Maich Swift Architects’ Antepavilion is a venue for performance but the structure is the star, finds Clementine Blakemore
The Potemkin Theatre – the third iteration of the annual ‘Antepavilion’ commission – sits perched on the edge of a canalside warehouse in East London. Described by the architect Maich Swift as ‘two-faced’, the partially clad structure presents an abstract composition of painted canvas panels on one side, and the exposed laminated veneer lumber (LVL) timber frame on the other. This duplicity is reflected in the project’s title, which refers to the fake villages supposedly constructed by Grigory Potemkin to impress Empress Catherine II during her tour of Crimea in the eighteenth century.
Open galleries overlook the rooftop.
In this case however, there’s no clear front and back. Visitors to the pavilion’s rooftop location encounter a three-story structure with exposed stairs and balconies, ripe for performance; the elevation is animated by both the expressed structural form, and the occupation of the spaces within.
The opposite canal-facing facades also have a performative quality, with apertures that frame glimpses of bodies as they move through the building. In a playful nod to the apartment building featured in Jacques Tati’s 1958 film ‘Mon Oncle’, a pair of feet appear and disappear on one level, only for a head to pop up a moment later on the next level up. Leading to a red beacon at the top of the building, the upward route creates intentional moments of encounter, negotiation and observation.
The ‘stage set’ north elevation is visible to audiences on an adjacent canal bridge. The building’s “two-sided aspect lends itself to engagement from both the canal side and the rooftop”, says the architect. “Theatrical productions, opera, small music concerts and film screenings will all form part of a cultural programme”.
In this way, the structure functions both as a stage set to be viewed in the round (from the rooftop and more informally from the surrounding streets and towpath), and as an auditorium from which to view. Rather than create a conventional performance space, the project seems to celebrate the theatrical potential of the urban environment. As in Diller, Scofidio & Renfro’s Highline, where cut-outs frame scenes of the Manhattan streets below, the city becomes the act.
Funded by property developer Shiva in collaboration with the Architecture Foundation and awarded through a design competition, the commission is described as being “as free as possible of the oppressive web of aesthetic, regulatory and commercial constraints that govern most urban construction projects”, and is built on a temporary basis without planning permission. While the architects responded to this year’s open call for a ‘beacon’ by creating their own brief for a theatre, and worked hard to create an Arts Council-funded programme of cultural events over the summer, such as performances by Shadwell Opera, the project is still in the realm of a folly – with a slightly ambiguous function and uncertain future.
LVL was used for wall panels, “primarily for its strength-to-weight ratio and dimensional stability”, says Maich Swift. The plywood stair balustrade and floor panels provide additional stiffening. The front of the structure is dressed with a canvas lining fixed to plywood panels before the application of linseed oil paint.
Nevertheless, the commission creates a welcome public platform for emerging designers. The project also seems to have offered a valuable opportunity for Maich Swift to test design motifs such as the lantern, which appears in its as yet unbuilt proposal for a Garden Room (2018). The expression of the timber frame and the tiered, cantilevered form of the structure echo the Hadspen Belevedere (2011) that the architects built while students at London Met, under the tutelage of David Grandorge. This type of construction experience is likely to have informed the structure’s lean design and efficient platform-frame assembly process – a key consideration for the competition panel given the limited funds, and a fast turn-around period. Selected from 188 entries, the winning design was resolved in a matter of weeks with the support of engineer AKT II and built over 25 days by a team of volunteers.
The concept is well resolved in the completed form, and the design demonstrates a confident handling of the simple material palette. There are a number of thoughtful details, such as the way the rough-cut edges of the stapled canvas have been left exposed, a ‘back of house’ moment that reinforces the project’s reference to the theatre flats of traditional stage sets. The structure meets the ground well, where it is bolted to the roof of the building below, and a new steel balustrade around the edge of the rooftop echoes the diagonal members of the timber frame. The curved seating in front of the structure feels perhaps less cohesive, but when lit up in the evening, occupied by visitors or hosting a performance, the focus is rightly on the structure itself.
Maich Swift Architects
Paul Maich, Ted Swift, Hallam Tucker
Roland Smith, Becky Brown, Dan Ball, Peter Wiedmann
Laminated veneer lumber
Linseed oil paint