Thanks to a Storyhouse fan for sending this in:
A Grand Design
Over the last few years, I have become a fan of Grand Designs. All those seemingly crazy and over-ambitious dreams – and yet they always seem to end up coming to glorious life. So when I spotted on Twitter that the Cheshire Society of Architects was going to rejuvenate its lecture programme with a talk in the Garrett Theatre – and that non-architects were invited – I booked tickets immediately.
Fittingly, given the venue, the first talk was on Storyhouse by Daniel Kew of Bennetts Associates. These are the award-winning architects responsible for the rejuvenated building.
The talk began with a roll call of all the firm’s prestigious projects over the last thirty years: a downtrodden complex in Hampstead, warehouses in Woolwich, gas works near King’s Cross. All were transformed into multifunctioning centres, the spaces between buildings considered just as important as the buildings themselves. He then moved on to theatres: The Old Vic, Shaftesbury and The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford. The outer walls were generally kept, while the insides were hollowed out or extended upwards to give ‘Front of House’ more room. These are cultural buildings designed for lingering. As well as watching a performance, people are encouraged to eat, drink and make new friends.
These ideas have been incorporated into Storyhouse. In the period 2007 to 2012, Chester was perceived to be in decline, but Daniel Kew said it didn’t feel like that. But in the evening things were indeed quiet. People were not being encouraged to stay. One of the council’s solutions was to build on the success of ‘Chester Performs’ and to convert the striking Odeon building into a cultural centre. During the 1930s, Oscar Deutsch had been putting up one Odeon Cinema a month. The Chester Odeon was special. The tower was smaller and the finish more subdued to fit in with its historic neighbours. The Odeon Cinema was much loved. It had Art Deco features. The ceiling had graceful plaster curves leading to the large single screen. But basically it was a ‘brick box’.
As years passed, tastes changed, and the cinema was converted into a modern multiplex of smaller theatres. Luckily, investigation showed that these were just superficial changes: about eighty per cent of the high status original fabric was still in place. It must have been an exciting discovery. It meant that this feature of the theatre could be renewed and used. Hence the sweeping stairways of the foyer, enhanced now by the little whimsical touches like the monkey-shaped lamps emphasising the Art Deco style.
The new extension was designed to be an inversion of the old. Whereas the Odeon brick box now houses an open arrangement of balconies and 100-seat cinema behind a wall of translucent glass; the arrangement is reversed in the extension. The same glass is used again, this time as an external layer enclosing an internal brick box. Inside this is a 800-seat theatre with a 150-seat studio theatre above.
Joining new and old, where the huge old Odeon screen once showed blockbusters, is now another screen serving to promote performances or occasionally used as part of a production itself. Enveloping this is a new set of stairs leading up to the theatre seating and upper library. This, with its large amount of chunky steelwork, was quite an engineering feat to install.
There were other challenges too: how to isolate the theatres so that sound doesn’t travel from one to the other when two performances were happening at once. The answer was to make sure there was an ‘acoustic separator’ or a space between the two theatre boxes, kept in place with steel rods. Then the main theatre had to be adaptable. The 800-seat proscenium stage had to be convertible into a 500-seat thrust stage when required. We were shown how this was accomplished with a time-lapse movie: four days condensed into five minutes as men in hard hats and hi-vis jackets worked like ants shifting chairs and stages. This was to keep the project in budget. Automation is possible, but at huge expense, and could be added later if funds become available.
Outside the Garret Theatre is a bar with views of the city. Then there is the library. The library came late to the scheme but has turned out to be the essential glue that brought all the rest together. It made sense of the idea of the concept of a ‘collaborative space’. There are no signs for the library showing where it is because books are everywhere and it is these that often give people a reason to come inside. They are available seven-day-a-week, from early morning until late at night and can be checked out any time via the automated issuing stations. This is an important feature: there are no issuing desks, no ticket office, no barriers for movement from one place to another. People can flow from book to coffee to theatre to cinema.
The idea has worked. There has been a hundred per cent increase in uptake at the library, 150 community groups make use of the building, and over a million tickets have been sold in the last year – the highest number in any institution in England outside London.
Listening to this talk I felt the same pride I in this place and this city as I did when I attended its first-ever production. Of course there are things that can be improved, there always are, but Storyhouse is something the citizens of Chester have come to cherish.