Do the English people want a National Theatre? Of course they do not. They never want anything. They have got the British Museum, the National Gallery and Westminster Abbey, but they never wanted them. But once these things stood as mysterious phenomena ...they were quite proud of them, and felt that the place would be incomplete without them.1
The massive new National Theatre ....seems like the last glory of a troubled Britain, the final stronghold of her once imperial spirit ..... For Peter Hall this moment of crisis in British history is exactly the moment when Britain more than ever needs to call upon its cultural resources, and above all upon its theatre...2
As a south London teenager escaping suburban torpitude for city adventures, the National Theatre was a pleasurably alien destination. Its architecture eschewed London's familiar neoclassical public building tropes to be modern and abstract. I would arrive by train on the south bank to walk across the Thames or remain in the ribbon of cultural development which included the Royal Festival Hall along the river, south of Waterloo.The area was challengingly dysfunctional on foot, fragmented by the road infrastructure and the city's embanking. Reaching it from the station involved an urban chicanerie of level changes or unpleasant underpasses. The South Bank arts centre's dual podium levels magnified its dystopic qualities. At its east end, beyond the bridge, where the pedestrianised embankment ended, the National Theatre celebrated its wonderful site at a bend in the river with its scenographic composition of external terraces and dramaticised 45º geometry. But the British sensibility struggled to understand its stratified concrete form and so rarely experienced its interior generosity. The theatre has now emerged as a success after a difficult history of lengthy gestation and divided opinions. It has settled into London's psyche as one of its monumental public buildings. Central London has been dramatically altered in the past twenty years by transformations of public urban space with its increasing occupation by leisured pedestrians. Apart from sequences of very successful productions and a broadened programme, what has changed the National Theatre's fortunes is the radical transformation of the south bank river edge into the Queen's Walk, a public promenade extending east to Tower Bridge. This has enlivened its frontage, attracting many visitors to its immediate surroundings.
The development of the National Theatre had been a great British struggle. The idea had taken a hundred years to realise3. The design, starting as a project for a National Theatre and Opera House, went through so many iterations that Denys Lasdun had a room half full of models in his office. Nevertheless, his concept for its vast open stage Olivier auditorium, generated from his passion for the ancient greek theatre at Epidaurus, and a generous enveloping public space remained constant. To the public onlooker, viewing the building's slow development, its construction, which coincided with a world energy crisis triggered by the oil crisis of 1973 and industrial decline, seemed neverending. Unfortunately by then, ideological vision for the arts had became at odds with industrial change and economic growth. Some of the skilled work of casting the National's fine board marked concrete took place during the 'three day week4, in the first two months of 1974 when construction output which had already declined, was further challenged by a government regime of systematically enforced power cuts. By its completion in 19775, the National was the last British project at that time where architecture was an expression of universal access to the arts. Completed in the same year as the Centre Pompidou in Paris which had taken only seven years from conception, the two buildings were very differently received. Whereas the former, representing a new era had become instantly popular, the National Theatre's overdue completion coincided with UK criticisms of cultural elitism. In 1976, populist UK newspapers had suddenly rounded on conceptual art, attacking the Tate Gallery's purchase of Carl André's Equivalent VIII. In such a climate, the NT seemed uncompromising. The public could not understand how concrete, irrespective of its sophisticated casting and fine workmanship could be appropriate for a national cultural institution.
Assessing it now, I realise that it engendered mixed personal reactions. The view of the National walking from the north bank was of its heroic towers and long floating planes, in which one was immediately engaged in the approach from Waterloo bridge, stepping into a terraced landscape. Its architectural and social affects were indivisible. Whilst its predecessors were mainly auditoria with modest entrance foyers, the National was conceived with a flowing foyer wrapped around its theatres. The experience of this tall, endless space, was compelling, like a small city or a large theatre set with multiple stairs and levels. But its main ground floor entrance on the riverside, was less inviting, designed for its theatre goers' arrival by car, with a continuous road around the building, separating it from the river, and side ramps to the basement carpark. Apart from the entrance, most of the other three sides were publicly inaccessible and inscrutable, and Lasdun rebuffed contemporary criticism that the building had made a backside towards the south.6
Emerging from WWII land erasure, and its subsequent zoning for cultural use, the National Theatre's large site was detached from the dense urban morphology of the north bank. The theatre complex equated to an urban block as an isolated composition, oriented with its public side and main entrance towards its river frontage. The National is the only London theatre with on site set building workshops. These, and other back of house functions were located to the south, bounding Upper Ground and the east side as a service access, effectively stopping the building's public front. In the 1960s, motor vehicle predominance led to the South Bank segregation of the pedestrian. Alterations to the National in 1997, designed by Stanton Williams, replaced the continuous vehicle access around the theatre with a road on either side, instated a Theatre Square for external riverside performances, and added a box to the entrance with a bookshop and box office.
Ten years later, the National Theatre commissioned alterations to coincide with its fortieth anniversary, to support its artistic and commercial popularity, and address the original shortcomings of its small studio theatre and back of house functions. Following their meticulous Conservation Development Plan7, Haworth Tompkins' recently completed major renewal, has transformed the National's back and front of house configurations. The intricate architectural reworking has benefitted from the developable ground area to the building's south, and Denys Lasdun's original architectural form. The project's main components are the reworking of the entrance and foyer spaces, the reorganisation of the workshops with a new studio, and the insertion of a publicly accessible viewing walkway, and the transformation of the Dorfman studio theatre (previously the Cottlesloe). The Dorfman's foyer, bar and entrance have been reformed, with an adjacent learnin centre. Haworth Tompkins' south side addition of a new production building (the Max Rayne Centre) lead to the re-ordering of the existing workshop facilities, which in turn meant they could release space for public use on the theatre's north east frontage, to respond to the riverside changes.
