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The hard solution

Behind the scenes of the National Theatre’s £50m revamp

Patrick Dillon | May/June 2015

“Idon't understand,” said the elderly man in the raincoat. “I thought there was a master plan for the National Theatre.”

“There is. This is it.”

He looked round at our exhibition in the corner of the foyer: architects’ images in clouds of encouraging text. His face registered disappointment. “I thought you were going to knock it down, like all those other dreadful concrete buildings.”

“No, we’re going to refurbish it.”

“Refurbish it? Why?” He stared across the foyers. Tired purple carpet. Concrete. A lot of concrete. He looked personally affronted, as if the teams who had poured all that concrete 35 years earlier had done it just to ruin his day. “I’d blow it all up tomorrow,” he grunted, “if it was up to me.”

He was not alone, as we saw over a long weekend of public consultation. We were there—two senior NT people, and a team from the architects Haworth Tompkins, led by me—to showcase NT Future, an £80m masterplan (£50m for construction) to re-boot the National’s home. The concrete ziggurat designed by Denys Lasdun had been brooding over the South Bank since 1976. After our appointment as architects in 2008, we met any number of people who thought it an eyesore. “Brutalism,” they’d mutter, and shake their heads as if no more need be said. There had been conversations with fans, too, worried that we might spoil it; but not much middle ground.

A difficult building, in other words. But this had always been a difficult project. Trouble dogged its path since the first scheme for a National Theatre was dreamed up in 1904, a full 60 years before Denys Lasdun was appointed. Back then, theatre people had dreamed of a place where theatre could be done seriously: good plays presented by well-rehearsed actors to audiences who were not clinging perilously to upper balconies, or peering past columns, who were not squeezed into crush bars during intervals, and who could watch Chekhov, Ibsen or Shaw—or the new generation of British writers who would surely be inspired by them—rather than the sensational or sickly fare of the Edwardian West End. Idealism ran high. The National would be a theatre for everyone, not just a moneyed elite. It would feed Britain’s intellectual life. It would give theatre a dignity that lifted it clear of the greasepaint.

A site was bought off Tottenham Court Road, but the Great War broke out before building could start. Next, in South Kensington, piles were sunk for a building by Sir Edwin Lutyens, but then Hitler invaded Poland. That war helped, in a way. It inspired planners to scatter cultural buildings across their maps of future London, and swept in Labour ministers committed to public spending and the arts. Their National Theatre Act should have secured the dream. It didn’t. After the Queen laid the foundation stone next to the Festival Hall in 1951, it turned out to be the wrong design on the wrong site.

Only in 1963 did the National Theatre Company begin performances at the Old Vic, their temporary home near Waterloo station. The same week, they interviewed a constellation of architects for the job of building a permanent theatre. Most of them arrived with teams of consultants. Denys Lasdun walked in alone and talked about the spiritual side of theatre. “Of course,” Laurence Olivier said afterwards, “we all fell like a hod of bricks for that one.”

Denys Lasdun walked in alone and talked about the spiritual side of theatre. “we all fell for that one,” said Olivier

Lasdun was hired without more ado, but the briefing process soon ran into trouble. Everyone wanted to start from first principles, but with both an actor-manager (Olivier) and a visionary director (Peter Brook) on the building committee, it was unclear what those principles were. Brook yearned for an architectural masterstroke that turned rules upside down. Olivier worried whether it was possible to do proper comedy on an open stage, and led parties to the West End to spout Shakespeare while architects with tape measures calculated how far back his magic spread (65 feet, they decided). Lasdun just wanted them to make up their minds. “We cannot get to the poetic till we have bled dry the functional,” he snapped. “We cannot get to the functional till we have an agreed brief!”

All this time, his team was working not on the current location, but at Jubilee Gardens, where the London Eye now stands. And its brief was not just for one building but two—a national theatre alongside a grand new opera house. By the time the arts minister Jennie Lee had axed the opera house and the Greater London Council had shunted the NT downstream of Waterloo bridge, the Sixties were almost over. Building started in November 1969. Expected to take four years, it actually took seven, rocked by the three-day week, the oil crisis, a national building strike and inflation that broke 20%. When the Olivier Theatre, the biggest stage, wasn’t ready for its opening show, the actors ran through “Tamburlaine” on the terraces. The royal gala opening failed to inspire. Within months, the NT was shut down by industrial action.

