Tuesday22 August 2017

National Theatre redevelopment by Haworth Tompkins

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Haworth Tompkins’ £80m redevelopment of the National Theatre - a traditionally uncompromising building - is its biggest reworking since Denys Lasdun’s original design

The National Theatre’s entrance has been recongfigued with additional glazing and stronger reference to Lasdun’s original design.

The National Theatre’s entrance has been reconfigued with additional glazing and stronger reference to Lasdun’s original design.

Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre is arguably one of London’s most controversial public buildings. It probably still divides opinion today as sharply as it did when it opened in 1976, when repeated strikes, protracted funding negotiations and a lengthy series of construction delays ensured that its Brutalist belligerence was already spiralling towards obsolescence.

Revered by those who adore its cyclopean lobbies and monolithic massing, it is equally reviled by those who condemn it as a militaristic and overbearing concrete fortress. Two commentators, who might under normal circumstances be considered kindred spirits, neatly sum up its broad spectrum of appreciation and the strange critical alliances it provokes.

John Betjeman, saviour of St Pancras and no acolyte of Brutalism, was so moved by the building that he personally wrote to Lasdun to inform him that he “gasped with delight at the cube of your theatre against the pale blue sky”. While the Prince of Wales loosely echoed acclaimed Modernist critic Nikolaus Pevsner when he dryly observed that the theatre was “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London”.

Today the National Theatre is grade II* listed and its latest performance is an extensive £80m renovation by architects Haworth Tompkins. While the theatre’s two showpiece auditoria, the Olivier and the Lyttelton, have been largely left untouched aesthetically, foyer, entrance, back-of-house and forecourt spaces have been radically reorganised and a new four-storey extension block has been added to the rear of the building. Its smallest auditorium, the Dorfman, formerly the Cottesloe, has also been extensively reconfigured. This therefore is the biggest reworking of Lasdun’s edifice since its opening.

A new foyer for the Dorfman, formerly Cottesloe Theatre has been built.

A new foyer for the Dorfman, formerly the Cottesloe, has been built.

Haworth Tompkins have made a veritable name for themselves with their thoughtful and exquisitely poised insertions into landmark theatre buildings. Last year’s RIBA Stirling Prize winner was their new Liverpool Everyman Theatre, a poignant paean to civic seduction. Summer 2014 also saw the completion of their intricate refurbishment of Powell and Moya’s Chichester Festival Theatre, home of the first National Theatre Company and a building cut from an ideological cloth not entirely dissimilar to the National Theatre’s.

But, even with this venerable pedigree, in terms of scope, scale and prominence, the National Theatre represents an altogether different league of project and, regardless or perhaps because of the strong feelings it provokes, undoubtedly remains a stalwart of English Modernism and one of the seminal British buildings of the late 20th century.

Moreover, in this and his other works Lasdun was a committed ideologue and, theoretically at least, a classicist and he thereby carved an uncompromising and deeply entrenched architecture that does not easily invite accretion or amendment. Lasdun himself was said to be furious with earlier changes introduced by Stanton Williams during the theatre’s previous, smaller refurbishment in the 1990s.


So how then have Haworth Tompkins responded to the hefty challenge of reworking such an unwieldy and widely recognised building? Co-founder Steve Tompkins describes their approach thus: “As much as possible we’ve tried to make our intervention a response to the building itself, its massing, its geometry, its surfaces, its form. We’ve gone to great lengths to understand Lasdun’s original ambitions for the building and create a response [that] remains true to that spirit while addressing some of the problems with space, access and setting that have accumulated over the years.”

New double-height cafe glazing increases the transparency between the exterior and interior of the theatre.

New double-height cafe glazing increases the transparency between the exterior and interior of the theatre.

In practical and functional terms, the key part of Haworth Tompkins’ design strategy is the construction of the new four-storey block to the rear. This was cleverly realised by the closure of one of the three ramps that formerly lined the perimeter of the building and provided access to underground parking and service areas.

Haworth Tompkins associate director Paddy Dillon describes this extension as the “lynchpin” of the project, the single move that without which, nothing else would have been possible. “By placing various new and relocated functions in here, such as the paint workshop, production offices, design studios and some administration, we were able to free up other spaces within the building, particularly in the critical foyer and riverfront areas.”

