the main public facades. Austin-Smith: Lord wanted the envelope to reflect its surroundings by day. All facades have been designed to make positive contributions to their surroundings, without losing the opportunity to create a contemporary landmark.

The auditorium’s Ecotech porcelain panels are also used at the lower level on the north side, which has curtain walling with green translucent glazing to back-of-house areas. This merges into varying clear, green and green/blue random transparent glazing to the foyers. A translucent screen conceals roof-level plant.


The efficient plan tackles footprint and height restrictions, the raked seating profile of the auditorium allowing the foyer and bar to extend below. This was initially designed as a fully cantilevered structure, an interesting challenge to structural engineer Scott Wilson, which needed to ensure that acoustic performance and vibration were controlled, but additional columns were introduced later in order to save costs. The foyer is acoustically separated from the auditorium by double construction and is naturally ventilated.


The central auditorium is acoustically isolated by the surrounding accommodation and expressed as a separate component with porcelain-clad walls, visible internally and externally as it projects through the roofline of the surrounding accommodation. Ribbon rooflights at this junction bring daylight deep into the foyer.

The simple box enclosure accommodates diverse events, using a gallery of raked permanent seating above and retractable below to provide up to 1,000 seats. The capacity for rock concerts, with combined seating and standing, is 1,700.

Instead of an optimally designed acoustic chamber, the venue has an electro-acoustic enhancement system that accommodates varying acoustic requirements by adjusting reverberation levels. The auditorium has large triangular 3D acoustic deflection panels on either side and a sprung floor with a walnut top surface.

The orchestra pit has a hydraulic lifting platform that can form an extended stage.



Estimated annual CO2 emissions 38.1kg/m2
Start on site
August 2009
Contract duration 100 weeks
Form of contract GC Works/1 Design and Build; two-stage tender
Gross internal area 5,897m2
Total cost Not available
Client Guildford Borough Council
Architect/interior designer/landscape architect Austin-Smith: Lord
Civil, structural, geotechnical, engineer Scott Wilson 
Theatre consultant Carr & Angier
Services consultant Roger Preston and Partners, part of the Grontmij Group
Acoustic consultant Peter Mapp and Associates
Current BREEAM rating Excellent

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