So the National Theatre’s birth could not have been more painful. Conceived in the hopeful Sixties, it at last threw open its doors onto the truculent Seventies, a few months before the Sex Pistols released “Anarchy in the UK”. Back in 1951, the Festival Hall had been greeted by photos of bunting and kids licking ice cream. The first shots of the NT were of strikers standing round braziers. And if all that was bad enough, worse was to come for Lasdun’s architecture.

Istarted at architecture school four years after the National opened, and we didn’t talk much about Denys Lasdun. When he designed the NT, his style of heroic concrete modernism was at its peak. By the time it opened, it was already passé. At college we talked about Hi-tech and PoMo. The Pompidou Centre, by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, had opened a few months after the NT. It was pop art—brash, shocking and fun. No one saw the NT as fun. Post-modern architects were patting themselves on the back for junking concrete and rediscovering symmetry and history. They might have noticed that Lasdun’s massive concrete structure was full of symmetry and history—in fact, behind its sheer walls and shelving terraces, it was truly classical. But all anyone saw was concrete.

And worse. “A clever way”, said Prince Charles, turning his guns on the NT in 1984, “of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London.” Many agreed. The time of heroic megastructures, of concrete, was past. And so was Lasdun. “You poor man,” Princess Margaret said to him at a party. “What are we going to do about your flagging reputation?”

In the 1990s, the NT made their first attempt at refurbishment. They hired Stanton Williams, a practice of gifted young minimalists who had shown sensitivity around existing buildings. Lasdun, who was still alive, hated everything they suggested. The arguments ended up in the House of Lords. They were bruising, and no one got what they wanted. Twenty years on, Haworth Tompkins found ourselves holding the same chalice, wondering if it was poisoned. With Nicholas Hytner as artistic director, backed up by Nick Starr and Lisa Burger, the NT was on a high. “War Horse” was touring the world, reviews were admiring, and all three auditoriums were packed. “What we want”, Hytner told us, “is to make people love the National Theatre building as much as they love the National Theatre company.” It seemed a tall order.

“What we want”, Hytner told us, “is to make people love the National Theatre building as much as they love the National Theatre company.” It seemed a tall order

There were some signs of hope. During our early briefing, we got the NT technical crew together. When Andy Hayles, the theatre consultant, asked how many of them loved the building, hands shot up all over the room. Things were looking up outside as well. Back in 1981, few would have given much credit to the 1943 scheme for regenerating the South Bank with cultural buildings. The river was still dirty, the bomb sites were still there, and the concert halls and art galleries mouldering in front of them looked like welfare paternalism gone wrong. But by 2008, when we got involved, Coin Street Community Builders had regenerated the Waterloo backstreets, the Thames had been cleaned, filling up with tourist boats, river buses and cormorants, and the Festival Hall had been refurbished with terraces and cafés that packed the South Bank on summer evenings. The river walk had been extended eastwards towards the City. At weekends it was crowded with tourists and walkers seeking out Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe and the Millennium Bridge. About 12m people a year were now visiting the South Bank.

There was something else besides that gave us hope. As we got to know the building, we found it getting under our skin. It had flaws, yes. Why did a terrace carve across one level of the foyer? Why was it impossible to find your way around (particularly when stressed, two minutes before a show)? But the closer we got to the National Theatre, the more certain we became that this was a brilliant building. Every visit revealed new pleasures. The sun pouring through vast windows into a foyer of soaring concrete shafts. The way the interiors, seen at night from Waterloo bridge, glimmered like caverns hollowed out of a sheer rock face. The perfect surface of the concrete, marked with the grain of the rough Douglas-fir boards it had been cast against, and its colour—not the usual grim grey, but a warm grey-green, something like the mudbank the river uncovered at low tide. Then there was the extraordinary care taken over the details: each plank of concrete carefully aligned, each junction a vigorous sculpture of massive forms; the way the axes of the two theatres had been set at an angle to one another, so the fabric of the building was always in tension, ceilings clashing against walls as if in some modern baroque cathedral. And there was the history that Lasdun, classically trained like all architects of his generation, knew how to evoke. The Olivier auditorium like a Greek theatre scooped out of a man-made concrete hillside. The grand stair of its foyer, without classical columns or marble facings, but recalling, as it soared from level to level, the magnificent staircase of the Paris Opera, dressed in the utilitarian clothing of 1970s London. The NT wasn’t a power station. Behind its brutalist exterior was a sensitive and thoughtful composition: radical, cerebral, utterly original.

