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Twentieth Century Society calls for Spence’s Southampton uni theatre to be listed

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The Twentieth Century Society is calling for Basil Spence’s Nuffield Theatre to be listed after the University of Southampton announced plans for a ‘major refurbishment’

The university revealed in October that the theatre – currently closed because of coronavirus -– would be vacated from 19 April to allow for a survey of the space and options for refurbishment to be produced. Specific plans are yet to be developed and it is understood no architect has yet to be appointed.

Twentieth Century Society senior caseworker Grace Etherington said there were ‘lots of features of the theatre that make it particularly interesting’ and worth preserving.

The practice Spence, Bonnington and Collins drew up the masterplan for the University of Southampton’s expansion in the 1960s, designing 15 buildings on its 21ha Highfield campus between 1959 and 1973.

The senior common room and arts buildings, including the theatre, were the first to be built, between 1961 and 1964. They are set around a quadrangle which has at its centre a pool with the reclining Puy de Dôme figure, a work by Northern Irish sculptor FE McWilliam.

The society has included the sculpture in its listing application to Historic England. Etherington said there was a similar use of materials in the building as the sculpture.

According to the Twentieth Century Society, Southampton became the first university in the country to have its own theatre when it built the Nuffield, opened by actor Sybil Thorndike in 1964, on the back of a donation from the Nuffield Foundation. At the time, the city did not have a regular theatre.

The theatre is a single-storey, flat-roofed, brick building with recessed vertical slit windows and full-height recesses. Copper rooftop enclosures house the fly tower and plant housing. It shares an entrance with the building that now houses the university’s law school.

Etherington said: ‘Typically, theatres have to have blank façades because windows don’t really help, but it’s interesting the way there are a few slim recessed windows, which add relief to the façade.’

According to the society, ‘the building has a sculptural quality, composed of minimal forms and elevations, void of any visible servicing or structure, with the expressive copper rooftop forms referencing the “egg in a box” concept made famous by Royal Festival Hall in the previous decade.’

The design of the auditorium was based on work by the stage historian Richard Southern, who was the university’s director of drama. Subsequent alterations include the removal of stepped seating either side of the stage and removal or painting of the brick façade and proscenium.

Spence, who is best known as the architect of Coventry Cathedral, designed a number of post-war masterplans for universities, including the University of Edinburgh in 1954-5 and the University of Nottingham’s science campus in 1955. His most significant contribution in this respect was his 1959 masterplan for the University of Sussex campus, where his listed buildings include the Grade I-listed Falmer House, built between 1960 and 1962.

None of Spence’s buildings at the University of Southampton are listed.

A Historic England spokesperson confirmed that it had received an application for listing. It has previously listed other post-war works by ‘nationally important’ 20th-century artist McWilliam including the Grade II-listed Father Courage sculpture, dated 1960, outside the Gulbenkian Theatre on the University of Kent’s Canterbury campus.

A University of Southampton spokesperson said: ’We greatly value the Nuffield Theatre – it’s been a landmark on our Highfield Campus for decades and an important centre for artistic endeavour for Southampton and the surrounding region. We hope that our plans going forward will secure its future for many more decades to come.’

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