Avery Associates has transformed the labyrinthine Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London’s Bloomsbury with a dramatic fente atrium and a small theatre that plays it big
It’s an odd part of town, this bit of Bloomsbury. It is perhaps the institution capital of the Capital. Almost the whole district is made up of institutions, with all their inherent worthiness and impenetrability, skinned by stuffily polite 19th and early 20th century facades dropped among, or replacing the indigenous Georgian parti of streets and garden squares that pre-existed their foundation. Few are in any way memorable, except when they are done Smirke-BritishMuseum or Lasdun-UCL big, and that I think has been the institutions’ point. It is about playing a supporting role to the greater good of the city and populace, exteriors cloaking institutes’ achievements and benefactions in sub-grandiose modesty.
The contemporary zeitgeist clamours for transparency and openness. This issue has been spectacularly endorsed in recent months by the British Museum, with its Great Court, and now by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and its architect, Avery Associates.
Although it can be dangerously syllogistic to draw general conclusions from the particular, patience and perseverance and a diet of bread and water can, on occasion, bring an architect spectacular reward.
In 1984, Richard Attenborough first suggested to Brian Avery, who was then working on the Museum of Moving Image, that he might look at the RADA in Gower Street.
Did he think improvements could be made to the labyrinthine warren of disconnected spaces that comprised one of the most exclusive theatrical schools in the world?
Seventeen years later, the totally revamped RADA reopened!
It is perhaps appropriate for the redevelopment of the country’s top theatrical school that Avery should find himself bound in a long and twisting plot that bore him from that early conversation to the undoubted triumph of RADA.
In the early days the proposals were modest, and Avery refuses to be drawn on whether he was actually paid for his architectural ‘tweaks’ to the interior. He was, however, always clear that only a far-reaching solution would ever unlock the potential ofthe Gower Street/Malet Street site, despite the very slim chance of gaining sufficient funding.With apparent perversity, he began by looking elsewhere.
In the 1990s, an appeal headed by the Princess of Wales raised £2 million towards relocating RADA in Hoxton Square. Still £18 million short of the required budget, the scheme, despite obtaining planning permission, was reluctantly abandoned and the funds used to convert a building in Chenies Street, close to Gower Street, for administrative, rehearsal and technical spaces. With that project achieved, attention naturally refocused on the Gower Street/Malet Street headquarters.
As with so many arts projects, the advent of the National Lottery allowed the project to become a reality. Avery had studied the Gower Street site for 10 years before the successful Arts Council bid in 1995, and was able to move swiftly with a fresh strategic plan for the entire site, once the project was approved.
RADA has occupied an east-west chunk of Bloomsbury since the 1920s. The plot is 60m long but only 15m wide, and connects RADA’s main public front, the Gower Street building (1927), to the Academy’s Malet Street block (1921).
Partially rebuilt after the war, the very cramped Malet Street block filled the whole of the middle of the site but was only connected to the Gower Street building at basement and flytower level, rendering it tortuous and impractical to use. The main 500-seat theatre, mainly used by the friends of RADA, was far too big.
Intriguingly, the academy is entirely privately financed, principally by tuition fees and an endowment from the estate of George Bernard Shaw - after whom the main theatre in the old building was named.
This independence enables it to reject all but the top 34 students from the 1,500 or so applicants it receives annually. The plaques that still hang in the Gower Street stairwell are a roll-call of acting’s great and the good, all former students. Both RADA and Avery sought to ensure that the ‘ghosts’ were not exorcized as a result of the redevelopment.
Conceptually, the new scheme is very strong, and deceptively simple. It follows five organizing principles:
Although not listed, the Gower Street building was retained in order to maintain RADA’s traditional face, and converted and extended to house the main administrative and teaching spaces.
The site from the rear of the Gower Street building was cleared, and a new facade with a public entrance placed on Malet Street.
The new main teaching theatre (203 seats) and associated spaces were placed at second floor level backing onto Malet Street.
The basement contains the production spaces such as scene workshops, and the new George Bernard Shaw Theatre.
Gower Street and Malet Street have been linked by a single public level, interrupted only by the grand stair in the Gower Street vestibule. This is the main orientation space within the building, from which all key public spaces and academic spaces are attained.