And the public, it seemed to us, were coming round to it. The NT’s decision to light the flytowers at night had made it a riverside landmark, blocks of magenta and turquoise reflected in the inky Thames alongside street lamps, navigation lights and the City’s towers. In summer, wacky festivals proved that Lasdun’s megastructure was really quite approachable.

Haworth Tompkins had a theatre portfolio that included the Royal Court and the Young Vic. The Everyman Theatre in Liverpool was on the drawing board, and would later win the Stirling, the Booker prize of architecture. The firm had a reputation for listening, working with clients, and treating others—conservationists in particular—with respect. What set the project in motion was an NT wish-list that stretched from digital studios to new education spaces, neither of which had been on the radar in the Sixties, and from improving foyers to relieving pressure on workshops that were now cranking out scenery for more shows each year, plus tours like “War Horse”. There was no stand-out requirement—no fourth auditorium—but over the minutiae of the brief arched two big themes. One was sustainability: the NT was designed at a time when energy was cheap and few had spotted its dangers. The other was to open the place up.

Forty years on: Lasdun’s concrete sculpture from the 1970s reminded Patrick Dillon of the flying buttresses of a gothic cathedral. He and his team added the steps up to the Dorfman foyer, brought back the old lettering, and freed the north-east corner (off to the right) from its bins and skips

In 1976, the company had commissioned an opening poster from the artist Tom Phillips. “The New National Theatre is Yours”, it proclaimed in punkish letters, capturing the NT’s populist, democratic spirit. But the building didn’t always seem to be singing the same song. When newcomers made it to the South Bank, they met brooding concrete terraces and stairs leading to windswept podiums—and many stayed outside. If they did go in, they found expanses of carpet and hushed voices. If they approached from Waterloo, they hit the blank wall of a workshop building that might as well have been making electrical components. Anyone who loved the NT knew what an open and inclusive place it was, but the building wasn’t putting the story across. Nor was it living up to the new promise around it. The South Bank was becoming the cultural heart of London, but the NT’s waste skips still filled the river walk and cooking smells belched from its kitchen extracts. It stayed aloof from the fun like an uncle refusing to dance at a wedding.

Could it be made to dance? One thing gave us confidence. Whatever wrong notes it was striking, we knew what the building had set out to achieve. Lasdun wanted it full of people. He didn’t build the National as a temple to culture, a porticoed monument with columns and a flight of steps. He wanted a place that was open to everyone. Hence the expanses of glass, hence the terraces reaching out towards the river, leaping the gap to Waterloo bridge, blurring the line between theatre and city. He saw the NT not as a building but as “urban landscape”. It wasn’t walled off from the surrounding streets; it was part of them. That was why it had no grand doorway for first-timers to balk at. Anyone who walked London’s pavements might find themselves on the terraces of the National Theatre, and from there, cross the invisible line into its foyers. No one need be put off by marble or gilt. The interiors were as utilitarian as possible, and yet so beautifully made as to render them special. And if Lasdun had left out decoration, he was clear why: “People and events will be the decoration.” To him, there was a fourth auditorium—the foyers and terraces, a place for people of all kinds to mingle and gather for the open, human art of theatre. In a way, the challenge was simple. We just had to unlock that spirit of openness.

