Age cannot wither her

Architect Andrzej Blonski has spent over 10 years restoring a Grade I-listed 18th century theatre to make it 21st century fit. It’s been a labour of love – and painstaking detail

The restored Old Vic auditorium showing the unique stage boxes, formerly part of the auditorium, now restored to their rightful position as part of the stage.
The restored Old Vic auditorium showing the unique stage boxes, formerly part of the auditorium, now restored to their rightful position as part of the stage.

Perhaps it was the vagaries of 18th century taste and cultural whimsy that meant Bristol’s theatres, set within one of the country’s most affluent trading cities, would lose out in the popularity stakes to the neighbouring city of Bath’s Theatre Royal. But it’s a sweet revenge in the best traditions of restoration drama that as a result, Bristol’s Old Vic remains not just the oldest continually functioning playhouse in the UK, but virtually untouched internally since it was founded in 1766 – a unique example of an 18th century ‘horseshoe-shaped’ theatre.

But it was a different story for the front of house areas. The most radical work was in 1972 when architect Peter Moro created a new subterranean studio auditorium, admin and backstage areas; and incorporated the ground level of the 18th century classical Coopers Hall, adjacent to the theatre’s original understated townhouse front, as the theatre’s new entrance. Detailing Moro’s grand Cooper’s Hall staircase at the time was a young Andrzej Blonski who, when funding was raised in 2001 to refurbish the ailing theatre, was commissioned to make the 18th century auditorium fit for 21st century audiences – and to propose a whole new spatial strategy for the theatre, dramatically supplanting the work of his former mentor. Late last year, the beautifully restored grade I-listed auditorium opened to a packed house. The sensitivity of its restoration belies a hugely complex process of historical investigation, almost invisible integration of services into the existing structure, and spatial manipulation and modification to prepare the theatre for the future overhaul of its whole front of house area. For Blonski, who has twice in his life trodden the architectural boards of the Old Vic, the project has been no less than a labour of love.

The king post structure of the roof has been retained, but the roof better sealed and insulated, becoming a huge return air plenum.
The king post structure of the roof has been retained, but the roof better sealed and insulated, becoming a huge return air plenum.

The works to date were carried out in three phases. Phase 1 (£1.5m), addressed central repairs to the Moro building, where concrete had started to spall badly. Phases 2 and 3, requiring £13m of investment, dealt with the renovation and upgrade of the main auditorium and redesign of all the 1972 back-of-house areas and circulation to bring it into line with modern technical requirements. For the £6.5m renovation works, Blonski admits that very few drawings of the building existed, so the architect found himself resorting to author Kathleen Barker’s 1960s written account of the theatre’s history. The final design of the Old Vic’s loadbearing masonry and timber structure, she reports, was modelled on the Theatre Royal Drury Lane – a 1769 etching of the London theatre bears a strong resemblance to the Old Vic’s proscenium and stage boxes. 

The main roof structure is essentially a series of king post trusses between the side walls, and a more complicated three-dimensional system built when the auditorium was remodelled to include an upper tier of seating. Loadbearing walls make up the original lower auditorium structure – a massive outer masonry wall, the firewall, and two interconnecting horseshoes supporting the balconies. All the auditorium rakes and seating benches were timber, as were the columns around the dress and upper circles. Although major services had to be introduced into this, Blonski wanted the effect on the grade I-listed structure to be as minimal as possible. Moro had built around this auditorium in the 70s, which is itself now a period piece.

Blonski felt it important to reintroduce original experiences – here he has brought back the old entrance into the stalls area from below rather than from the dress circle.
Blonski felt it important to reintroduce original experiences – here he has brought back the old entrance into the stalls area from below rather than from the dress circle.

‘Blonski saw his challenge as to “discover, define, record, archive and progress” the historical design; to ascertain its archaeology, by peeling away layers of the theatre during renovation, and to reintroduce original experiences’

Blonski saw his challenge as to ‘discover, define, record, archive and progress’ the historical design; to ascertain its archaeology, by peeling away layers of the theatre during renovation, and to reintroduce original experiences where they could be accommodated. Priorities were to rediscover the rake of the pit to reintroduce the experience of entering it from the sides rather than the Dress Circle, to decide on the thrust of the original stage, reorganise sightlines by re-raking the seating and take account of the original columns. On top of this, no fresh air was fed to the auditorium which consequently overheated due to occupancy and lighting, there were acoustic problems due to the poor attenuation of the original roof, and electrical and safety infrastructure was insufficient. Blonski had his work cut out. 