The redevelopment is 10 storeys high from lowest basement to uppermost floor, with three levels below ground and seven above. It has been shoehorned between the Malet Street and Gower Street facades, and the space between the new flytower and the rear of the Gower Street building skinned in a sleek new metal vaulted roof.
RADA’s main teaching theatre is now the Jerwood Vanbrugh (after Irene Vanbrugh, the actress). Its historic stem is an unexecuted design for Sir William Davenant by Inigo Jones. One’s sense of the theatre’s space is at odds with the quantitative measure. I was utterly convinced when I first entered this auditorium with Nick Barter, RADA’s principal, that its capacity was far greater than the actual 203 seats.
Avery, with Iain Mackintosh of Theatre Projects Consultants, has shown a deft touch in responding to RADA’s brief. Essentially the new theatre had to be an exemplary training ground for students who had to truly understand the nature of theatrical projection to prepare them for work in much larger theatres of different forms and scales upon graduation. Consequently, the four-level theatre - stalls (in proscenium form), circle and two balconies, the upper one largely technical - is made to appear exceptionally high. In fact the floor to floor height is only 2.25m! The perceived volume of a theatre space is often defined by its balcony fronts. Here, the balcony fronts appear to dissolve since they are formed from yacht wires (a legacy from Avery’s High-Tech past), and so the perceptive volume reaches to side walls which form the enclosure and reinforce the expansive illusion. The student is compelled to learn the techniques of commanding an apparently much larger room.
This is really clever stuff. It is a small theatre playing it big, and the result is a tour de force.
The theatre is also, to a degree, a Protean space. Its form can be changed, from proscenium, to flat floor, to ‘in the round’, all by folding the dual-component proscenium arch, yet it has both an orchestra pit and a full flytower with grid floor 13.8m above the stage. It is a beautiful space, elegantly proportioned and laid out using Ad Quadratum (v2) geometry. Although not unique in this sense, the geometric rigour is here both evident and successful, and it is the zenith of a careful concern for proportion carried throughout the whole building.
Where possible, the architect has exploited verticality and introduced sectional transparency into the heart of the scheme.
The Malet Street and Gower Street buildings join in the middle of the site; or rather they don’t. Although linked at all levels by the circulation spines along the northern and southern boundaries, in the centre the two blocks are forced apart by a fente atrium rising the full height of the building. This creates a taught, quasi-Soanian space, visible from the ground-level concourse and the highlevel walkways, and sets up a delicious architectural tension. The bowed ends to the Jerwood Theatre and the rehearsal spaces, form the fente atrium, while glazed panels allow the slot to be ‘bridged’ visually and the spaces connected. Canted glazed windows give glimpses of the space from adjacent offices. The two forms feel as though they have been forced apart and are held by some intangible force, expressing beautifully the tension between the public and private realms, the past and the future, and so on - one can almost substitute one’s own opposites. It is, in essence, a metaphor for the entire institution and is architecture as theatre.
The atrium brings light into the heart of the landlocked ground floor (the party walls at the sides are dark) and into the basement production levels through a glass panel in the floor.
The striking Malet Street facade is deceptively simple at first pass, composed around its axis of vertical symmetry. The two pairs of main entrance doors have been placed either side of a cylinder of opaque white glass, surmounted by a two-storey ‘bay window’ of variously opaque, translucent and transparent glass panels. From third floor level, the facade runs shear, clad in elegantly proportioned terracotta panels and is windowless. You quickly realize that Avery has put the flytower, that most difficult of architectural forms which has defeated many a great architect, on the street!
If the materials are slightly modish, then there are delightful touches in that the fully glazed actors’ dressing rooms are contained at first floor level, and the students, often fully robed for the first time, enjoy strutting their stuff in full view of pedestrians in the street. A kind of perverse street theatre!
The facade has depth and this is used to resolve the complex cocktail of three fire escape routes, main entrance and theatre get in. When set in the context of the street it shouts its presence from among its drab neighbours along Malet Street. At last, a memorable facade has been built offering a visible and inviting face to a great institution.
I do have some reservations, though. The organization of the Jerwood Vanburgh and the teaching blocks, set just off axis within the symmetrical form of the barrel-vaulted roof, is problematic in purist terms. One might also question the aesthetic consistency of detailing of the interior along the ground floor level concourse, and perhaps have looked for firmer visual connections between Malet Street and Gower Street. But these issues are, in context, minor, and Avery is quick to point out his wish to avoid a ‘boulevard’ connecting the two streets, preferring a subtler game of axial shift.