That wasn't going to happen overnight. We drew up a conservation plan for the NT, trying to pin down what mattered about it. Where were the opportunities for change? What was sacred? What had been lost and needed to be restored? Only then did we dive into the long process of briefing.

Design a spec office scheme and the client can probably tell you what they want on one sheet of A4. The National wasn’t like that. The blank brick façade of the workshops, we discovered, hid perhaps the biggest factory left in central London, employing a thousand people. Buried inside were departments that made wigs, departments that welded steel, departments that fashioned severed heads for the French revolution. There were rooms full of people working box-office phones, vats of dye for making costumes, sweet-smelling pastry kitchens turning out cakes. It was a massive operation, every department had its own needs, and every space we saw was different. Our guide was Paul Jozefowski, who had started as a lighting assistant 30 years before and risen to become the co-ordinator for NT Future. All doors were open to him. Hilary, the head of scenic art, offered us a ride on the paint frame, a massive contraption of lifts and moving platforms that hoisted artists above the scenery. Two young women in the costume department kept talking as they screen-printed fabric to match an historic print. Only one door was locked.

“The armoury,” Paul explained.

“What does the armoury do?”

“You’ll see.”

Keys ground in locks. The door opened to reveal a man holding a submachinegun. He didn’t look pleased to see us. Behind him, a row of muskets hung on the wall.

“All the weapons,” Paul explained. “And special effects. There’s the cupboard for the explosives.”

Briefing was only part of it. Once designs came together, we had to explain them to outsiders. Led by John Langley, the NT’s director of external relationships, we explained the scheme endlessly to neighbourhood groups and local councillors. There was a fundraising road show, too. Nick Hytner and Nick Starr laid out the vision, Lisa Burger explained the whys and hows, and I brought up the rear to talk architecture. Audiences had some surprising worries. Why were we losing car-parking spaces? On the contrary, why weren’t we closing the whole car park? Would there still be coffee from 9.30am?

The road show peaked with a trip to New York, where “One Man, Two Guvnors” had just opened on Broadway. Its star, James Corden, was roped in to close the pitch to assorted New York millionaires. It was a good gig, I thought, as I sat down. If I’d been a millionaire, I’d have been writing the cheque already. Then Corden picked up the microphone.

“Of course,” he said, “everyone knows this is the ugliest building on the planet.”

One thing we were sure of as we started: the NT needed new space. We could stir departments around all we liked, but something had to pop out somewhere. At the outset we’d asked if anything could move off site. The answer was a straight no. The NT was a company. Benedict Cumberbatch, when he starred in “Frankenstein”, had lunch in the canteen next to the people who made his wig, stitched his costume, painted the set he died on. They needed to be together. That was how the NT worked.

The solution lay to the south of the building, where the pavement widened into a coach drop-off alongside the car-park ramps. Shift the ramps, squeeze the coach bay, and there was room for a new building. And an idea emerged of how the new NT could work. The new building—the Max Rayne Centre, named after the chairman who moved them to the South Bank—would hold a new paint studio. That let us shift Props into the old one, making way for education spaces. It made room to process waste and goods, too, so we could move the service yard off the riverbank. Its basement gave us an engineering department, creating space at the back of the foyer for the bookshop, which would free up the main entrance. What was left could be designers’ studios, tea rooms, offices—all the things the NT didn’t have.

We were sure all along that our new building shouldn’t be simply an extension of the brick-and-concrete architecture. The NT was a closed composition: extension would wreck it. Instead we pictured the Rayne Centre as a ship moored alongside the NT. Tethered to it, but still separate. Respectful, but unmistakably a new, a contemporary object. We gave it a simple shape, like the flytowers that cut hard lines against the riverside sky. Lasdun’s secondary material, used for glazed screens and windows, was aluminium. We used it for our cladding. We weren’t out to compete with his architecture. Ours was new, but needed to live in the force-field of the NT. So our fins were spaced to match his glazing, and our screen sprang from the same height as his workshop plinth. One opportunity, though, we wanted to grab. The original workshop block presented passers-by with a big brick wall (other than four arrow-slit windows—Lasdun’s little joke, bringing light into the armoury). By contrast, we would make the Rayne Centre open, with balconies and big glass screens. Open to let travellers on Waterloo bridge see theatre being made, open so pedes­trians could watch scenery being painted for the next show.

