Saturday19 August 2017

Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, by Haworth Tompkins Architects

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Haworth Tompkins’ new venue retains the essence of the much-loved Liverpool landmark

For such a long established and well-loved institution, Liverpool’s Everyman might be thought a surprisingly late beneficiary of the bonanza of lottery funding that has transformed theatres across the country in recent decades.

Launched in 1964 by a group of young men who had met as students at Birmingham University, the Everyman quickly established a brief as a producer of plays that strove for a relevance to the lives of its Merseyside audience.  By the seventies it enjoyed a formidable reputation for spotting and fostering local talent: Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale’s first plays were staged there while Julie Walters, Bill Nighy and Pete Postlethwaite feature among the long list of actors who found national attention through early appearances on its stage.

The theatre’s burgeoning fame certainly owed more to the quality of its programme than the glamour of its architecture: a 19th century dissenters’ chapel that had subsequently served as a music hall and cinema. A remodelling in 1975 added a bank of much-needed loos on its street frontage but failed to address the meagre dimensions of both front and back-of-house facilities and the need to haul scenery over the roof of a substation. And yet, the building did have two things going for it.

One was a location on one of the city’s most handsome and liveliest streets. Strung out between Liverpool’s two cathedrals, Hope Street glories in a parade of first-rate early nineteenth century townhouses interspersed by such major institutions as the Philharmonic Hall (soon to be the subject of a remodelling by Caruso St John) and a former school that now houses the Liverpool Institute of the Performing Arts. With the campuses of the University of Liverpool and John Moores University lying a couple of minutes walk away, the Everyman could hardly wish for a site better engaged with the culture of the city.

Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, by Haworth Tompkins

Source: Philip Vile

Everyman Theatre, Liverpool

The building’s second great strength was a remarkable stage:  a thrust, which — at 10 by 10 metres — was significantly larger than received wisdom would deem ideal. Nonetheless, as half a century of distinctive programming attests, it proved itself a consistently productive spur to the creativity of the directors tasked with filling it.

So why has it taken so long for the Everyman to receive the upgrade that has clearly been its due? The answer lies in Liverpool City Council’s announcement in 1992 that it could no longer sustain the generous level of subsidy on which the theatre had always relied. Faced with a £100,000 annual shortfall, the Everyman was forced to cancel the next year’s programme and at the end of 1993 it put its building up for sale. The sense of calamity was compounded by the fact that the city’s other major theatre, the Playhouse, was faring no better, ultimately going into liquidation in 1998. However, from these twin catastrophes the popular backing and political will emerged to secure a joint future. In 1999, the Liverpool and Merseyside Theatres Trust was established with control of both venues and the city council renewed its commitment to ongoing subsidy.

Ambitions for redevelopment work soon came to the fore. The possibility of rehousing both theatres on a new site at a cost of as much as £80 million was investigated before being ruled out in favour of redevelopment of the existing sites. Haworth Tompkins secured the commission for both projects through competitive interview in 2007. Funding is still being sought for the remodelling of the Playhouse but earlier this month the Everyman reopened after a comprehensive redevelopment at a cost of £28 million.

The project was made possible by the purchase of an adjacent property that expanded the land available to the theatre by a third and all but doubled its street frontage. In designing this new facade, the architect faced conflicting demands: whatever heightened expression the building’s public function warranted, the scale of its 19th century neighbours and the rightful pre-eminence of the nearby Catholic cathedral called for a significant degree of deference to the existing urban condition. 

Everyman Theatre ground floor plan

Ground floor plan

Haworth Tompkins’ solution to this quandary takes the form of two adjoining elements, one considerably larger than the other. The smaller is, in all but function, a terraced house: a modest brick-faced volume located at the far right of the frontage, which houses the box-office on its ground floor. Maintaining a uniform treatment along the facade’s full length would have been straightforward but much as at the practice’s Young Vic in London, the effect of this more fragmented composition is to blur the distinction between the theatre and the street on which it stands. It proves a productive ambiguity for both parties: sparing the theatre the institutional associations that a more monumental treatment might invite while better maintaining the established urban grain.

