Moving Forward: Knocking Through History

The time has almost come for us to start working on one of the biggest projects we’ve ever tackled.

It’s fair to say that we’ve spent weeks in the planning  process for what is going to be a revolutionary  update of a truly historical building.

The theatre that we’ve been working on has been closed and empty for the last three years, as such there are a few practical issues that it’s vital that we attend to before we take our refurbishment and renewal plans to the next stage.

When you leave a historic building, such as this one, to it’s own devices for as long as it has been, then you are always going to come across the same kinds of faults and problems. Due to the archaic way in which the building was first constructed, we’ve had to ensure that a complete structural assessment is taken before any real design work can take place.

For these kinds of tests we always try and hire surveyors from outside of the company. We have a number of completely certified surveyors within our ranks, however we always like to bring in niche historical surveying experts to consult, as it is very much the small details that can prove to make the deciding impact when it comes to preparing a final report.

Of course, these things never come cheap.

Indeed, this is part of the reason why so many refurbishments and restorations flounder in the early stages  of development. In order to balance concrete scanning costs, independent arts companies often have to lean on public funding, if they don’t receive the results that they are expecting, then the results will invariably be bankruptcy or dissolvement.

We try and offer clients, like our current theatre owners, the option of a free, no-obligation survey in order to offset any initial doubts that they might have about their property, this is also a great opportunity for us to get a peek inside the building at what’s in store for us.

There’s always a sense of apprehension amongst the owners when this survey take place: either way that the results go, there are usually thousands of pounds riding on them. If the building’s safe to modify and refurbish, then the owners will have to start to consider how best to proceed, whether they want to continue to work with us or maybe put the design out to tender.

If, however, our external surveyors can not give us the go ahead then the building’s future will be put on a completely different path.

There can be many reasons why our structural surveyors will give us a  negative answer. With many of these old buildings, the sheer age of the materials involved could be compromised by time, moisture and wear.

Oak beams can warp over time. Concrete columns, only a couple of decades old, can succumb to damp. Even, sturdy looking stages can prove to have rotten over the course of ten years ago.

Put simply, it always pays to hire an expert to take a long hard look at your theatre, before you decide to go ahead with any more work, whether that’s intellectutal or structural.

New Job: Old Theatre to New Cultural Centre

With work coming to a head with the cinema, the team are already looking forward to their next job…

…and it looks like we’ll be heading back into the world of the theatre.

It’s always exciting heading into a theatre restoration.

These buildings are often more dilapidated than the usual cinema we renovate, which leads to us having to make much more interesting decisions, especially when it come to structural adaptation and use of space.

The cultural landscape of British theatres has changed immeasurably in the last few decades. There was a time when theatres were strictly places were one would come to watch a show. Matinees performances, evening performances and rehearsals: these were the only uses of a traditional theatre.

Today, because of limitations on funding as well as the waning interest that the paying public has for small scale theatrical productions, modern theatres are having to prove that their spaces can be used for much more than just putting on a show.

Ticket sales can no longer be the only source of revenue for a theatre.

These historical institutions that we work on have done well to survive for so long, especially considering the sheer amount of competition that they have to deal with on a daily basis. In their heyday, there were very few competitors in the world of entertainment. Unless there was a circus in town, you could pretty much guarantee a sold-out crowd every night.

Today though, things are a little different. Consider the other entertainment options that the 21st century punter has at their disposal: Television is still popular but now there’s also video steaming sites such as Netflix which have essentially empowered the viewer as a curator of their own TV channel. Add to this the relatively recent developments of social media and video games – it’s a wonder that there are any theatres still open today!

Luckily, there are some things that a well-run theatre can offer which simply can’t be rivalled by another form of home entertainment.

A modern theatre has to be many things today. It needs to be a hub for community theatre productions, a rehearsal space for upcoming artists and even a venue for alternative one-off performances, such as touring musicians or comedians. A potential cafe or bar also provides an informal environment to relax in which can also be the home of art exhibitions  or children’s cultural activities, it’s also a space that can be hired and adapted for events, so that each and every space of the building can be profitable.

Whilst some have bemoaned this cultural shift from a simple building with a sole-purpose to a more amorphous community focused institution – we see it as a challenge.

Although  we are most certainly still in the development phase of our project, some great ideas have already been thrown about as to how we’re going to transform this Goliath of an old school theatre into a modern, profitable theatre.

We’ll be working hard in the upcoming weeks to find a way of adapting and rebuilding this existing space to fit the modern sensibilities of a 21st century theatre.

Watch this space for more updates!

Two Theatres We Lost In The Blitz

Two Theatrical Establishments That Were Never Recovered

Our work in the Theatre and Cinema industries often finds us travelling to London, a veritable graveyard of forgotten theatres and cinemas.

Although it’s often tempting to cite the changing habits of the paying public as the reason for the decline and eventual closure of such storied entertainment establishments as the Crouch End Hippodrome (now a Virgin Health Club) and the East Ham Palace Theatre (demolished in 1958) – it would be remiss of us to forget the massive amount of destruction that the targeted bombing campaign known as The Blitz, wreaked on the city.

