Watching it come down
- 10 October 2007
Our construction superintendent Jim Gillespie invited us to site last Thursday to witness the start of really significant demolition work on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The façade of the theatre facing the town was to be demolished, providing large scale access to the heart of the building where the new auditorium will be inserted. The façade – a utilitarian red brick and steel-framed windows structure which used to be nick-named the 'jam factory' when the theatre was new – will eventually be replaced by a new colonnade which will provide a link between the new RST and the Swan Theatre. This addition turns the building architecture around so that it no longer turns its back on the town.
We turned up early with the expectation of a pre-demolition breakfast in the brand new canteen that has been set up for the construction workforce. Jim had other ideas. He took me round to the riverfront to see the demolition work that has been taking place out of the public gaze adjacent to the River Avon. On that side of the theatre, behind a blue-green dust screen and with river traffic kept at bay by a protecting array of pontoons and buoys floating in the river, our demolition contractor is dismantling rather than demolishing the 1937 café extension to Elisabeth Scott's original 1932 theatre, revealing what is left of the decorative brick façade that was only visible for a few years. Our project will restore the original, regaining the generous waterfront terrace that has been progressively blocked by a series of ad hoc additions over the years. The dismantling work is painstaking and executed largely by hand: a surprisingly substantial part of Scott’s detailed brickwork remains.
Soon it was time to return to the town side of the building where demolition work was to begin on the much more utilitarian town façade. Any notion that demolition was a violent act had been dispelled by meeting the crew working on the river side and I looked at the jam factory façade with new eyes. Two sections of the wall had already been carefully demolished by hand, isolating the piece that was to come down from the old Balcony Stair and Stage Wing that form bookends to it. This allowed a more mechanised approach to the demolition of the centre. A giant orange machine was used with deliberate care, nibbling and nudging the top section of the parapet and then working down through the wall a bay at a time. Jim told us that the machine's operator had spent time inside the theatre so that he understood exactly what the structure he was removing consisted of. We watched fascinated for an hour as the work progressed, only stopping when the lure of breakfast proved too strong. By afternoon the wall had gone, revealing another layer that will in turn be carefully removed.