So far so good. But with the Rayne Centre, we were outside the boundaries of Lasdun’s NT, and had the freedom to invent our own architecture. As we moved into the existing building, a different kind of thinking would be called for, as we got to grips with Lasdun’s own material.

Closer: the Max Rayne Centre (left) with the walkway linking it to the Dorfman Theatre, formerly the Cottesloe

The smallest of the three auditoriums, the Cottesloe, was an afterthought in the original design. An experimental theatre had always been planned, and space made for it, but cost overruns intervened. Only after the main building was in place did the NT’s then director, Peter Hall, reinstate it, bringing in a theatre consultant, Iain Mackintosh, to design a neatly proportioned courtyard theatre. It was too late to link the Cottesloe to the main foyers, so it had a foyer of its own, notched into the gap between the workshops and the main building.

The Cottesloe was a success from the start, flexible, compact and characterful. Its foyer worked less well. It had none of the spatial verve of the main foyers, none of their dramatic light and shadow. It was too tall, too long and too crowded, but it had one great advantage: its location alongside the workshops. With the paint studio gone, we could shunt Props southwards and there, right alongside the Cottesloe foyer, were the education rooms the NT had been longing for.

Alice King-Farlow, the director of learning, had inveighed against education spaces buried so far from the action they transmitted none of a theatre’s spirit. These would be right next to the Cottesloe. Better, the life they generated would keep its foyer open all day. Better still, participants could go into the auditorium to learn how sound desks worked or how to focus a light. Just the openness NT Future was after.

Great shows had been put on at the Cottesloe—“The Mysteries”, “Closer”, “Blue Orange”—and no one wanted to lay those ghosts. But it had problems, too. Box-office staff fielded complaints of poor sightlines and agonising seats. The ventilation puffed chilly air down audience necks. Ageing bleachers needed hours of crew time to fold seats away or deploy them in a rake. With Charcoalblue, a leading firm of theatre consultants who work on all our theatre projects, we began cautiously to reshape the Cottesloe, shifting ducts, moving stairs, lining galleries with extra rows of seats. Charcoalblue dreamed up stage lifts that could create different seating rakes at the push of a button, and plywood boxes into which seats could fold down. That was the key. Crew would be able to make a flat floor for a school group in the morning and still form the seating rake for an evening show.

And all this change led us to wonder if the Cottesloe shouldn’t take another big step. “You can paint it any colour you like,” Nick Hytner said, when we suggested softening the sombre colour scheme, “so long as it’s black.” The Cotts was always black. Experimental theatre means black. Black is the nothing background that, in theatre orthodoxy, lets audiences focus on the stage. We challenged it. Black isn’t neutral, it’s the most loaded colour there is—the colour of gloom. And besides, when the lights go down, every colour is black. We weren’t asking for attention-seeking scarlet, just warmth in a room that needed it. Hytner was convinced. So a thread of rust red ran through the cloth of the new seats we designed and flowed onto the slatted walls. No lurid colour, just a background glow that fades when the room darkens and the actors walk on stage.

The ghosts were still there, we hoped, but this was a new theatre, and it would have a new name. Lloyd Dorfman was a long-term supporter whose NT Travelex season had brought cheap seats to thousands. The Clore Duffield Foundation, passionate about cultural education, was on board too. The Dorfman Theatre and Clore Learning Centre were born.

Our biggest challenge still awaited us. What did people make of the NT as they came along the river? What did they see? How did they get in? With some difficulty, was the answer. Denys Lasdun had imagined audiences arriving by car. A road encircled the site, and drivers dropped their passengers under a porte-cochère or coach-gate, before proceeding down ramps into the car park. Stanton Williams had removed the road and glazed in the gate to make a new bookshop. The upside was a public piazza—Theatre Square—linking the building to the river, where the road had once separated them. The problems were an off-set entrance, and rows of bookshelves blocking any connection between the foyers and the Thames. Those 12m people might have been enjoying the river walk, but most weren’t coming into the National.