The larger element is more akin to a palazzo – a model that no shortage of 19th century institutions in the city share. Fully glazed and unblinkingly repetitive for the full course of its 32m length, its facade develops a tripartite structure as it rises.  Its first two storeys are loaded with public spaces: a café at pavement level and crush bar above. On the lower floor, insitu-concrete fins stand proud of the glass, providing a surface for advertising and a level of screening between café and street. Piano nobile-like, the first floor carries greater visual emphasis: a balcony extending along its full length supports a large red LED sign, closely modeled on the neon original that identified the building’s predecessor.

A second floor houses the offices from which the administration of both the Everyman and Playhouse is conducted. These are screened by three tiers of swiveling panels in a dull grey patinated aluminium, each of which can be adjusted manually, lending the facade a constantly changing configuration. The lowest tier extends partway over the first floor glazing while the uppermost masks the rooftop plant, complicating our reading of the building’s scale, by suggesting the presence of three storeys rather than one.  Each of the 105 panels has also been individualized through the water-cutting of a full height portrait of a local resident. The matey populism of that gesture may surprise anyone familiar with the architect’s past work but it undoubtedly captures something of the self-image of this very particular institution.

However, as a foretaste of what is inside it proves deceptive.  In their high level of exposure to the street, the front-of-house spaces might invite comparison with those of the Young Vic but the free bricolage of cheap materials that characterised that project has given way to something rather more self-consciously architectural. 

One senses the practice’s experience of working on Lasdun’s National Theatre may represent an influence behind its use of exposed insitu concrete piers and beams to cultivate a rich layering of space. The ghost of Carlo Scarpa haunts proceedings too, particularly in a recurring preoccupation with the dramatic potential of moving elements such as the counterweighted pendant lights that hang from the ceiling of the basement restaurant. His influence can be detected too in the handling of the full height void that we encounter on entering.  Its footprint is modest but internal windows, balconies and shuttered openings ranged around its upper levels generate a sense of animation and spatial density that feels at once theatrical and urban.

Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, by Haworth Tompkins

Source: Philip Vile

Everyman Theatre, Liverpool

Constructed with the help of 25,000 bricks reclaimed from the earlier building, the auditorium stands in essentially the same position as the old one and adopts a thrust stage of the same considerable dimensions. Its 410 seats represent an increase of only 20 but they are distributed to more intimate effect: where the previous arrangement extended 12 rows back, the new one stops at six but introduces a gallery above. Further seating can also be introduced at the front by reducing the stage to an area of six by six metres. 

A 5m-deep pit and 10m-high flytower have been added — where no above or below stage space previously existed — as has a fully accessible technical grid allowing lighting to be mounted across the entirety of the plan.  Given the theatre’s intensely urban location, the provision of natural ventilation throughout represents a particular achievement.  Air is drawn in from the less trafficked rear elevation and extracted via cylindrical brick vents at roof level – a feature that resonates with the brick chimneys found on neighbouring properties.

While Haworth Tompkins can now claim as expansive portfolio of theatre work as any practice in the country, the Everyman represents its first entirely new build project in the field.  And yet, the qualities that have distinguished its past theatre work remain in evidence. In its robust and tactile material character, this is a building that wears its novelty lightly, and one which will only be enriched by the patina that comes through weathering and use.  And new as it may be, it feels profoundly connected to the earlier occupation of the site.

The frustrations of the old venue were numerous but it was loved.  Haworth Tompkins’ design resolves the failings while preserving the productive idiosyncrasies: a theatre that the Everyman’s loyal audience is still surely going to recognise as theirs.

Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, by Haworth Tompkins


Haworth Tompkins
Client Liverpool and Merseyside Theatres Trust
Interiors and furniture design
Haworth Tompkins with Katy Marks at Citizens Design Bureau
Contractor Gilbert-Ash
Project manager GVA Acuity
Quantity surveyor Gardiner & Theobald
Theatre consultant Charcoalblue
Structural engineer Alan Baxter & Associates
Service engineer Watermans Building Services
CDM coordinator Turner & Townsend
Acoustic engineer Gillieron Scott Acoustic Design
Access consultant Earnscliffe Davies Associates
Catering consultant Keith Winton Design
Collaborating artist Antoni Malinowski
Typographer Jake Tilson
Portrait photographer Dan Kenyon



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