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No Darlings Here

RIBA Journal, July 1994

by John Welsh; Naomi Stungo

'Can rational, modern architecture hope to deal with the colour and welcome disorder of a theatre school? John Welsh reports on the first new building in a masterplan that promises to bring order to a chaotic campus of one of London's theatre schools .'

'There is something absurd about the Embassy extension for London's Central School of Speech and Drama (CSSD). False eyelashes fall out of half-open drawers. Mesdames Pompadours bump into you in the corridors. Notice-boards are covered with weird phrases such as 'Broken heart'. 'Into the woods' or 'Blithe spirit' that appear to be the graffiti of schizophrenics. The words are, in fact, the titles of plays.

'And yet Cullum & Nightingale has created a building among all this surrealism, a contrast if ever there was one. For surely, architecture is the most rational of activities in which the pursuit of order comes into direct conflict with the uncertainties and untidiness of humanity? Or, perhaps, good architecture is a balance between the two, providing a backbone against which the activities of life can be played. Cullum & Nightingale would seem suitable for this compromise.

'Colin Davies describes its architecture as 'modern, but not quite modernist; it is complex and allusive but too restrained to be described as post-modernist; it expresses the structure and construction clearly and unambiguously, but it certainly isn't hi-tec [sic]. It has classical poise and proportion but does not use any of the conventions of classical ornament; it makes use of natural materials and traditional forms but it isn't romantic or folksy.' 1

'The result of such cultural heterogeneity has been a varied workload, not just of building type but also in the quality of the architecture. Some of the buildings have directly influenced parts of the Embassy extension while other seem scarcely related. The Nightingale house in Hampstead (1988), is rendered like the Embassy extension. The architects resolve problems of daylight by using windows that are levered out like a door left ajar. Another project, a house extension in London's Bayswater (1990) relates to the Embassy extension for the interior where the space is a double-height volume.

'Both buildings are responses to awkward sites and briefs, but other examples are somewhat more extravagant. The practice's competition-winning High Commission in Nairobi (1989) relies on a historicist (even beaux arts ) approach in its planning and articulation of elevations.

'The Embassy extension is closer in thinking and appearance to the robustness of the first two buildings rather than the squishiness of the last one. It could not possibly be some grand object within a perfect landscape, repeating, for example, the theoretical approach of Nairobi. Cullum & Nightingale was forced to be far more pragmatic. The CSSD campus is scattered across an awkward arrowhead-shaped site between the rich, white villas of Belsize Park and the noisy vulgarities that are the Finchley Road and Swiss Cottage.

'The CSSD reflects this diaspora with a double-fronted Victorian building, the Embassy theatre, closest to the villas while the campus disintegrates into the Finchley Road with a muddle of Portacabin-like shacks. Cullum & Nightingale's role is to bring sense to this disorder ( see below ) with a masterplan that sorts out the existing buildings. A series of new buildings reintroduces urban qualities to the nearby roads while unifying the campus.

'The Embassy extension is the first in that series. At a glance it presents a strange starting point, for it sits in the middle of the site, the Embassy theatre on one side and the huts all around. The building footprint reflects the restrictions of the site. More interestingly, the shape and façades of the building accommodate future buildings proposed in the masterplan. The Embassy extension, therefore, is something like three-dimensional architectural archaeology whereby each wall of any building tells a story of the past and future.

'The new building is almost rhomboid in shape, only one side at present a party wall. The other 'party wall' is coarse breeze blocks, left exposed until a later phase is built. The rear is clad in bricks, intended as just one side of a future courtyard. The front is the most complete, rendered white like the Nightingale house. More significant is the reappearance of a levered façade: each floor of the four-storey building has some sort of balcony or terrace, each of which is differently oriented and variously shaped to exploit maximum enjoyment of the outdoors. The roof caps the lot, its bottom edge set at a severe angle running away from the façade until the building's elevation is an expression of a series of divergent planes.

'Such mechanisms make for powerful statements. But the devices also enrich the interior which is a sensible arrangement of new facilities. There is nothing of the indulgence common to some of Cullum & Nightingale's work, (the exception being the temporary classroom (1991) for North Westminster Community College. Notice the similarity to the fourth-floor design studio). Floors are of simple screed, block walls are left exposed veined with cabling, and blank doors are of wood veneer. But, gosh, it works. Students, dressed in their Roman togas, dash on to balconies to stretch their tendons. Set designers drag their models on to terraces to spray-mount miniature Figaros.

'The rationalisation of space is just the background to the far richer scenery of dirt, dust and muddle. Architecture works best on that level where it provides the proscenium arch through which the performance of life can be observed.' John Welsh.

The Embassy extension is only the start: The greater scheme of things is a five-phase masterplan for the Central School of Speech and Drama, London

'Market thinking has well and truly hit further education. The Higher Education Funding Council for England now demands that all further education bodies produce ' accommodation strategies' - mission statements for the coming 20 years - on which all their funding is judged. This chill, new climate as aroused ire in many quarters. But the Central School of Speech and Drama seems to have benefited from it, seizing the opportunity to come up with a major development programme.

'Cullum & Nightingale's Embassy theatre extension is the second phase of a five-phase masterplan devised by the architects. Eventually, the whole of the school's triangular site will be redeveloped. The temporary buildings that litter the site will be replaced by new, purpose-designed studios, student facilities, a speech therapy unit and leisure and retail outlets. Only the school's main building and Embassy theatre will be retained.

'The masterplan is a pragmatic solution, carefully balanced between the school's aspiration for growth and the realities of funding. Each phase of the plan can be developed separately if and when the funding comes on line.

'The evidence is that it is working. Funding for phase 1 of the plan - a studio workshop for the theatre design course was granted, as was £1 million for phase 2(a), support facilities built on to the back of the studio workshop with a drama studio above. A further £1 million was granted for phase 2(b). This phase - the Embassy extension, which has just been completed - adds a further two floors of studios, lecture rooms and tutorial spaces to the back of the studio workshop and finishes off the roof of the drama studio.

'Phase 3 of the masterplan starts relating the school to neighbouring buildings. A three-storey building on Eton Avenue will relate the school to the more domestic-scale architecture of the houses around. This building will house a library, media resource base, student facilities and administration offices. Planning permission has just been granted for this phase.

'Finally, phases 4 and 5 of the plan will sort out the confusion of make-shift accommodation on the College Crescent side of the site - the site's most important aspect. On the corner of College Crescent and Eton Avenue, a major new building, housing a public cafe with a cabaret venue above will also help to build up the strength of the corner. On College Crescent itself, a six-storey block with shops on the ground floor and student facilities above will give the college a prominent frontage in line with the scale of other buildings on the road. On the corner with Buckland Crescent, a new speech therapy unit will help define the corner.

'Such a maior development on the southern fringes of Hampstead has naturally annoyed local residents who have complained that the plan is too dense for the site. The site is a strategic one, linking the leafy residential neighbourhood around Eton Avenue with the far busier, noisier Finchley Road. But by building up the site's College Crescent frontage and reducing the height of the development on the Eton Avenue side, Cullum and Nightingale's plan in fact helps to make this transition more comfortable.' Naomi Stungo

1 Colin Davies, 'New Architects', Building, 11 October, 1991.