Sightlines were crucial. The theatre’s ceiling had been raised in 1800 to add another tier of seating, and a new relationship of seating to the proscenium and forestage; this was adversely affected in 1881 when the forestage was cut back – which also made redundant the original proscenium side entrance. Blonski brought the stage back to its original position, re-instating the visual logic of the stage boxes and proscenium area. Despite a traditional contract that restricted budgets and timings, time was made pre-contract, while the theatre was still in use, to test seating arrangements to ascertain responses to the proposed changes.  

With the whole space suffering from general overheating, the changes to the sightlines reaped rewards. The air conditioning strategy was finessed by engineer Hoare Lea, using computational fluid dynamics to model and optimise auditorium airflows, and engineer James Outram saw that the void created by the increased rake of the new seating could be used as a low-level supply plenum. This is fed from new ducts set into a bespoke designed services wall at the back of the auditorium, coming from roof-mounted AHUs – traditional ductwork would not have been allowed in the grade I-listed space. Exhaust air is drawn out at high level towards the rear of the space, passing over cross-plate heat exchangers to recover the heat. 

Displacement ventilation has been used so mechanical cooling only occurs when external air temperatures exceed 18°C. To reduce additional demand on the system for space cooling, low energy LED light fittings were installed throughout, together with a new stage lighting system. The volumes of air exchange involved reappraising the functionality of the two original air vents that used to draw exhaust air up and out. Outram explains that the relationship of these to the roof have effectively reversed; now, the newly sealed, insulated and acoustically attenuated roof void acts as a return air plenum, while the vents remain as lightwells to the sky – vestiges of their original purpose.

Above and within the  painstakingly restored ornate 18th century painted ceiling there is also installed state-of-the-art fire engineering technology that attempts to address the secondary collateral damage aspects of a fire to make them of primary relevance. Here the services engineer, co-ordinating with the architect, installed a HI-FOG water mist system. Using up to 90% less water than traditional sprinkler systems, it holds water in its pipes at a constant 8 bar pressure, rising to 120bar when it sprays it, atomised, into the auditorium volume. Outram adds that a smoke aspirator system not only delays the point at which the mist heads are deployed in case of accidental triggering, but can also be desensitised to deal with demands for theatrical smoke. Blonski saw this strategy as an imperative to preserve the original fabric, and for all the mist heads, challenges anyone to discover their positions within the ceiling’s flamboyant whorls.

The longitudinal section through the auditorium shows the improved relationship of tiers to stage, the position of the old vents in the roof and the unique stages boxes and proscenium slit – a technical stage entry.
The longitudinal section through the auditorium shows the improved relationship of tiers to stage, the position of the old vents in the roof and the unique stages boxes and proscenium slit – a technical stage entry.

Back of house and rehearsal spaces, part of the Moro works, have also been substantially remodelled to bring them up to par for modern needs. Room layouts rearranged to optimise circulation mean the paintshop has been reconfigured as a 4.5m high flexible rehearsal space – far better than its previous 2.8m high area. A new performance space was created in the side stage; dressing rooms, toilets and office spaces were extensively remodelled; and lifts installed in the existing cores. Air handling and electrics were replaced and the whole made DDA compliant. Means of escape was also reconfigured. The additional provision crammed in here effectively made the Moro building to King Street redundant, allowing it to be removed in preparation for Blonski’s final architectural flourish: the proposed new foyer. 

But the pen, having writ, moves on. Despite a refurbishment strategy leading up to the complete reinvention of the front-of-house circulation,it was announced in April, with a change of artistic director, that architect Haworth Tompkins would design the new entrance and foyer. Blonski is surprisingly sanguine despite being usurped at the final hurdle for what will be the most ostensibly dramatic aspect of the theatre’s refurbishment. 
But this is of no concern to John Earl, building surveyor and the UK’s most noted theatre historian, who monitored the whole restoration process with a highly critical eye and has nothing but praise for the completed work. Earl believes that after 12 years of getting her there, it is Blonski’s unseen hand that will have ushered the grand dame of British theatre courteously to her 21st century seat.