David Ward joins the last community forum meeting
There was an end of term feel late in 2006 at the last meeting of the community forum, the body representative of Stratford life that has watched over the plan for a radical new design for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
The orange juice flowed, there was an abundance of biscuits. On another night, the architect’s partial destruction of his tower on the model of the scheme might have been taken as a bad omen. But not tonight: there was a sense that the design, give or take a few fiddly bits, was pretty well right. And a bit of Blu-Tac would soon fix the top of the tower.
"It lifts my heart to see all these developments," said the Rev Martin Gorrick, vicar of Holy Trinity, summing up the mood. "I really love that roof and the view from the front of the theatre looks a whole lot better. There is a sense that we now have something really new while preserving the old. The high windows in the restaurant make a tremendous difference to the whole design."
So what had changed? Why did the model look so different from what had gone before? The first task that had faced Bennetts Associates, the RSC’s chosen architects, had been to work out whether they could fit a new thrust stage and courtyard-style auditorium behind the listed foyer and within the walls of Elisabeth Scott’s 1932 auditorium.
Ingenuity and delicate measuring proved that they could. The solution was to erect a drum within those constraining walls and then poke it unassumingly through the roof. They stripped off the café on the side of the Avon and added a new foyer plus landmark tower on Waterside.
Much relief all round: this was a workable scheme. But, as project architect Simon Erridge, explains in the interview below, all sides began to feel that they could be more adventurous, make more of a statement. "The conclusion of various groups was that we had almost cracked it but not quite," Erridge told the community forum. So Bennetts literally raised the roof.
Erridge and his team added a storey and with it a floating roof that follows the fan-shape of Scott’s original and flows back towards Holy Trinity, wrapping itself around the protruding hexagonal brick drum of the new auditorium. It overhangs the former entrance facing the Bancroft Gardens, creating a double-height café with floor-to-ceiling windows offering fine views of the Avon and the town.
"What we have now is something bolder, something less deferential to the Scott building," said Erridge. "The changes are relatively subtle but they have a significant shape."
The change was clear in the model and most members of the forum had murmured appreciatively even before Erridge rose to explain what eight weeks back at the drawing board had achieved.
By the end of the meeting, the forum’s chairman, Professor Sir Brian Follet, suggested that the group had changed its view of the theatre. "Over the last year, a lot of us have looked at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre differently and seen it as pretty horrible. It is not the beautiful building we thought it was two years ago.
"It has taken a long time to have the courage to change the front but I now think it is looking rather spectacular."
The forum’s members still had a few doubts, some of them about the tower, which has both moved a little further away from the theatre and become more flamboyant. "There had been concerns that the original looked too stocky, too like a factory chimney," said Erridge. "So we have animated the top of the tower to make the experience more dramatic and make it more obviously a viewing space"
It’s thinner, tapers, has a bit a twist and is clad in brick on three sides. There will be two viewing points: an enclosed, weather-proof gallery with stairs leading to an open-air platform.
Some forum members were worried about how the tower might intrude on the view up-river from Holy Trinity. Stratford resident Kevin Gildea was more worried about the riverside frontage of a block housing a staircase at the new stage door round the back of the Swan. The finish, he said, was brick in early designs; now it is to be zinc, the brightness of which in computer realisations prompted some concern.
So did a bare brick façade halfway along the stripped-back river side of the theatre. That square feature seems out of keeping with the rest," said Ronnie Mulryne, representing Stratford’s King Edward VI school. "I wonder whether there remains an opportunity to reflect in that feature the geometry of the rest of the façade, a way of making it less visually obtrusive."
You can see from all this how seriously the forum’s members take their responsibility. As Gildea put it, when asking when detailed drawings would be ready: "I’m a nitpicker. I will go and look, Simon."
Now Erridge and his team have completed their designs and the scheme has been submitted to Stratford District Council for planning permission. Much discussion is anticipated between Bennetts Associates, the RSC and the planners. But the process is under way, with everyone keeping their fingers crossed that councillors will have made up their minds by March 31, the last scheduled performance at the old-style Royal Shakespeare Theatre.