The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford was the first major public building in Britain by a woman architect – and, incredibly, it is still the only major public building in Britain designed by a woman architect.

Elisabeth Scott’s brick behemoth was nearly lost entirely a couple of years ago when it was decided to replace the building with a new theatre by Dutch architect Erick van Egeraat. But it never happened. The management changed, the climate changed, the obsession with building anew that accompanied the millennium and the lottery cooled, and Elisabeth Scott’s building looks as if it is going to survive, at least in parts, for a while yet.

The problem has always been that despite Scott’s extraordinary achievement (she won the commission in international competition in 1928 at the age of 29), her building was never much good. Its massing along the banks of the River Avon is fine, its robust brickwork stands somewhere between a Dutch modernist town hall, the back end of an early Odeon and Giles Gilbert Scott’s Bankside Power Station. The architect of the building that now houses Tate Modern belonged to the same design dynasty as Elisabeth and the phenomenally successful conversion of that building shows how robust buildings of this era can be, and how receptive to bashing around.

But while Tate Modern relies on the awesome Turbine Hall as its knock-out lobby, the theatre building suffered from a devastating combination of a poor auditorium and the stingy (by modern standards at least) provision of public space. The latest proposals, submitted recently by architects Bennetts Associates, will retain the best parts of Scott’s design, the basic form and aesthetic of the building. The public spaces – the box office, lobbies and stairs – are dripping with rich and original Art Deco detail, from wonderfully extravagant bird-shaped door handles to subtly staggered green marble blocks building into a complex spiral stair composition around a laughably undersized fountain. The architectural detail is pure Deco bravura of a type rarely found in Britain.

But Bennetts Associates will create an entirely new auditorium and a cleverly rationalised plan that will allow the building to function as a single entity as opposed to the current curious cocktail of spaces and sequences.

That dysfunctional plan is the indirect result of an audacious decision by Scott. The original theatre, a gothic chateau fantasy built by local brewer Charles Edward Flower, opened in 1879 and was burnt out by a fire in 1926. Scott’s theatre simply abutted the ruin: in an almost post-modern move, rather than demolishing or adapting it she left it as a kind of theatrical memento mori.

In 1986 the Swan Theatre opened in the shell of the burnt-out Victorian building. With its timber galleries based on Elizabethan theatre proportions and form, it has become a hugely successful and much loved space, in a way its neighbour never did. But it was not knitted together with the larger complex and this new proposal addresses that problem, making a more coherent and functional whole.

The architects use a number of new devices to tie the disparate parts of the building together. Most visible among these is a tower that begins as a vertical
circulation shaft containing the lifts and ends up as a viewing tower, allowing the visitor to make sense of the site and to see it in relation to the other Shakespeare landmarks scattered throughout heritageville. It also forms a kind of signpost, a device to guide visitors into the rather oddly placed entrance, which is at the end of a park, but not at the end of any kind of route.

Then there is a canopy that creates a new layer atop the building, housing a new restaurant and visitor facilities; this gives the structure a horizontal coherence it conspicuously lacks. The river frontage, potentially the most beautiful part of this superbly sited structure, is to have a new loggia opening up the original heavy brick facades and allowing a more generous terrace.

At the building’s heart, of course, is the auditorium, which is rebuilt as a big thrust stage. At this point, it is hard to imagine how successful this new auditorium might be – although you could guess that, at worst, it would be a great improvement on what there is now. At best, it could be as good as the theatre that was recently built as its test bed, the full-size mock-up contained in the rusted hulk of the Courtyard Theatre, the building that earlier this year replaced the Other Place, a little way down the road from the main building. This building, a rough, rusty and conspicuously cheap theatre, seemingly constructed from scaffolding and construction ply, has proved an immense success and is, in its own way, a beautiful thing.

Designed by architect Ian Ritchie it is deceptively big, seating 1,100, although I would have guessed 700 at most. It achieves an intimacy and intensity that directors usually look for in less self-consciously theatrical found spaces. It is, along with Haworth Tompkin’s recently opened Young Vic, one of the finest theatrical spaces of recent years.

The challenge for Bennetts Associates will be to take a halfway position between Ritchie’s brilliant construction-site intensity and Scott’s grand and fine civic ambition. What this new proposal (which has so far been broadly supported by everyone from the theatrical establishment, from picky locals to English Heritage) has the opportunity to do is to maintain the best bits of an awkward building.

This is a theatre that has never really worked; the world’s premier Shakespeare theatre has operated in the perennially sub-standard shell of a nevertheless historically important structure. This is a superb opportunity to drag the building up to the level of the theatre that emerges from it.

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