The audience: the new bar in the main foyers. Open to all, whether or not they have a ticket, and the Wi-Fi is free

We stripped the glazing out and moved the bookshop to the back of the foyers, where it could act as a magnet to anyone entering the NT. Come in, was the signal. You don’t need a ticket. In place of the old shop we built a new entrance pavilion, smaller than the old one. We took its shape from Lasdun’s original entrance lobby, but expanded it to house a box office and some seats where people could meet friends or watch the world go by. That felt more like the entrance Lasdun had intended. Fully glazed, it brought the river and trees right into the building, but sat far enough back under the porte-cochère to renew its original sense of openness. And when people came into the building, they would be entering, as Lasdun wished, on the axis of the Olivier Theatre. We’d taken one step—a big one—to make a confusing building easier to navigate.

That still left the approach from the east, where 12m visitors a year were welcomed by a service yard.

Putting it on the river had made sense in 1976. No one came past. The river walk stopped at the NT’s front door, 50 yards back. What greeted people now, as they strolled along from Tate Modern, were contractors’ vans, skips, bottle stores, and a wall studded with air-conditioning units and extract grilles. In fact, this had been where NT Future started, when Nick Hytner was engulfed in kitchen fumes one morning on his way into the building. The National Theatre was on an artistic high, he thought. The South Bank was turning itself round. Something had to change.

Strip away the vans and the skips and condensers, and the north-east corner of the NT needed little help. Its architecture was stunning. High above, the upper terrace soared out towards the river. Slender concrete struts rose to support it, like flying buttresses around the apse of a gothic cathedral. All we had to do was sweep away the rubbish and let it sing.

And lift the landscape. Oil-stained, cracked and discoloured, its purplish engineering bricks were no setting for architecture of this quality, or for a context as important as the South Bank. We worked with Gross.Max, the Edinburgh firm which had designed the surroundings for the Festival Hall. They detailed shallow steps to soften the approach, and found a Welsh sandstone that brought out the warmth in Lasdun’s concrete and something of the green-brown river flowing past it. He had imagined his urban landscape of terraces as geological strata. Here was a bedrock for them to float over.

A bedrock we planned to fill with people. Waste bins would be swapped for bars and cafés. There would be no Starbucks at the National: it does its own catering, and does it well. But its cafés longed for river frontage, while people eating and drinking coffee could only humanise the building. On the corner, tucked under the soaring struts, we turned a cold store and sprinkler room into a new bar, the Understudy, and next to it we placed the old café from the Lyttelton Theatre foyer. Both inhabited found space and we made the most of it, exposing concrete and warming it with rich fabric and colour. Dignified as they are, the main foyers aren’t for everyone. New, less formal, spaces expanded the range of the building.

To seat café customers, we built a new glass atrium on the river, where once the façade had cut back to leave a shadowy recess used for summer storage. Lasdun had spotted this as a place the building might extend. But here, at the heart of the main composition, we didn’t have the freedom to invent that the Rayne Centre had given us. New architecture might jar. We needed something that would blend seamlessly into the river frontage. The solution came from the original design. Back in the Nineties, the massive glazed screen of the Lyttelton foyer had been removed when the foyer was widened. So strict was the symmetry around the entrance that we found the same design could drop into place to form our atrium. We didn’t need to invent a language that might fight with Lasdun’s concrete. The new space came from the building itself.

In our minds, a hierarchy had emerged. The primary concrete sculpture was sacrosanct. We had activated the river front without touching it. Our work had been manipulating secondary elements like glazing and brick screens. Part of the project would be about restoring the concrete to the highest standards, with help from English Heritage and the Twentieth Century Society, to expunge rust stains, fill cracks and erase the stalactites that evoked housing estates rather than world-class architecture.

