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Period Performance

by Barrie Evans

Architects' Journal, 11 September 2003

'Central School of Speech and Drama has been reshaped by Cullum and Nightingale, with restrained conservation telling the story of its past '

'Cullum and Nightingale have been mending and reshaping Central School of Speech and Drama at Swiss Cottage in London since 1988 - a workshop, a new wing including a studio theatre, design studio and lecture theatre, and a five-storey teaching, library and administration block. There will be more in future. For architect Ben Kilburn it has been like 'planning a village'.

'The most recent phase centres on the 19th-century Embassy Theatre, in some ways the heart of the school as the theatre's name is used as the first line of its address, despite the school being a degree-awarding higher education institution with some 600 students. Degree courses include acting, theatre practice, drama teaching and theatre criticism.

'For the theatre space there are twists in this tale. It is primarily a teaching space, where the auditorium needs to have some presence for perfomers to relate to, even though the seats are normally empty. And some of the problems are of the school's own making, stemming from when it first crudely adpated the theatre on its arrival in 1952 (it was founded in 1905).

'The space began life as a conservatiore, more like a large salon in a country house than a theatre. Flat-floored and side-lit, it had an organ installed towards one end. at one stage the building was the Hampstead Conservatoire of Music and School of Art, with a range of teaching spaces. In time the conservatoire / salon became a music hall, with the installation of very shallow raked stalls starting about 1m below the stage and an arc-plan dress circle. At some point the windows were bricked up.

'The music hall's capacity of 700 was much too large for the school when it arrived in 1952, so it built a wall cutting off a rear bay of the auditorium, reducing seating capacity to 200 and creating 200 storeys of difficult-to-access teaching space in the left over rear volume. That is where the theatrestood when this phase began - functionally and spatially confused, with outdated stage and technical facilities. Its immediate setting didn't help either. There were not-grand entrance steps down from the school's main foyer leading to the front of the auditorium. Further along this entrance side the theatre wall was outdoors, part of a large roofless lightwell - now the Link - that had become a very unsatisfactory but important node in the school's movement pattern.

'Where to begin? With the world of the theatre and its belief in collective memory, in the importance of traces left by past players and students. Cullum and Nightingale's approach to buildings is similar, conserving more than upgrading the existing fabric, inserting modern improvements, always keeping these clearly distinguishable both in treatment and in space. Each age tells its own story. So, for example, crumbling masonry areas were, where possible, just consolidated, marked out as many small areas to be treated individually on survey elevation drawings. Not'improving' things in this way was a concept that the builders had trouble coming to terms with initially. Now, though, Kilburn cannot praise highly enough inpsired site agent Denis Mulverhill. That he took on board the architect's approach and remained 'unflappable, forseeing problems, understanding complexities', were important elements in the quality of realisation of this phase. The project was helped, too, by its two-stage tender, bringing the contractor into the project early on.

'The architect's respect for past eras does not mean that bold new moves have been avoided. The back wall inserted post-1952 has been removed to reveal the full shape of the original salon ceiling here. Circle and stalls have been removed (the cut end of the main circle steel support beam projects unobtrusively from a side wall, a trace of this most recent passing era). One new tier of seating has replaced these, as steeply raked as possible (within fire escape constraints for their side aisles). Seat rows are in gentle arcs focused on the stage, helping to create that presence of the auditorium for the actor, as does their 'foreground' colour of red, in contrast to the receding blues of the auditorium fabric. And there is no central aisle - which would be an empty space for the actor to address. (Thus, the seat rows are very long and also quite widely spaced for access.) A palpable presence for the actors on stage has been achieved, though it is difficult to capture this in photographs. Acoustics did not need a lot of attention, while audience conditions have been improved with displacement ventilation outlets under the seating.

'Behind the new seating is a large control room, much larger than an equivalent-sized public theatre would need, big enough to work as a teaching space. Overhead, access walkways and a lighting bridge - also teaching spaces - have been installed (the new walkways set slightly away from the old walls). Steep raking of the seating also allowed the creation of a teaching space (plus storage) behind at lower level - an important new facility particularly because it is the same area as the stage (without apron). Closely meeting the school's particular requirements has helped by the fact that the theatre consultant (and client contact) is also a member of staff.

''Porridge' is the term Kilburn uses to describe the coarse plaster-on-mesh substance that had been spread indiscriminately over many surfaces in the auditorium and immediately outside. In some places it was a matter of helping it fall off. In others, removing it pulled away immediate surfaces; most capitals to pilasters were damaged enough to be replaced. The auditorium wall surface now has a finer cementitious coating, sealing the surface while showing the coursing of the bricks. The bricked-up conservatoire window recessed have been rendered.

'Colour tests for paint were conducted in a studio - testing in daylight would not have predicted colour appearance in the enclosed auditorium. Four different blues have been used for the auditorium - for the coursed brickwork, the rendered window recesses, the pilasters and the ceiling It is much more subtle than a black box.

'As part of the enabling works, the under-stage area was dug out and the stage apron now has panels than can be removed to reveal an orchestra pit. There is the structure for a stage lift, though not the money to install one at the moment. A new proscenium has replaced its crumbling predecessor. Behind this, the stage has been completely overhauled, with adequate wings and a new fly-tower containing a range of professional equipment. With the tower projecting well above the roof - by around 5m at the ridge and 10m at the eaves - though not higher than some other school buildings, there were discussions with planners and neighbours about its height and external treatment. No chance here for a publicity beacon. 'Recesssive' was the compromise, plain sheet metal in a dull grey, like a typical London sky.

'The other part of this story is about circulation. Starting the seating at the front of the auditorium at about stage level, rather than below as before, has allowed for level access from the school foyer. The architect's long relationship with the client helped to get a positive response to the idea of adding the tidying of this route and of the foyer to this project phase. Porridge was removed, surfaces mended, a foyer partition taken down and a new reception desk designed. New furnishings include plain concrete frames to pictures.

'The Link lightwell alongside the theatre brings together both circulation routes and a variety of floor levels. And halfway up the theatre's flank wall is the exit for the top of the auditorium seating. Other surrounding walls belong to different buildings, including some offices with windows onto the Link. The external wall surfaces have been repaired as little as necessary. The floor gently ramps up to take in different adjacent building levels. A glass-balustraded walkway and stair provide connection with the upper auditorium exit. The roof is now glazed. It sounds a prosaic list, but the combined result is a complex and somewhat theatrical space. To date is has been used for its nominal purpose of circulation. Any moment you expect students to come in and appropriate it as a rehearsal or performance space.

'Generous budgets are not a feature of publicly funded education projects. Here, Cullum and Nightingale has managed to realise a design that feels built up to a quality rather than down to a price.'