Uniquely, even before the completion of the main body of the refurbishment, we were given a possible clue to Haworth Tompkins’ intentions for the building. In 2013 they constructed the Shed Theatre right in front of the main block, providing a temporary small-scale auditorium during the ongoing redevelopment of the Cottlesloe.

With its idiosyncratic upturned footstool form and bright red plywood cladding, the Shed was everything many perceived the National Theatre as not being: playful, colourful, youthful and irreverent. The visual and symbolic contrast between the Shed’s decadent, bloody profile against the chaste grey pallor of the Lasdun block behind it could not have been more powerful.

However, the Shed was merely part of a sophisticated public wooing process the institution had embarked upon since the installation of its current colourful and dynamic external lighting scheme in 2007. The completion of Haworth Tompkins’ redevelopment therefore marks the culmination of a long strategy of subtle architectural rebranding designed to retain the National Theatre’s core ascetic character while softening and humanising its impact.

The entrance foyer retains the rugged geometries of Lasdun’s original but features new additions such as the relocated shop.

The entrance foyer retains the rugged geometries of Lasdun’s original but features new additions such as the relocated shop.


The first and arguably most prominent of the problems Haworth Tompkins has sought to address in their renovation is the theatre’s awkward relationship with the river. Even those who love the building are quizzical as to why Lasdun, at ground level at least, appears to go to such lengths to turn away from it. Incredibly, up until the current refurbishment, the building’s principal river frontage was obscured by a service yard and, previously, even a service road.

Moreover, for all their sullen splendour, the foyers might as well have been buried deep inside the Barbican for all the connection they had with the Thames outside. This approach is all the stranger when considering that a core ambition for Lasdun was to extend the pioneering, egalitarian spirit established in the 1950s by the Royal Festival Hall upstream and democratise the perceived stuffy elitism of the theatre world. Despite the defensive overtures of the exterior, his intention was to create an open and accessible building.

However, Lasdun’s omissions are partially absolved by history and context. Today, the South Bank is said to be Europe’s largest arts centre and, partially buoyed by the astonishing regeneration success of Bankside next door, its famous river promenade attracts more than 14 million visitors every year.

But this was not the case in the 1960s and 70s. The area was virtually flattened during the Blitz and even before then it had been synonymous with breweries and warehouses rather than arts and culture. When the industry that once served these warehouses fell away in the 1960s, the area spiralled into deprivation and decline. As Dillon points out: “when the National Theatre opened, the river walk didn’t even extend eastwards towards Bankside as it does today; it was virtually a dead end.”

A new public space (above) has replaced the service yard that once occupied the National Theatre’s pivotal north-east corner (below).

A new public space (above) has replaced the service yard that once occupied the National Theatre’s pivotal north-east corner (below).

Service yard that once occupied the National Theatre’s pivotal north-east corner.

Hence Lasdun did not place his entrance axis to face the river directly, but at an oblique 45-degree angle aligned north-west towards Parliament and Westminster. This also enabled him to allocate much of the expanse of river frontage east of the entrance to the service yard, an unsightly anomaly that grew increasingly intolerable as the South Bank’s revival intensified.


Haworth Tompkins’ solution here is two-fold. First, they have extensively remodelled the entrance to provide much more glazing and visual connectivity between outside and in. The main entrance is approached underneath one of the National Theatre’s trademark deep overhangs, so it languishes in relative, if dramatic, shadow. This was accentuated when the 1990s restoration placed the bookstore beside the entrance, blocking the view underneath the overhang out towards the river.

The bookstore has now been relocated internally and the glazing that demarcates the entrance has been pulled back from the building edge to create a dramatic, layered enfilade of glass and recesses that plunges spectacular river views deep into the interior and, perhaps for the first time, convincingly anchors the foyer into its riverside context.

The second measure is related. The offending riverside service yard has been banished to the new Max Rayne Centre at the rear of the building, which has allowed for an extraordinary “opening up” of the riverside facade. Here, a trio of new bars and cafes has been inserted, all now hungrily patronised by the hordes of visitors who swarm along the river walk.

New bars and restaurants enliven the theatre’s formerly forlorn river frontage.

New bars and restaurants enliven the theatre’s formerly forlorn river frontage.

