Stanton Williams’ dextrous project to open up the Royal Opera House extends a warm welcome to new audiences, finds Alistair Fair


“Only connect”, urged EM Forster in ‘Howard’s End’, a maxim which could well be applied to Stanton Williams’ £50m reworking of the Royal Opera House (ROH), at Covent Garden in London. Working almost entirely within the envelope of the opera house’s late-1990s reconfiguration by Dixon Jones with BDP, Stanton Williams has improved the entrances, significantly upgraded the foyers, and transformed the building’s smaller auditorium, the Linbury Theatre.


A new glazed entrance has been added to the Floral Hall’s Bow Street elevation

As far as front-of-house areas are concerned, the aim is to open up the building to its surroundings, bringing something of the vibrancy of this part of central London into the building all day long. In Britain, the tendency to treat theatre foyers as something more than spaces to be used immediately before and after performances is largely a post-war phenomenon. At the end of the 1950s, Coventry’s newly-built Belgrade Theatre opened its foyers all day, offering coffee and meals, and other theatres followed suit. Much was made of the idea that theatres could be significant community buildings, in which people would want to meet friends and perhaps enjoy exhibitions or foyer concerts.

At the same time, the trend was a pragmatic one. The years after 1945 saw the growth of subsidy for the performing arts, but subsidy only ever formed part of a theatre’s income. Catering could generate useful revenue. The advent of free wi-fi and flexible working has accelerated the trend in recent years, with the likes of the National Theatre being busy from the moment they open in the morning until the end of the last performance at night.

Stanton Williams’ first move has been to open up access into the ROH. The building’s original front faces Bow Street, where it is dominated by EM Barry’s raised portico of 1858 and by the Floral Hall, originally part of the Covent Garden markets but reconstructed as part of the ROH in the 1990s. Below the Floral Hall, Stanton Williams has replaced the previous set-back poster cases with an elegant, projecting glazed entrance pavilion. It also brings the life of the foyers closer to the street through the provision of views as well as by means of a new roof terrace. Meanwhile the Covent Garden entrance, tucked into the corner of the piazza colonnade, has been given new prominence. A large revolving doorway and bespoke digital projections seek to make this way into the building feel less like a forgotten back door.


The Linbury Theatre auditorium has been completely renewed


Linbury Theatre model (ph: Jack Hobhouse)

Between the two entrances, the main foyer has been significantly reconfigured. This part of the project was not straightforward, either architecturally or practically. There are changes in level; complex structural gymnastics were required in places; space had to be found for bars, a cafe, and an increased numbers of toilets; and the ROH wanted to stay open while building work took place.

The reworked Covent Garden entrance opens onto the ROH shop (designed by Drinkall Dean). From here the foyer route comprises a sequence of spaces, each with its own character: there are moments of spatial compression and release, while tempting views aid legibility and draw visitors through the building. Changes in lighting are used to give different areas their own character, while materials have been selected for their visual richness. Walls are clad in timber, occasionally interrupted by textured plaster, while floors are finished in cream-coloured Spanish marble.


The new Paul Hamlyn Hall staircase rises from the foyer to the existing Paul Hamlyn Hall


The foyer has been reconfigured and renovated

There is a particularly delightful moment in the new pavilion adjacent to the Bow Street facade, where a double-height space offers views into the lower foyer adjacent to the Linbury Theatre. A generous stair leads through this space: one can readily imagine informal performances taking place on it, with audiences watching from both levels of the foyer, and passers-by on the street perhaps being tempted to come in. The lower foyer, meanwhile, doubles as a ‘learning’ space, putting this activity at the heart of the building.

At the top of the ROH, meanwhile, the restaurant – now open to all, not just ticket-holders – has been refurbished. The external eaves-level loggia facing Covent Garden is now partially glazed to create an all-weather space while retaining glimpses into certain ‘backstage’ departments as well as panoramic views over central London.

In the Linbury Theatre, the once vertiginous rake of retractable seating and ‘black box’ aesthetic have been replaced by something more sophisticated, devised with theatre consultant Charcoalblue. Four hundred seats are now arranged in a compact, galleried ‘courtyard’ layout which offers flexibility at stalls level, including the possibility to choose a steep rake (for ballet) or a shallower pitch (for opera). The galleries are horseshoe-shaped, serving to enliven the side walls of the auditorium: ‘only connect’, once again.

Linbury Theatre balcony fronts

The galleries’ curved walnut fronts introduce a sinuous note into proceedings. Bravely, perhaps, given the potential for clattering footsteps, timber has been used for the floor material, too. It is as if the auditorium structure is a large piece of wooden furniture, snugly slotted into the space. At the same time, the technical nature of theatre production is not denied: for example, on entering the auditorium, your first view is of a lighting gallery.

Theatre architecture can be a minefield. There are many views on what works best in terms of auditorium and stage design, while the language of contemporary architecture can sometimes result in buildings which feel sterile. Here, however, aided by an admittedly very generous budget, Stanton Williams has succeeded in creating spaces with character and a hint of the luxury one might expect of the Royal Opera House. And yet, the results are not overbearing. They offer a rich framework, ready to be animated by visitors, audiences and performers.

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