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Nest of Thesps

RIBA Journal, May 1998

by Andrew Rabeneck

'Cullum & Nightingale's new block for London's Central School of Speech and Drama adds worthily to its "wonderful mess".'

'The Central School of Speech & Drama is a wonderful mess of buildings at Swiss Cottage, north London, huddled around the Embassy Theatre. This is an area where cultural flotsam has washed up on the shores of residential Belsize Park for some time: the Odeon cinema, the Hampstead Theatre and Basil Spence's library and pool building to name a few.

'Architect Cullum & Nightingale has been working on the CSSD site since 1991, when a feasibility study determined that onsite development was the most effective way to meet the school's long-term property needs.

'The practice has managed to finesse a phased plan of considerable intricacy that can be achieved with minimum disruption, and which is sensitive to the drip of the funding tap. By 1994 it had completed a five storey extension to the Embassy Theatre housing production, art and design, and wardrobe facilities, as well as two studio theatres. The building, in a relaxed and faintly Scandinavian style, won well deserved praise ( RIBAJ, July 1994 ).

'That building sat well with its immediate surroundings, and with the buildings it inevitably barged into. At the interfaces with as yet unbuilt phases Cullum & Nightingale has delighted in leaving naked blockwork walls as a promise of future connection.

'The latest completed phase to the east of the Embassy Theatre is the first of the new buildings to have a presence on the street, at the interface between the civic and the residential land uses of Swiss Cottage and Belsize Park. The architect has handled it masterfully with a rather dour three-storey red brick facade set over a Portland stone base, and with a recessed attic floor in white render echoing the dominant material of the earlier phases.

'The planning discussions must have been hellish, but the result carries no whiff of compromise or dither. The simplicity of the facade successfully avoids competing with the adjacent Embassy Theatre or the handsome Tuscan villas on the other side.

'The plan of the building is basically a box to house two floors of staff accommodation over a two-storey library. The lower ground level houses a computer room and a student common room which opens on to the street with an attractive stoop sure to be popular in the summer. If this plan sounds a bit too polite for an imaginative architect, it is not, because the ground floor - the main library space - extends back to fill the 'garden space' with a wild polygonal form housing an excitingly rooflit reading room.

'There is an old style brutalist whiff to the building which is not unpleasant. The insitu concrete frame and soffits are unadorned, the detailing, particularly in the washrooms, reminds one of the Smithsons: product appropriation touched by a slightly manic passion. This is not all about 'honesty', because the details themselves are frequently whimsical in conception and evidently loved to death, at least by the architect. It shares with many architects an inability to see detailing as an integral part of making the building work; for example there are no skirtings because the practice does not like them, despite the fact that everywhere cleaning machine marks remind one of the need for them.

'This could be fixed eventually, and where it matters Cullum & Nightingale gets it right: the external wall is in solid Flemish bond a full brick deep (drylined internally), which gives the facade welcome heft as well as the rhythmic magic of property brickwork: I just wish for a more relaxed and matter of fact approach to internal detailing - it is not necessary to invent everything, including designing most of the light fittings.

'This may seem unfair on an architect which is very good on the larger scale issues of bringing light into the building, of providing spatial legibility and a coherent palette of major elements. Actually, it is not the architect's fault. The impulse to invent detail is fuelled by the pathetically inadequate and complacent building product manufacturing which still prevails in Britain. My advice is to keep it simple and if in doubt do it traditionally - it will probably work, and your clients will thank you.

'Hugh Cullum and Richard Nightingale are good architects, and interesting in that they came out of the Cambridge 'new humanist' school of Colin Wilson, but strongly touched in their final year by the arrival of Dalibor Veseley in 1978. His influence has infused their work with a wit and poetry which gets beyond the solipsism of much of the Cambridge School output, beyond the echoing of Kahn and Aalto.

'What is good about CSSD is that the architect is alert to the need for the buildings to have a life of their own, an intrinsic character. It sees the dangers of the built diagram, and that is a real achievement in such an intricate planning exercise where the temptation is to stop at the diagram.

'The buildings the practice has built so far are full of incident, are tolerant of the odd joke, and feel well inhabited by staff and students. When all phases are finished it will still be a fine old mess of building, but it will definitely have a strong sense of place, and will provide an unforgettable setting for several generations of student thespians.'