Principal among these is a soaring new cafe accessed from both the river and foyer whose double-height glazing, again reverentially pulled back from the building edge to retain its strong horizontal massing, affords a rare instance of absolute and unhindered transparency between outside and in.

Beyond the subtle expansions represented by the cafe and remodelled entrance and even with the opening up of river views, the foyers’ raw medieval menace have been left happily undistilled. “It’s not necessarily about increasing the quantity of space” explains Tompkins, “but ensuring that its quality remains true to the original building.”

This was achieved by adopting an intuitive hierarchy of intervention when it comes to materials, as Dillon explains. “First, there’s the concrete. We recognised this as central to the character of the building and, beyond cleaning and repair, left it largely untouched. Next there were internal fixtures such as wood or panelling which we have reintroduced in certain areas - such as the restaurant - to act as a softer counterfoil to the concrete. And finally there are the new light fittings and furniture which have been treated as a more transient layer that adds warmth but can be easily adapted over time.”

Back of house

The same spirit of subtle reinvention and imaginative reconfiguration is evident throughout the remainder of the building. The old Cottlesloe has been extensively redeveloped with a revamped separate entrance foyer and technically sophisticated seating stalls that can be quickly reconfigured as teaching space or “theatre in the round”. Extensive new education facilities have also been created in former workshops liberated by the construction of the Max Rayne Centre.

The new Max Rayne Centre to the rear of the theatre reinterprest the composition of the original building and houses a new paint workshop and studios.

The new Max Rayne Centre to the rear of the theatre reinterprets the composition of the original building and houses a new paint workshop and studios.

The Max Rayne Centre itself is the most significant back-of-house addition. It is demurely expressed as a sleek, streamlined metal box clad in slender aluminium fins placed between thin bays of crumpled steel sheeting. According to Tompkins, the mesh is a response to the “crafted, man-made quality of the main building’s hewn concrete surfaces” while the strongly orthogonal elevations are a clear reference to Lasdun’s staunch geometric rigour. But with its permeable, textured surfaces punctured by recessed balconies and its sinuous velveteen mesh, it acts, appropriately, as a soft, porous counterfoil to the monolithic impenetrability of its neighbour.

The centre also provides a final, tantalising clue as to what truly lies at the heart of Haworth Tompkins’ ambitious reworking of the National Theatre. A large ground floor window allows the public to see for themselves the sets being constructed in the workshop within, and thereby becomes a virtuoso piece of miniaturised urban theatre in itself. However, it is a canny voyeuristic inversion of who the real stars of this redevelopment are: the public and the river.

And nowhere expresses this more emotively than the new public forecourt that occupies the riverside frontage once scarred by the service yard. Now, cafe seating teems across a lively landscaped plane and the theatre’s new bars finally enable it to actively engage in the life and energy of its South Bank setting. Also, Lasdun’s extraordinarily dramatic north-east corner, with its great inclined sheath of leaning columns, is fully revealed without obstruction for the first time.

The new Dorfman Theatre features than can be quickly reconfigured as a flat stage or education space.

The new Dorfman Theatre can be quickly reconfigured as a flat stage or education space.

This subtlety and simplicity of this unveiling is typical of the architectural approach employed throughout the building. It is an approach so grounded in Haworth Tompkins’ signature willingness to forensically understand every sinew of their existing context that every intervention appears to grow out of the very DNA of its original host.

Take a new external wall along the expanded foyer. Rather than create a generic, flat expanse, the design mimics the geometric setting out of an original nearby wall to determine the shape of the new one. It is a small gesture and will doubtless go unnoticed by patrons, but it is endemic of an architectural empathy, humility and intuition that has enabled the building, once so defensive and austere, to embrace its public and its river more eagerly than ever before. With the National Theatre’s innate democratising instincts so impeccably reinstalled, one imagines that irascible old Lasdun himself would be proud.


Section (before refurbishment)

Click here or on the image above for a larger version >>


Section (after refurbishment)

Click here or on the image above for a larger version >>


Project Team

Client Royal National Theatre
Architect Haworth Tompkins
Contractor Lend Lease / Rise Contracts
Project manager Buro Four
Structural engineer Flint & Neill
Services engineer Atelier Ten
Landscape Architect Gross.Max



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