But what of the main foyers themselves? They looked immaculate in the early photos. Lasdun had deployed a tight palette of concrete and black floor bricks, purple carpet and stainless steel. Doors and joinery were made of wenge, a dark hardwood, lusciously polished. Banquettes were upholstered in black leather. It had tone and balance. Dark wood and leather undercut the utilitarian concrete and gave it class. We could do a lot, we thought, just by using those materials more freely. So we stripped out the restaurant—lined in plasterboard and blonde wood 15 years ago—exposed the concrete, then undercut it with Lasdun’s own dark wood and leather. The effect was softened still further by luscious hangings from the textile artist Ismini Samanidou, Greek-born and trained at the Royal College of Art in London, who wove plans of the building into her designs, alongside photos, old maps and thumb-prints from workshop craftspeople. We could go back to the original for signage. The Seventies signs were made of stainless-steel letters fixed directly to the concrete. Audiences complained that only the sharp-eyed could read them, so they were stripped out in the Nineties. We restored them, using a darker, more legible tone. We replaced the carpet, too, trying to recreate its old heather tones. We found a match for the dark wood, now a protected species, and cleared away the flight cases and trailing cables, the speakers and laminate ice-cream stalls that had accrued in 20 years of hard use.

The original foyers were elegant, architecturally pure. But perhaps they were short on joy

Still something was missing. The original NT foyers were elegant, architecturally pure. But perhaps they were short on joy. Lasdun hoped people and events would decorate the primary concrete shell, but people and events didn’t seem quite enough. Our chance to experiment came with The Shed.

Early in the project, the NT saw that works to the Cottesloe would close it for a year. They didn’t want to lose a third auditorium or move off site. The answer was The Shed, a temporary 230-seater on Theatre Square by the river, made of steel, plywood and red-stained planks, topped by chimneys that drove its natural ventilation system, and linked to the main foyers by walling in a terrace with polycarbonate sheets. It cost £1.2m. We fitted out the foyer with rugs from the NT’s own furniture store, tables made of plywood offcuts, and hanging fluorescent tubes tinted red with theatrical lighting gel.

It worked. The Shed sucked in companies that had never worked with the NT before, and audiences too young to remember it opening. The first-night party ran on to midnight and, far from looking affronted by Turkish rugs and coloured light, the board-marked concrete provided a benign backdrop, as if a party of nomads had wandered into a cave.

And that was our clue for the main foyers. Not that we’d literally use ply offcuts. Alongside the carefully restored concrete, the carpet tested through dozens of yarn samples, and the dark wood polished to be indistinguishable from Lasdun’s, there might be a more transient layer of occupation. Rugs, upholstery, lights: in 20 years’ time they could be stripped out and no one would know they’d been there. No mark would be left, no damage done. But they would give the foyers of today the warmth audiences craved.

 

Collaborators: the revamp team, including Lisa Burger, the National’s executive director (centre); Paul Jozefowski, NT Future project manager (standing), and the author (maroon top). They are in the new atrium

Photographs from the 1970s show the National without people, a concrete sculpture, aloof. You have to get up early, these days, to find the place deserted. There are always figures hurrying north from the Waterloo hinterland. They pause at the Max Rayne Centre to watch scenic artists grain timber, spray floorcloths, or ride the elevators to paint murals. The theatre magic extends backstage. It animates the whole building, and NT Future set out to share it: through the walkway that lets Dorfman visitors circulate above the workshops; through the tables on the river walk; through bars and cafés that let people permeate the building, as Lasdun intended; through foyers that beckon them in and welcome them.

And we hope the building too is sharing its magic, because the more we’ve worked on Lasdun’s National Theatre, the more we admire it. The NT is a masterpiece. London has many good buildings, but truly great ones, works so original, so profoundly thought-through that they repay endless study, are rare anywhere. Walk past the NT on a summer evening and you’ll see it throbbing with life. “It’s not a…building,” Denys Lasdun said, “it’s a piece of the city.” He died too soon to see his reputation revive, as the extraordinary architect of a concrete masterpiece. Only time will tell how successful NT Future is, but it should help unlock his achievement for a generation that no longer associates concrete with mid-century tower blocks. Because the National Theatre is different. It isn’t just another concrete hulk. It’s part of the city, a humane and thoughtful gift to London. All it needs is people to fill it.

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