An exuberant young theatre

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The contemporary passion for found space in the theatre makes the theatre architect’s job extremely risky. How do you design a space as good as the best space you can find that hasn’t been overdesigned?

A solution has been found at London’s Young Vic. The answer, it turns out, is to get a rough-as-hell theatre, falling apart at the seams, a temporary structure of breezeblocks and rusty steel held together with gaffer tape. But make sure it’s also one of the most loved and intense spaces in the hugely overcrowded theatre world of London. Then give the makeover to Haworth Tompkins, perhaps the only architects around capable of doing the necessary work and intervening in the right places without ruining the spirit of the place, without stripping it of its passion, its past, of the sweat embedded in its walls.

The Young Vic was designed by Howell, Killick and Partridge in 1970 to last for six years. It was deliberately rough and ready, a reaction to the tarty gilt of the West End and the grandeur of the National, then under construction. But it has lasted a lot longer and this extremely good value £12.5m revivification will ensure that it lasts a lot longer still.

The architects took the hard decision to leave that successful auditorium alone, just raising the roof a little (which in fact manages to pull the audience in closer to the stage) and tinkering with the seating. It is as good as it ever was. And then some. They took the arguably even harder decision to retain the mish-mash of buildings on the site, that gap-toothed smile of a frontage, including the entrance through the remains of a tiled butcher’s shop, surely one of the most memorable experiences in British
theatre.

The architects have appropriated the original industrial aesthetic and it infects every part of the structure. This works so wonderfully here because we all have a secret fascination for the back-of-house functionality of the theatre building; we know that the velvet and
gilt is all for show and
that the real work goes on in the backrooms of block and plywood, in brutally functional corridors and sweaty dressing rooms.
So here, rather than limit-
ing this pure theatrical
experience to the backstage areas, the architects allow
it to flow through every space.

The new workshops and rehearsal spaces interconnect to make a fascinating, complex tectonic, with each providing glimpses of the next, or another further along. From every point there is an awareness of the everyday work of the theatre and of the public, open nature: the bar, the lobby, the street are all let in. Every detail – from the scaffolding brackets and roughly polished steel used for the handrails to the chunky rubber grips used on the door handles – has been considered as a functional object, as something that needs to pay its way: there is nothing extraneous here.

Outside, in the grimy, variegated south London streetscape, the theatre has been given a striking presence, illuminated by Clem Cros-by’s work. Commissioned with the help of Vivien Lovell’s public art consultancy Modus Operandi, the work is a series of 180 panels painted individually in the artist’s studio and then reassembled in no particular order across the wall.

The artist’s broad, rough brush strokes spread a glowing cadmium yellow across the walls and manifest themselves either subtly or boldly behind a screen of expanded metal, depending on the light conditions. When I lingered over it in a gloriously grey and Londonish twilight the yellow appeared like gold leaf liberally and incongruously applied to an industrial façade. A little earlier, in the stronger light, the emphasis had been more on the detail of the brush-strokes (Crosby described them to me, perfectly, as “buttery”) and the contrast in the application from panel to panel, the splashes and drips visible and deliciously enjoyable.

Only very rarely does this scale of collaboration between architect and artist really work. Too often it is merely an architect’s lip- service to the idea of public art, a corner over which control is grudgingly relinquished. This is the real thing: building as canvas, as billboard, public art as it should be, generous, huge, vibrant and daring.

This city, which prides itself so much on the quality and intelligence of its theatre, has been poorly served by new buildings. Many have been corporate, predictable and dull. The danger in rebuilding the Young Vic was that we would lose a powerful, characterful house in favour of another anonymous structure, an unnecessary addition to an overcrowded scene. Instead the scraggy streetscape of this fascinating and fast-
changing piece of London has gained an intelligent, functional and enjoyable new building that effortlessly melts into its surroundings but also sparkles with buzz and the promise of that golden glow.

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