Over 32,000 civilian lives were claimed during the 8-month bombing campaign that saw nearly as many bombs dropped across a number of major industrial cities. However, the targets of the bombs were not strictly kept to industrial locations. In the face of a resilient enemy, Adolf Hitler made a concerted effort to also attack the places where Brits would be relaxing – hoping to create terror amongst a population that were still set on enjoying themselves during the most deadly world conflict in history.

These three theatres did not survive The Blitz, but their legacies and stories still live on today:

The Holborn Empire

Like many of London’s Theatres, The Holborn Empire was inaugurated on the site of a former Music Hall. Once known as the Royal Holborn Theatre of Varieties, the Empire was reopened in late January 1906, after costing its owners £30,000 in renovations. This was no small expense for the time and, upon it’s opening, journalists praised the lavish design and materials used in it’s construction.

On the nights of the 14th and 15th October, London very nearly lost two icons. Bombs fell over the Holborn area, including a time-delayed bomb that lodged itself in the roof of the building. Many ‘duds’ were dropped at the time and there was a discussion as to whether or not to continue performances. In the end, stage icon Vera Lynn moved her show to the Palladium – whilst the Holborn Empire was obliterated in a second wave.

 

Queen’s Hall

Perhaps better remembered than the Holborn Empire, the Queen’s Hall, with it’s 2500 capacity was the capital’s principal venue. The building was opened in 1893 and hosted The Proms from 1895 right up to it’s untimely destruction in 1941. Although criticised for it’s uninspired design and uncomfortable seating arrangement, the Hall was famed for it’s excellent acoustics.

Thanks to The Proms bringing classical music to thousands of Londonders for a nearly 50-year tenure, the loss of the Hall during the Blitz was mourned greatly. For decades after committees lobbied for the rebuilding of the Hall, but the decision was made that the construction of a new hall would inevitably take away too much custom from competing halls that had taken up the slack. Today, The Proms are held in The Royal Albert Hall.

Despite the loss of these establishments, it’s safe to say that their spirit lives on in the dozens of other theatres that litter the West End and further reaches of London. 

Case Study: The Granada Cinema, Woolwich

From Cinema to Bingo Hall to Cathedral

In our first case study, we’re going to look at the history of a building once described as ‘The Most Romantic Theatre Ever Built’.

In the late 30s, the world of live entertainment was undergoing a transition. Up until this point, the British paying public had been getting by on a mixed diet of bawdy show tunes in packed out Music Halls and more serious theatrical performances in traditional theatre spaces. However, with landmark films such as Chinatown Nights and Hitchcock’s Blackmail, the era of the ‘talkies’ had well and truly come – bringing with it the adoration of thousands around the country, as well as the demand for grander cinemas to project what was fast becoming the most popular form of entertainment media in the country.

Woolwich’s Granada Cinema is a quintessential example of early Art Deco design. Unrestricted by the budgetary restraints that would hold back future architects in the wake of the Second World War; the Granada might appear somewhat civic at first glance, but one step inside is enough to prove otherwise.

Everything about the Granada Cinema was designed to glorify the performances of the time. The developers wanted visitors to associate visiting the Granada with a religious experience, as such they hired Theodore Komisarjevsky to design the grand Gothic interiors.

Komisarjevsky initially made his fame in his home country of Russia as a famous director of musical directors. Despite the popularity of his productions, Theodore was soon to flee Moscow as the secret police of the Soviet Regime were unhappy with the level of fame that he was achieving.

After a brief stop in Paris, he headed to London where he directed Prince Igor at Covent Garden.

This debut on the London theatrical scene was met with rapturous acclaim.

Londoner’s found his attention to detail and authenticity in replicating Russian life to be second to none and soon the young director (just 26 at the time) found his talents in much demand.

Theodore was a versatile artistic mind. His experiences as a young man in pre-Soviet Russia, a country that was under the thrall of the Russian Orthodox Church up until his departure from the country, left a lasting impact on the work that he created in his long and varied life.

Construction on ‘the most romantic theatre ever built’ began in 1936 and the building was open officially in 1937. With a capacity of 2,434, it was the largest of it’s kind by a long shot and it’s extravagant architecture, that included a ‘Hall of Mirrors’ and a gallery of Renaissance style paintings, made it stand out as one of the most elaborately decorated theatres in the country.

In response to criticism over the building’s likeness to a cathedral, Komisarjevsky wrote this:

‘If there are a few grumblers who think that a “church style” doesn’t suit a theatre, I’d like to point out to them that not only during the Gothic period in Europe, but before it in the East and after it in the Renaissance and Baroque times on the continent, the architectural decorations of churches did not differ greatly from those of places of amusement.’

The Granada’s tenure as London’s grandest theatre space was not to last indefinitely, though. Despite drawing in a sold-out crowd for music concerts, including the infamous Beatles/Orbison Tour of 1963, business dropped off during the 60s, with the hall being primarily used for Bingo up until the 2011 when it was bought by Christ Faith Tabernacle Churches.

The Pentecostal Church spent thousands renovating the lavish interiors, replicating the original lighting and commissioning carpets from the company that had designed the originals in 1937. Although you can no longer describe the Granada as a theatre, it has retained it’s grand theatrical look and you can argue that it still fulfils it’s original purpose as seen by it’s designer:

‘…to attract people, to offer them not only rows of pews in which to say their prayers but romantic relaxation and artistic pleasure amid surroundings of hope, colourful beauty and harmony.’