David Ward: interview with Simon Erridge
We put a lot of energy into making a scheme that worked, that did what the RSC wanted it to do. The relationship with the existing building was quite deferential - the new work was tucked behind the Elisabeth Scott façade. We were quite reticent and that, I suppose, was driven by the RSC’s desire not to be too confrontational, to try to play the scheme down a bit.
There had been an enormous amount of nitty-gritty involved in working out how to make the building physically work. It took a long time for us to come up with a scheme that the RSC also felt was the right scheme at the right budget. There was a lot of complicated working and reworking of the inside of the building. Having got to that stage, it was then a question of how that looked from the outside. I think we realised, once we had a scheme that worked, that it could do with a bit of extra boldness. There was a suggestion from within the RSC that we should try to be not quite so deferential, that the scheme should not look quite so bricky and like the Scott building. That spurred us on to do something a bit more confident.
We had solved the physical problems and needed to think about an extra level of architectural expression. What we have done is actually a very small move. The roof was already there – it was just tucked down a bit low. It was just a question of lifting it up a storey. That was the thing that could take in all the bits beneath it and collect them together in a way that we hadn’t really picked up before.
It’s not unusual for a project to evolve in that way. We don’t often wake up in the middle of the night with a brilliant idea and sketches on a piece of paper and that’s the finished building. It is a process of evolution and consultation, and good architecture can come out of that process. This demonstrates the reality of the way we design things. It was a small move that made a very big difference to the scheme: the new now dominates the old in a way that it didn’t in the previous version.
The tower that we showed the community forum is pretty well the one that was submitted for planning permission. The evolution of the tower was a very interesting process. At the same time that we developed the roof scheme, we developed the tower from something really staid and rectilinear with a slight taper to something with a much more expressive shape. A lot of that came from working in conjunction with the RSC, with models and with Michael Boyd himself. We brought the model makers from the RSC’s design team into our office to help us make models of some of the shapes we came up with. It was a fascinating process and they brought to it the idea of trying to make the models in colour so that they looked like brick – architects typically like white card models.
The tower went from being very staid to very expressive and then we pulled it back to where it is now. It has probably been through 15 or 20 different versions. It is mainly to say to people that this is a building worth visiting. Now that the viewing platform is at the top, you will be able to see from the town people standing at the top of the tower. We hope people will say: "I want to be up there, I want to see the view." It will be the only place in Stratford from which you can see where all the important places are.
The RSC is very keen to attract people into the building during the day. They want an opportunity to draw people to the top of the tower and then have them filtering back into the building, go to the café and end up at the box office where they might consider buying tickets for a show. It’s about attracting new people to the building, making the institution feel less impenetrable than it does at the moment.
The tower is also an expression of the outward change to the building. We have often done consultation before but quite on the scale it has been done at the RSC. It has been new to us to have a community forum that was so well constructed and representative, rather than just a public meeting to which we were invited. There have been some difficult questions but there has also been an understanding of the process we have been through. It has helped people to take them through the process from the first competition ideas we had 18 months ago to the scheme now. We have shown them every couple of months how the scheme has been evolving.
I think everyone will now know why we have made the decisions we have. Even if they don’t agree with them, they can understand the process, which, in designing a building like this, is essentially a compromise between many factors. This is the highest-profile scheme Bennetts have worked on. Many people know the theatre and have opinions about it and what should be done. It’s also a very prominent building in Stratford; it is nationally and internationally well known. I recently gave a talk in Valetta in Malta and the first question from the audience was: "What are you doing about car parking?" People everywhere know about the issues in Stratford.
We have only one chance to get the building right so there is a lot of pressure. We have tried to make sure no one has any surprises about what is going in for planning permission. Now we are going to find out what the planners and councillors really think about it.