The redevelopment of this site was clearly an immensely complex formal problem, which has been handled very skilfully, punctuated by architectural moves of sheer delight, and I applaud the architectural expression of the new openness.
Avery readily acknowledges the intellectual quality of his famous committee-based client (which included Lord Attenborough, Alan Rickman and Peter Barkworth), which was searchingly interrogative, yet fully cognisant of the difficulties that the project presented.
I believe that RADA, its students present and future, and Bloomsbury architecture have been well served. Avery has played his hand in exemplary fashion.
As RADA is in the middle of a terrace, temporary works including flying shores, raking shores and jacking beams were installed to permit the demolition works and a monitoring regime established to ensure adjoining properties were not compromised during demolition.
The existing party walls were underpinned to permit the construction of the further basement levels for theatre workshops and large sprinkler tanks. Perimeter piling around the sprinkler tanks acted as both temporary and permanent works.
To achieve maximum clear floor space, prestressed double-tee units were used as part of the structural frame and use of the new theatre walls for support reduced the number of vertical structural elements that cluttered the floors. Many of the staircases are of steel construction and new lifts, including a scenery goods lift, were installed.
The mechanical plant is located at the top of the building, with a distinctive barrel-vault roof covering it. The Gower Street building had to be strengthened to meet the current loading requirements. This building has hollow pot floors supported on steel beams and the new high-level of services. Proposed usage led to the need for some additional structure. This involved making connections to the existing structural steelwork.
Over the new Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre there is a tension wire grid to permit access for technicians to rig lighting and so on. This is made from wires at 70mm centres tensioned between a perimeter steel frame.
The building is now fully operational, with students back in occupation; performances have taken place, including one for everyone involved in the construction.
Costs based on final account for phases one and two and tender figure for phase three
DEMOLITION AND TEMPORARY WORKS DEMOLITION £164.59/m2
Includes demolition, temporary works, underpinning and piling
Double-height basement including large sprinkler tank, RC construction
UPPER FLOORS £95.13/m2
Pre-cast double ‘T’units and in situ RC and composite holorib
Asphalt flat roofs, barrel vault roof with aluminium cladding, aluminium rainscreen panels to Gower Street roof
Curved glazed rooflight to cleft lightwell; a portion was fire rated
Mixture of RC (in basement) and steel (upper floors)
EXTERNAL WALL £164.63/m2
New facade to Malet Street terracotta panels and curved ‘white’glass.Refurbished Gower Street facade and repairs to party walls; new facade to rear of Gower Street
New sash windows to Gower Street building.New PPC steel doors to all areas (glazed to Malet Street)
INTERNAL WALLS AND PARTITIONS £79.27/m2
RC concrete, blockwork and drylined.Specialist partitions in sound studios
INTERNAL DOORS £81.12/m2
Mixture of timber doors, veneered, painted and laminated
INTERNAL FINISHES WALL FINISHES £74.04/m2
Plaster and paint, veneered timber, ceramic tiles
FLOOR FINISHES £86.31/m2
Studded timber on screed, carpet, ceramic tiles and terrazzo
CEILING FINISHES £32.59/m2
Suspended plasterboard with sprayed acoustic plaster, paint
FITTINGS AND FURNISHINGS FURNITURE £325.95/m2
Includes theatre equipment and loose furniture for client
SERVICES SANITARY APPLIANCES £8.97/m2
DISPOSAL INSTALLATIONS £21.27/m2
WATER INSTALLATIONS £17.38/m2
ELECTRICAL SERVICES £207.89/
AND CONVEYOR INSTALLATIONS £76.47/m2