The changes have addressed several of the building's functional and social issues. Although Denys Lasdun's foyer flowed, the building's main entrance under a porte-cochère formed from the overhanging building, was pinched between the Olivier's lift towers, cramping the point of arrival. Haworth Tompkins have added a steel framed, glazed lobby as a breathing space. While respecting the entrance symmetry on the dominant 45º orientation, it relaxes the effect of its concomitant structure of slim deep concrete columns on the central axis. Most London theatres were nineteenth century buildings with formal street facades. Their plush red and gold foyers 'crushed' their audiences en route to their proscenium auditoria, via grand staircases and claustrophobic bars. In the National foyer's reworking Haworth Tompkins have moved the bar pushed against the back of the Lyttelton auditorium, which constricted its entrances, to where the old café had been congesting the north west corner. The new Lyttelton bar forms its own space within the lobby, like an open plan sitting room, with its counter capturing the prow behind it as the implied chimney to its hearth. On the previously lost north east corner, where riverview spaces were perversely hidden, they have replaced theatre stores and deliveries with a new café and an autonomous corner bar facing the River Walk. As part of the café, they have enlarged the foyer envelope, wrapping an Olivier staircase with a tall glazed atrium, creating a tall salon within the foyer, from which to view the real city. All of these new parts extend the building's permeable public perimeter, opening it to the external surroundings and humanising its base. Whilst the new glazed main entrance porch with box office, reinforces Lasdun's geometry, the extruded glass envelopes to the new bar and the reworked Dorfman theatre's foyer frontage, mediate the canted concrete struts on the building's north corner and east side. The staggered variable width configuration of their slender glazing system, reflecting Lasdun's original, makes the ground floor feel more accessible, without competing with the original forms and the building's predominant diagrid soffits. The new café and bar are finished to recall the robustness of the stores they have replaced.
Despite criticism of its harsh exterior, like a fur lined raincoat, the National Theatre interior always conveyed a feeling of sumptuous domesticity. Its luxurious deep pile heather coloured carpet had the effect of dampening foyer noise, restoring a quality of London's older theatres without decorative pomposity, and making it feel like a grand house interior. Haworth Tompkins' work to the main foyer re-states Lasdun's particular sensibility which juxtaposed crafted linings with finely wrought external materials, a characteristic of grand house interiors, such as Edwin Lutyens' Castle Drogo where oak meets granite. The carpet has been renewed, and subtle alterations have been made to the original lighting. Their respectful preservation of the existing joinery, led to Haworth Tomkins' insertion of new furniture made from stained laminated softwood as a sustainable reproduction of tropical hardwood.
On the east side, the front of house areas to the Dorfman theatre have been reconfigured into a larger bar with ticket counter, serving respond to a wider visitor base. The internal staircase has been relocated, as has the bar which like the Lyttelton was parked against the back of the auditorium, creating major bottlenecks. The first floor bar area connects with the dramatic internal insertion of a corridor walkway to the new production building, from which the public can view set building, and back of house complexities. Outside to the east, subtle external terracing has remade the old service road to connect the Dorfman to the River Walk. To the south, Haworth Tompkins' new building's aluminium ribbed steel mesh cladding avoids conflicting with Lasdun's original brick workshop buildings. In the change of the South Bank from a ribbon of buildings to an arts region, Upper Ground has remained as a back street of more generic modern development. Whilst its form has remained impassive, the National Theatre has adapted most effectively to the urban changes along the river, celebrating London's new age of the pedestrian and the rise of the river's south bank, because Lasdun's flowing design with its generous public interior unwittingly presaged what would happen to the city8.
1 George Bernard Shaw 1938 reproduced in 'The Complete Guide to Britain's National Theatre',1977
2 Jack Kroll, Newsweek 22 March 1976 reproduced as above
3 Effinham Wilson proposed a national theatre in 1848, Harley Granville Barker published The Exemplary Theatre, 1914
4 The three day week ran between 1 January and 7 March 1974 as an energy conservation measure by the Conservative government reacting to coal miners' industrial action
5 The final design was in 1967, construction started in 1969, the shell was completed in 1973.
6 Adverse reactions to the theatre were exacerbated by Charles, Prince of Wales, who in 'A Vision of Britain' on BBC TV 28.10.88, described it as 'a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting'
7 Haworth Tompkins Conservation Management Plan for the National Theatre, 2008
8 Seeing the need for alterations, Denys Lasdun wrote a set of guidelines 'A Strategy for the Future' in 1989, reproduced in Haworth Tomkins' Conservation Management Plan Ibid. Lasdun, recognising the changes to the south bank and issues with the building, proposed how the National Theatre could be adapted 'without harming its architectural integrity.', including changing the road around the building, making better Olivier and Lyttelton foyer links and addressing the problematic Olivier acoustics. The guidelines were carefully considered by Haworth Tomkins in their design.