Issue 01 | Architecture

A Fitting Encore

The Royal Opera House’s surefooted overhaul aims to attract new audiences

In 1996, the BBC aired The House – a fly-on-the-wall documentary series that liftedthe curtain on what went on backstage at one of the country’s most venerable institutions, London’s Royal Opera House. It was a seminal moment in television, setting the scene for a new genre of what we now know as reality TV.

Although it made compelling viewing, it proved somewhat of a public relations disaster for the institution, offering up a cast of warring characters that would have any right-minded TV producer rubbing their hands with glee. Elitist and incompetent seemed to be the general takeaways. The same year architect Jeremy Dixon embarked on a lottery-funded overhaul of the building in partnership with BDP to the tune of £140m, which compounded PR woes. Costs overran, performances were cancelled, and the time-frame was impossibly protracted. It completed in 1999; Dixon had originally won the gig in 1983.

But when the dust settled, even the most sceptical was forced to admit that Dixon had all but succeeded in democratising a famously hierarchical space. No longer were people in the upper cheap seats expected to scuttle in via tradesman’s entrance on a side street while the upper echelons swept in to the Floral Hall (now the Paul Hamlyn Hall) on Bow Street. And yet more could be done. At least, that is what the Royal Opera House believed when it engaged London practice Stanton Williams to tie-up the loose ends in a follow-up scheme it christened Open Up. As the name suggests, its aim was to create a welcoming place to visit and attract new, younger, audiences.

Below ground rests the Linbury Theatre – now afforded an improved foyer, which will double as a performance space. Formerly a classic “black box” the theatre is now a horseshoe of sturdy American walnut with purple-clad retractable seats and a state-of-the-art acoustics system. Flexibility is the watchword, so the seats can be adjusted to suit a variety of stage settings. Some might feel the Linbury has sacrificed some of its edgy charm amid the polished execution, but it is no longer playing a faint second fiddle to its bigger brother.

The one element where the architects loosened the reins is the illuminated central staircase, which, while not quite attaining Busby Berkeley levels of flair, does offer a dash of drama. It leads to the amphitheatre and a terrace on the top floor, which are served by a new restaurant, and overlook Covent Garden.

What was required was a dismantling of various architectural roadblocks to improve people flow and facilities, all without interrupting the 960-odd performances that continued even as jackhammers hit concrete

What was required was a dismantling of various architectural roadblocks to improve people flow and facilities, all without interrupting the 960-odd performances that continued even as jackhammers hit concrete. “It was like one of those puzzles. Once you removed a piece, you could see how the others could be shuffled around,” says Stanton Williams’ Alan Stanton.

Chief offender was a gargantuan load-bearing stair that ran parallel to the Covent Garden entrance. By removing it, the architects established a visual connection to the street via a new glazed pavilion entrance, which doubles as a drinks terrace for Paul Hamlyn Hall above.

The great missed trick of Dixon’s scheme was that it allowed the venue to lay dormant during the day, at least as far as the public was concerned. Given the footfall in Covent Garden, it seemed obvious to expand the foyer to include a cafe to attract a younger, daytime audience. Finished in solid, quiet materials – stone, timber – but with digital projections displayed on the walls, the new spaces are a curious mix. Reassuring to the old guard, but with just enough modernity in the rapid-fire loops of whirling performers to (perhaps) convince a new audience to return come nightfall. Penetrating further into the space leads to the other entrance from the Covent Garden piazza – remodelled with curved glass frontage and featuring a retail unit. In a sign of the times, the old box office stalls are gone, to be replaced by tablet-carrying greeters.

As always with great reconfiguring projects like this, the changes are subtle but their effect on the visitor experience is felt exponentially. Indeed, it is tempting to characterise Stanton Williams’ work as the mother of all snagging jobs given the sweeping changes Dixon had pushed through, but that would sell far too short the intelligence of the enhancement. Not to mention the diligence and commitment of the practice. “We’ve lived it for three years. It has been a labour of love,” says Alan Williams quietly, before adding: “Working with theatre people is always fun.”