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Behind a bamboo curtain

An Elizabethan-style circular theatre in the grounds of a Norman chateau, by British architect Andrew Todd, speaks of cross channel links over which a veil is falling

Hardelot Theatre has more timber than the trees around it.
Hardelot Theatre has more timber than the trees around it.

If ever a building was destined to be a symbol it is the Elizabethan-style theatre at ­Château d’Hardelot, south of Calais, in northern France. Opening on the day of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, at the home of the Centre Culturel de l’Entente Cordiale – which commemorates a series of agreements signed between France and England in 1904 – it is hardly surprising that the building has attracted political dispute. More recent is the physical manifestation of something more ugly in the angry words daubed alongside columns of bamboo: ‘Irresponsible politicians – shame’ and ‘budget’. It came in at a relatively modest €4.3 million but the actual figure is less significant than the controversy it caused.

The pleasant roads that lead to the château are dotted with the spacious weekend homes of city dwellers and the British who come here for the sea, the sand dunes and perhaps, on occasion, the Midsummer ­Festival at the castle. Temporary homes for theatre and festival concerts have been going up (and coming down) every year but the Conseil Départemental du Pas de Calais, which runs the Château, decided to make the venue permanent and issued a competition brief for a performance space. 

  • Sketch of the volumes, like a Russian doll.
    Sketch of the volumes, like a Russian doll.
  • Set alongside Hardelot Castle it offers a counterpoint in material but sits equally naturally in the gardens.
    Set alongside Hardelot Castle it offers a counterpoint in material but sits equally naturally in the gardens.
  • The bamboo verticals are held at a distance, stepped away from the facade and the ground.
    The bamboo verticals are held at a distance, stepped away from the facade and the ground.
  • Bamboo adds a lightness and layers of shadows for this shrink fit of volumes.
    Bamboo adds a lightness and layers of shadows for this shrink fit of volumes.
  • The lighting at night adds an ethereal quality that even its temporary predecessors couldn't.
    The lighting at night adds an ethereal quality that even its temporary predecessors couldn't.
  • The castle can just be glimpsed on the theatre approach.
    The castle can just be glimpsed on the theatre approach.
  • ...the actor is surrounded.
    ...the actor is surrounded.
  • The dimensions give a similar intimacy between actor and audience to that of the original Globe Theatre.
    The dimensions give a similar intimacy between actor and audience to that of the original Globe Theatre.
  • ...easily inhabitable by the players.
    ...easily inhabitable by the players.
  • The stage set of the extra wall allows for balconies and dramatic entrances.
    The stage set of the extra wall allows for balconies and dramatic entrances.

For Andrew Todd, it was an exciting challenge. He had fallen into architecture through English literature, his undergraduate exploration of the spaces of theatre satisfied only by a shift to Cambridge University’s architecture school. Through this and a desire to live abroad, he ended up in Paris, in a room and a conversation with legendary theatre director Peter Brook. The pair wrote a book , The Open Circle, that crystallised many of the ideas of this most spatially informed director. Since then Todd has worked closely with Haworth Tompkins on the Young Vic. More recently he designed the 300 seater theatre on the edge of the River Seine for Brook’s director daughter, Irina. His original d’Hardelot client, now departed, wanted a French Glyndebourne. Todd thinks of it more as a French Globe Theatre and was delighted when he turned up a 1545 painting of Henry VIII the Field of the Cloth of Gold – when this area was under English dominion and talks were going on with King Francis I of France – with a large round ‘banqueting tent’ in the background. 

The historic setting might be full of resonance and the 28m diameter of the theatre similar to the original Globe in London, but the cross laminated timber and bamboo which define this building imbue it with a quite different character. On a warm summer day, wandering across the newly seeded lawn under the cool of mature trees the thinking behind the benign cage of bamboo becomes obvious as it cloaks and contains the more solid elements  with a veil of lightness, obscuring a certain lumpishness and blank awkwardness to the volumes inside. ‘I wanted the ­theatre to visually vibrate,’ explains Todd, ‘to dematerialise against the castle.’  