PROTECTIVE INSTALLATIONS £27.46/m2
COMMUNICATION INSTALLATIONS £41.90/m2
SPECIAL INSTALLATIONS £43.98/m2
BUILDERS’WORK IN CONNECTION £55.38/m2
PRELIMINARIES AND INSURANCES PRELIMINARIES, OVERHEADS AND PROFIT £284.29/m2
EXTERNAL WORKS LANDSCAPING, ANCILLARY BUILDINGS £15.70/m2
Reinstate paving to Malet Street and Gower Street, including railings
Cost per m2 Percentage (£) of total
DEMOLITION AND TEMPORARY WORKS 164.59 6.83
SUBSTRUCTURE 64.63 2.68
Frame 72.42 3.00
Upper floors 95.13 3.94
Roof 95.87 3.98
Rooflights 9.83 0.41
Staircases 70.58 2.93
External walls 164.63 6.83
Windows/doors 15.07 0.63
Internal walls/partitions 79.27 3.29
Internal doors 81.12 3.36
Group element total 683.92 28.37
Wall finishes 74.04 3.07
Floor finishes 86.31 3.58
Ceiling finishes 32.59 1.35
Group element total 192.94 8.00
FITTINGS AND FURNITURE 325.95 13.52
Sanitary appliances 8.97 0.37
Disposal installations 21.27 0.88
Water installations 17.38 0.72
Space heating/air treatment 194.10 8.05
Electrical services 207.89 8.62
Lift and conveyor installations 76.47 3.17
Protective installations 27.46 1.14
Communication installation 41.90 1.74
Special installations 43.98 1.82
Builders’work in connection 55.38 2.30
Group element total 694.80 28.81
PRELIMINARIES AND INSURANCE 284.29 11.79
TOTAL 2,411.12 100.00
Costs supplied by Davis Langdon & Everest
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art www.rada.org.uk
Avery Associates www.avery-architects.co.uk
TENDER DATE Enabling works 28 May 1997 Substructure works 29 September 1997 Main works 26 June 1998
START ON SITE 21 July 1997
CONTRACT DURATION 168 weeks
GROSS EXTERNAL FLOOR AREA 6,015m2
FORM OF CONTRACT AND/OR PROCUREMENT Traditional JCT 80 with quantities and with CDPS
TOTAL COST £14,597,475
CLIENT Royal Academy of Dramatic Art
ARCHITECT Avery Associates: Bryan Avery, John Dawson, Amanda Henderson, Garry Reynolds, Jo Podmore, James Lusher, Julien Odile, Andrew Brown, Alain Bacon, Phil Coffey, Kim Wan Lee, Mike Neal, Tom Hewitt, Mark Gruenberg
PROJECT MANAGER Buro Four Project Services
THEATRE CONSULTANTS Theatre Projects Consultants
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Arup
SERVICES ENGINEER Roger Preston & Partners
QUANTITY SURVEYOR Davis Langdon & Everest
ACOUSTIC CONSULTANT Paul Gillieron Acoustic Design
ACCESS CONSULTANT All Clear Design
PLANNING SUPERVISOR Faithful & Gould
MAIN CONTRACTOR Laing
SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS grille supplier ADTE; WC cubicles Amwell Systems; fire stopping Aztec Flooring Solutions; precast floor units Bison Concrete Products; timber floor finishes BonaKemi; foyer roller shutter Boundary Metal; acoustic plaster Construction Coating; handrail light Continental Lighting; flooring Durabella, Dalsouple, Altro, WB Simpson; glass balustrades EG Glass; external cladding Exterior Profiles; internal firescreens Fendor Hansen; structural precast floor units Finlay Blatcon; lifts Fujitec UK; external louvres Gill Air Ventilation; structural steelwork Hawk Engineering; ironmongery Higrade Hardware; proscenium flaps Huppe Form; metal doors Industrial Acoustics; render and insulation systems Integral; foyer ceilings Luxalon; theatre seats Mirage Seating; theatre tension wire grid Slingco; stone floor Stonell; ceramic tiles Langley; Bordean terracotta tiles Guirard Freres; stone nosing Quantum Profile Systems; plastering and drylining Monarch; cleft roof glazing Pilkington Architectural; insulation Rockwool; drylining partitions British Gypsum; acoustic ceiling and wall tiles SAS International; floor screeds Uzin; signage Rivermeade; glazing Saint Gobain Solaglas; theatre upholstery Bute Fabrics; lighting Erco, Thorn, iGuzzini Illuminazione UK, Marlin, Illuma, Concord, Creedlite, Wila; carpets Object Carpet, Westbond Carpets; safety systems Centurion Safety Services; sanitaryware Grohe, Armitage Shanks, Wandsworth Electrical, Trent Bathrooms, Ideal Standard