The new-look National Theatre: would Lasdun approve?

Gail Taylor
Tuesday 28 Apr 2015

As the curtain rises on the newly revamped National Theatre, WAN takes an exclusive behind the scenes tour…

Haworth Tompkins, who won the WAN Performing Spaces Award last year with their Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, have carried out a tender £80 million transformation of Denys Lasdun’s brutally beautiful National Theatre on London’s South Bank. 

The London-based architects have had to negotiate a delicate path between retaining the integrity of Sir Denys Lasdun’s original (and controversial) 1960s vision in high-grade concrete, and the need to bring the theatre complex into its vastly different 21st century context. So, have they been successful?

Last week, WAN’s Editor, Michael Hammond went walkabout around the reconfigured National Theatre (NT) with Haworth Tompkin’s Paddy Dillon, lead architect on the complex project. Dillon – who has lived and breathed the project for the past six years - shares some fascinating insights, all of which can be heard on an exclusive Shop Talk podcast. But first, here’s the backdrop to the story. 

The refurbishment project, known as ‘NT Future’, has been a long time in the realisation. Haworth Tompkins was appointed back in 2007 to write a detailed Conservation Management Plan (CMP) for the building, in collaboration with the London Borough of Lambeth, English Heritage and the Twentieth Century Society. This approach fostered a profound understanding and appreciation of Lasdun’s architecture and principles, which then formed the basis for the NT Future proposals. 

Dillon tells us that the CMP “was a huge luxury because it meant that we could engage with the building and understand it, without having to design anything, which is a luxury architects very rarely have”.

He goes on to explain why they made it a rule to leave the concrete just as it was: “Part of the result of having such a long time to understand and explore the building was that it enabled us to get under the skin of the principles and hierarchies with which Lasdun composed it; and the concrete sculpture of the building was really the primary form for him, and we haven’t touched that.”

Dillon’s sincere passion for the building is very evident. Standing in the foyer of the NT’s Lyttleton Theatre, he describes the space and its outlook across the river to Somerset House as “one of the most exciting in modern architecture … one of the most magical experiences”.

The concept of openness, the outside coming in and vice versa, was fundamental to Lasdun’s designs. It has also driven changes made by Hawarth Tompkins in the configuration of the NT’s spaces in order to open up new vistas through the building and invite people in. 

One prime example is the complete transformation of what was once a ‘bomb site’ of a service yard filled with skips and bins on the north-east corner of the building. In the podcast, Dillon describes its stellar transformation into public use with the creation of a popular new bar with riverside aspect called ‘The Understudy’, a relocated café named simply ‘Kitchen’, and a new external entrance to ‘House’, the NT’s refurbished restaurant.  

Other major changes include one of the scheme’s cornerstones: the newly created Max Rayne Centre to the south of the NT, which is now home to a state-of-the-art scenery painting workshop (which passers-by can see into through a large, glazed screen at one end), production offices, a studio for designers, as well as a number of departments which have been relocated to enable change elsewhere in the building. 

Clad in aluminium fins and crumpled steel mesh, the Max Rayne Centre is designed to complement rather than replicate the NT’s masonry language, harmonising with Lasdun’s austere orthogonal forms.

Created in collaboration with theatre consultants, Charcoalblue, with whom Haworth Tompkins has worked on other successful theatre projects in the past, another major transformation is that of the former Cottesloe Theatre, now known as the Dorfman Theatre. 

While it retains the same spirit of intimacy, the seating (notoriously uncomfortable in the past), capacity (now 134 more seats) and stage equipment have been greatly enhanced. Even the rake of the seating can be controlled, and sightlines have been painstakingly thought through.

The Dorfman Theatre’s new Clore Learning Centre is now available for educational purposes, such as scenery and props making workshops for children. The original building had no such educational facility because, as Dillon says, in the 70s cultural buildings just didn’t.

The foyer has been reconfigured for all-day opening, allowing the public free access to the new Sherling High Level Walkway, which looks down into the backstage workshop area. From this vantage point, Dillon tells us that people can enjoy “the magic of the workshops” adding that “to watch the skill with which scenery and props are prepared is one of the best shows in London”.

This blurring of front of house and backstage is another way in which the new designs have enabled the NT to evolve in response to changing tastes and desires. Says Dillon: “In the old days it would have seemed wrong to let people see – like a conjuror giving away his tricks”. Not so now, with people hungry to immerse themselves in the whole experience that is theatre.

In its early years, the NT prompted widespread criticism. In 1988 Prince Charles famously described the building as “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting”. 

Dillon puts forward the view that while the building was designed during the 1960s, it did not reach completion and open until 1976, by which time any appetite for ‘heroic concrete modernism’ had largely gone. 

He explains that the South Bank as we know it today simply did not exist at that time. The NT stood isolated in its own car park, which surrounded it like a moat, because the automatic assumption was that people would drive to performances. 

The service yard was located to the east of the building because there was no public approach there. Lasdun deliberately restricted access to the building via the north-west near Waterloo Bridge, which acted like an umbilical cord over to the West End. Today, this whole part of London has been regenerated out of all recognition, and millions flock to the South Bank every year to enjoy what is now the spectacular River Walk and its attractions.

In the 1990s there was a previous attempt to update the NT, but the plans went down like a lead balloon with Lasdun, who was then still alive. Dillon offers a defence for his fellow architects, explaining: “I think the stars were set against the project; the timing was very unlucky. It was before the River Walk had really taken off and so nobody realised quite how important that engagement was going to be. 

“There was no possibility of making additional space, which we’ve been able to do with the new building to the south. At the same time, Denys Lasdun took vehemently against the project. He felt it was destroying some really fundamental things about the National Theatre, and I think in the resulting arguments and compromises, the project just didn’t land happily for anybody.”

Which leads us to the $64 question: what would Lasdun make of Howarth Tompkins’ designs if he were still with us now? Dillon concludes: “What we’ve tried to do is really work with his principles – with the building, not against it. So, everything that Lasdun wrote about openness, about people, about trying to draw people into the building, about its permeability – I think all of that we’ve responded to. 

“So whether he would like the details of the project or not, it’s not for me to say, but I really hope we’ve worked with the principles that he respected and based his own work on.” 

To hear WAN’s exclusive interview with Paddy Dillon in full, listen to our Shop Talk podcast.

NT Future: the facts…

Project start date: October 2007

Overall cost:£80 million

Construction cost:£50 million

Gross internal area:16,309 sq m

Dorfman Theatre:464 seats (previously 330)

The 2015 WAN Performing Spaces and Concrete Awards are open for entries.  

To read more about some of the world’s finest live performance spaces, the book by WAN Editor-in-Chief, Michael Hammond, is available here

Gail Taylor

Features editor

Key Facts:

United Kingdom

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