'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and spatially confused, with outdated stage and technical facilities.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
'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
'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
'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
'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.'