The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

National Theatre © C20 Society

New Life for the National

I’m sure most C20 members don’t need convincing of the merits of the Royal National Theatre, perhaps the best-known ‘Brutalist’ building in London and worthy recipient of a II* listing only eighteen years after it was completed. But Sir Denys Lasdun’s magnum opus continues to fascinate and frustrate the public and is the only building to appear simultaneously on lists of London’s ten most loved and most hated buildings. After three years’ worth of planning and consultations including C20, English Heritage and the London Borough of Lambeth, the NT has unveiled plans for a £70 million transformation. Designed by Haworth Tompkins architects, the scheme’s objectives are to open up the building beyond audiences to the rest of the  South Bank—including education spaces and behind-the-scenes access—and to  update the energy-greedy building to modern environmental standards. It sounds drastic, but C20 are supporting most aspects.

The theatre’s rough-cast concrete finishes look as fresh today as when they were cast (amazingly each sawn plank of wood was only used twice—once on each side). But the building, which has always been complicated to navigate, is now in need of changes to meet the radically different nature of the South Bank. Back in 1976, the embankment as we know it didn’t exist, and a tarmac road wrapped around the building for taxis and chauffeured cars to drop theatre-goers off at the elegant porte-cochère protruding at the north. Perhaps it’s a shame that this glamorous ritual no longer takes place, but on the other hand the new, busy, open nature of the area, aided by the Hungerford bridges and Royal Festival Hall alterations, makes the National more accessible than ever before.

The alterations will include removing the 1990s book shop by Stanton Williams to free the porte-cochère from clutter. Landscaping the embankment in dark brick will lift the lighter-coloured concrete levels, reinforcing the horizontality of the ‘strata’ much as Lasdun had intended. The outside of the theatre will also have some changes, most noticeably a new ‘cathedral’ window modelled on Lasdun’s pattern that will face the South Bank, and increased public use of the terraces, enhanced by planting and gardens. Substantial changes, but it is worth noting that Lasdun was always determined that the theatre should grow into its surroundings and that the concrete should be allowed to weather and stain like London’s stones ’so that in the end lichen grows on it and it becomes part of the riverscape. It will weather and become as though it’s an extension of the riverbanks’ (1976). Years later, he revisited the site and envisaged a planting scheme to ‘soften’ the terraces.

The new proposals also seek to simplify circulation in the theatre, and sweep away years of accumulated clutter, lighting, signage and sound systems. In their place, projection equipment will be used to display directions and advertise shows as they change throughout the day. The Society is particularly excited about how projection will bring out the concrete finishes. Further good news is that some original Serifa-style signage is due to be reinstated, and delicate metal letters will once again hover over interior concrete finishes. Using new technology to create a simpler scheme will give power back to the architecture. When the building was completed Lasdun said to Peter Hall:  ‘I don’t want anything to come between people experiencing the theatre and  your drama. It must be space, walls, light. And the ornaments of the building are people moving around—they are a moving ornament in a big bare space that is beautifully lit and carpeted.’

To the north east of the exterior, the theatre’s colossal diagonal struts facing the river have spent recent years hidden behind a service yard, further blighting the confusing route to the Cottlesloe Theatre. The new scheme will see the corner regenerated into a busy café space, drawing some of the 12 million people  who use the embankment closer, and inviting many in. The new ‘Discovery’ spaces nest south of the Cottesloe, occupying former workshop areas, and include a high-level walkway over the theatre’s numerous in-house carpentry, metal and prop workshops.

Finally, the changes in use and increased space needed by the theatre will require a new extension to the rear, which will house improved set and prop-making workshops. Set on Upper Ground away from the historic public views of the South Bank, Lasdun’s expanses of cool grey brick and arrow-slit windows set above concrete plinths are fortress-like in character, their simplicity making a potential addition all the more conspicuous. However, the changed nature of the street—now a busy thoroughfare and set to get even busier with the impending Doon Street development—means that the theatre needs to engage the public on all fronts. Haworth Tompkins’ solution is a modest rectangular box, determined by Lasdun’s grid, which will feature large areas of fenestration allowing passing pedestrians to peek in at prop-makers and painters at work. Where some contemporary architects would want to make a more obviously self-conscious mark, the firm has chosen to re-interpret Lasdun’s metal windows, turning them into fins that echo the detailing of fenestration patterns around the building. The result is that no new materials or shapes invade the original precious and complex relationship of metal, concrete and brick, and yet the extension successfully holds its own on  the street rather than mimicking the ‘mother ship’ of the theatre.

Over the long consultation period the C20 Society and other parties raised objections to several ideas that have since been discarded, and we remain wary about the cumulative effect of so many alterations on all sides of the II* building. But at the end of the process the result is much more than a compromise, and it promises to give new life to the most important original characteristics of the building, fulfilling both Lasdun’s and the present theatre’s ambitions for how people use and interact with the building and river.  Not known for sympathising with post- war architecture, Sir John Betjeman wrote to Lasdun in the midst of the public debate on the completed building in 1976. He described how he ‘gasped with delight at the cube of your theatre in the pale blue sky and a glimpse of St. Paul’s to the south of it. It is a lovely work and so good from so many angles… it has that inevitable and finished look that great work does.’ In time, and with some help, we can but hope that others will warm to the timeless, almost classical, language of the architecture, which will allow the National to hold court on the South Bank for generations to come. For myself, I’ll always be hoping  that they’ll let that lichen grow.

Joanna Moore