January 2014: In this month’s issue of Architects Choice Tim joined the Questiontime panel to reveal his insights. Here’s his response.

“The design of theatre space is one of the most fascinating and challenging tasks for the architect and can take many forms, ranging from large fixed auditoria to small flexible studio spaces, from the mainstream to the experimental. All of these must answer one over-riding question. How to create a space that brings together the audience and the performer in an environment, which enhances the unique communal experience of a live performance? In an increasingly digital age it is the quality of this experience that will secure the future of live theatre.

Design of these spaces involves a complex mix of design disciplines, which must be integrated into a coherent architectural solution. These include acoustics, theatre technology, stage lighting, projection, ventilation, sightlines and safety. In addition, the performance environment must be capable of responding to the ever-changing ideas of the artists who drive the creative process – the directors, scenic, sound and lighting designers and the performers themselves. A theatre space must enable their work, not constrain it, and must be inspirational for artist and audience alike. Performance is ephemeral and constantly changing, while architecture is permanent and the two do not always co-exist easily. This is the conundrum.

There are of course many types of performance space, all of which have their special characteristics and needs. There are large auditoria for opera, dance and musical theatre, smaller theatres for drama and studios for rehearsal and performance. The range of users is equally varied, including large producing companies, smaller professional companies, educational establishments and communities. In many cases the auditorium must be able to accommodate a range of art forms in a single space, such as music, dance, drama and other multi-disciplinary forms, each of which has special needs in terms of acoustics, sightlines, technical requirements and atmosphere. The design of these ‘adaptable’ spaces has been the subject of intense debate in the theatre design community for many years and while there are some tried and tested solutions which permit a degree of flexibility, too much flexibility runs the risk of creating a space which is a ‘jack of all trades and master of none’. My own firm conviction is that a successful performance space should retain a strong architectural identity, which eschews the anonymity of the ubiquitous ‘black box.’

A theatre building, of course, is much more than just its performance space. It is a public building at the front, administering to the needs of its audience, and a semi-industrial building at the back, incorporating scenic delivery and technical workshops, rehearsal rooms, dressing rooms and administrative offices. The scale will vary but the essential ingredients remain the same.

The front of house spaces and facilities are also an essential part of the audience’s enjoyment of their ‘night-out’ and an increasingly important source of income in times of declining subsidy. The box office, café, bars and toilets need to compete with other commercial leisure offers in terms of the quality of design and customer care they provide. They must be accessible and inviting and encourage new audiences to come in.”

To read the full article and responses from other contributors see the January issue of Architects Choice www.architectnews.co.uk

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