  • The entrance gives onto the rotunda of the auditorium itself.
    The entrance gives onto the rotunda of the auditorium itself.
  • Glulam lined stairs take you up to the balconies.
    Glulam lined stairs take you up to the balconies.
  • The timber may be a little rough around the edges but the affect of wonderful circular ceiling is more than fine.
    The timber may be a little rough around the edges but the affect of wonderful circular ceiling is more than fine.
  • A proportion of the seats are set flat opposite the stage.
    A proportion of the seats are set flat opposite the stage.
  • People will spill in from the visitor's centre which is set up for drinks and milling then walk through the grounds to the minimal entrance.
    People will spill in from the visitor's centre which is set up for drinks and milling then walk through the grounds to the minimal entrance.
  • Green room.
    Green room.

This is a tight site. Todd, determined not to waste an inch, has not allowed any volume to go beyond its necessary bounds. The rotunda of the auditorium has green room and back stage plugged in, so too the foyer and staircase up to the balconies. On some buildings the articulation of these elements might have been part of the delight, here they are clearly controlled but it is the bamboo that makes the building sing. Todd has form with bamboo, he used it on Irina’s Brook’s theatre. He is fascinated by its strength and, as Hardelot Theatre finished, spent two months in Japan looking at the way bamboo is used in construction. Looking out from the external balconies, the length of bamboo is also remarkable, these pieces are 12m high, held off away from main volumes on galvanised feet and visibly flexing at times; Todd certainly has vibration.

But back to the entrance under the trees. As you go inside you are enveloped in a timber fragrance that will hopefully persist for at least a few performances. But there is no generous foyer in which to enjoy it, in the pursuit of shrinkage the front of house functions are dealt with at the visitors’ centre with its generous tea rooms. Instead you are immediately confronted with the curved CLT face of the auditorium. Once this is broached you are inside both a work of theatre and an architectural ecosystem. Let us first climb up and take our seat in the narrow balconies that line this rotunda. You are only a stone’s throw from the stage, so is rest of the audience. You can see truly see the player’s expressions.  As at the Globe, the audience is part of the show too.

  • At the Merk factory as timber panels are fabricated and bent into shape.
    At the Merk factory as timber panels are fabricated and bent into shape.
  • The delicate model of the theatre showing the external forest of bamboo.
    The delicate model of the theatre showing the external forest of bamboo.
  • Inside the model the balcony arrangement can be seen.
    Inside the model the balcony arrangement can be seen.

But for Todd there was also the important technical challenge of making this sustainable. ‘I can’t think of doing it at any other way,’ he says. He worked closely with a young engineer from LM Ingénieur, who took on the challenge of a naturally ventilated theatre with enthusiasm. The supply of cold air itself from the plenum took a study in itself, concrete being constructed as part of the basement to ensure there is cool air to draw in, even on the warmest of days. The auditorium acts as a chimney for warm air, cool supplied neatly under the seats, warm vented at the centre and sides of the roof. The roof itself is beautiful, panels radiating out from the centrepoint and light filtering in around the sides. Despite a roughness to the edges this is a building in which one would expect special experiences, even when it is empty. 

Leaving the soothing château and theatre behind I return to the bleak Eurostar Station at Calais, populated by desultory returnees to the UK and a straggle of Syrian migrants asking for the camp, Calais Jungle. From here an Entente Cordiale seems a long way off and the theatre not so much a symbol of unity but a memorial to it. 


IN NUMBERS

Net floor area: 1233m2 

Net construction cost: 4.3 million

Cost per m23,487

388 seats

200 tonnes of wood used

100  tonnes of carbon captured

Projected energy use: 28 kWh/m2/year

  • Ground floor plan of theatre
    Ground floor plan of theatre
  • Hardelot 1st balcony plan
    Hardelot 1st balcony plan
  • Hardelot 2nd balcony plan
    Hardelot 2nd balcony plan
  • Hardelot basement plan
    Hardelot basement plan
  • Cross section of theatre
    Cross section of theatre
  • Long section
    Long section

Credits

Credits

Client Conseil Départemental du Pas
de Calais

Architect Studio Andrew Todd

Engineer (structure and natural ventilation) LM Ingénieur

Engineers (M+E) Atelux

Theatre consultant (technical): Charcoalblue

Acoustician Byron Harrison, Charcoalblue

Fire engineering and accessibility consultant Cabinet Casso

Cost consultant Bureau Michel Forgue