Drama school newcomer takes a bow

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Words:
Catherine Slessor

There were so many constraints on Niall McLaughlin’s new building for LAMDA that, like a Rubik’s Cube, there was only one solution. It worked so well that it has withstood the project’s 15-year gestation

The flytower signals the function of this otherwise mute elevation to the main road.
The flytower signals the function of this otherwise mute elevation to the main road. Credit: Nick Kane

Until recently, Talgarth Road in west London was best known for St Paul’s Studios, an ornate octet of late Victorian artists’ houses designed by Frederick Wheeler. Commissioned to accommodate ‘bachelor artists’, this row of arts & crafts ateliers formed part of a colony founded by the pre-Raphaelites. When the artists moved on, the studios still maintained an illustrious pedigree of occupant. Ballerina Margot Fonteyn lived in one as it was handy for the neighbouring Royal Ballet School. Since the Victorian era, this genteel milieu has taken a bit of a beating by the combined infrastructural assault of an open Underground line and the thundering traffic artery of Talgarth Road. Nonetheless, it is still a setting for artistry, only in the more contemporary form of young drama students to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), its campus recently augmented by Niall McLaughlin’s new building.

Like St Paul’s Studios, LAMDA is a Victorian institution. Founded in 1861 it is the UK’s oldest drama school; RADA, its great London rival, was only constituted in 1904. Notable alumni include Richard Harris, Chiwetl Ejiofor and Benedict Cumberbatch. It was Cumberbatch who was co-opted as the face of its fundraising campaign in 2013 to raise the final resources required for the £28.2 million redevelopment. Unlike Wheeler’s marooned arts & crafts relics cowering from the incessant thrum of traffic, LAMDA has had the opportunity to square up to its unforgiving context. Shoe-horned into a long, thin site, McLaughlin’s building is a tough, hermetic extrusion of stacked cuboid volumes. Made of brick and bronze anodised aluminium, it deftly turns in on itself, tempering the impact of traffic blare, train rattle and the attendant fug of pollution. Reminiscent of the blind boxes of bonded warehouses, its protective carapace offers sanctuary from the external realm.

Fine exercise in articulation of a black-box facade in bronze-finish anodised aluminium – the colour is called pale umber.
Fine exercise in articulation of a black-box facade in bronze-finish anodised aluminium – the colour is called pale umber. Credit: Nick Kane

Aiming to consolidate its hitherto disparate premises on one site, LAMDA first came to Talgarth Road in 2002, taking over the old Royal Ballet School like a hermit crab acquiring a new shell. McLaughlin’s relationship with it dates back to that time, winning a competition specifically limited to emerging practices for the design of a new building. Fifteen years later, the curtain finally went up on the inaugural student production of The Sea by Edward Bond. ‘It’s one of those projects when you think you’re being taken on for a short time,’ says McLaughlin, ‘and then you’re there forever.’

Raising the necessary funds proved unforeseeably time-consuming, hence, perhaps, the strategic unleashing of Cumberbatch. Yet despite the latitude of extreme hindsight, McLaughlin would not have done anything differently. ‘It took a long time but it didn’t change,’ he says. ‘Often with a project you’re looking for a driving or compelling idea to begin with, but in a sense this was about how can you possibly put the stuff on the site. What I liked about this building was that there was so little space to deal with you had to make a virtue out of compression.’ Rather like solving a Rubik’s Cube, there is only one outcome, yet arriving at it was a protracted process. Apparently minor things, such as changing the fixed template of one of the teaching studios, or how the circulation axis of the new building was finessed with the existing campus premises, took time and patience to resolve. 

Aiming to consolidate its hitherto disparate premises on one site, LAMDA first came to Talgarth Road in 2002, taking over the old Royal Ballet School like a hermit crab acquiring a new shell. McLaughlin’s relationship with it dates back to that time, winning a competition specifically limited to emerging practices for the design of a new building. Fifteen years later, the curtain finally went up on the inaugural student production of The Sea by Edward Bond. ‘It’s one of those projects when you think you’re being taken on for a short time,’ says McLaughlin, ‘and then you’re there forever.’

Raising the necessary funds proved unforeseeably time-consuming, hence, perhaps, the strategic unleashing of Cumberbatch. Yet despite the latitude of extreme hindsight, McLaughlin would not have done anything differently. ‘It took a long time but it didn’t change,’ he says. ‘Often with a project you’re looking for a driving or compelling idea to begin with, but in a sense this was about how can you possibly put the stuff on the site. What I liked about this building was that there was so little space to deal with you had to make a virtue out of compression.’ Rather like solving a Rubik’s Cube, there is only one outcome, yet arriving at it was a protracted process. Apparently minor things, such as changing the fixed template of one of the teaching studios, or how the circulation axis of the new building was finessed with the existing campus premises, took time and patience to resolve.

Key organisational moves are dictated by functional and acoustical requirements. The quartet of cubes housing the teaching studios is arrayed along the south edge of the site overlooking the Underground line, where 600 trains slide past each day. Smaller cellular volumes such as the library, offices, exam and seminar rooms are set on the road side.

  • Sited on a traffic artery, the facade presents a defence for the students and staff inside.
    Sited on a traffic artery, the facade presents a defence for the students and staff inside. Credit: Nick Kane
  • Well proportioned – and industrially inspired – the building has considerable presence.
    Well proportioned – and industrially inspired – the building has considerable presence. Credit: Nick Kane
  • Low-cost materials are nobly used in the entrance foyer.
    Low-cost materials are nobly used in the entrance foyer. Credit: Nick Kane
  • Considerable energy is apparent in the massing of internal space.
    Considerable energy is apparent in the massing of internal space. Credit: Nick Kane
  • Timber first-floor gallery fans round the curved rear of the main practice theatre.
    Timber first-floor gallery fans round the curved rear of the main practice theatre. Credit: Nick Kane
  • The public as well as students will use these spaces.
    The public as well as students will use these spaces. Credit: Nick Kane
  • Internal views compansate for the confined spaces outside.
    Internal views compansate for the confined spaces outside. Credit: Nick Kane
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Between them, a spinal passage links the new building with the Victorian assemblage. Incised deeply into the building fabric, this chasm-like slot brings light into the depths of the interior and is activated as a social area by students between classes. Two performance spaces, a 200 seat practice theatre with a smaller studio theatre underneath it, terminate the composition at the western end, the head to the building’s elongated body. Where head and body meet, an interstitial entrance concourse for circulation and promenading wraps around the volumes of the theatres.

Resembling warehouses or factory units, the stacked boxes of the teaching studios articulate a clear formal and experiential language. ‘There were concerns about the school’s ethos being pre-empted by the architecture,’ says McLaughlin. ‘Students were used to rehearsing in old rooms, old houses and old factories, places which have a history, a kind of unconscious sense of being there already. So the idea of a dedicated teaching studio that had been specially designed for them created some anxieties. We wanted it to feel as much as possible like a generous, abandoned factory.’

An evident sense of improvisation and rawness is catalysed by the building’s brawny materiality. Floors are polished concrete and internal walls are simple, unadorned blockwork. Though the result of ubiquitous value engineering – brick was originally specified – the blockwork has a wood pulp constituent that makes its surface less baldly abrasive. Laconic and economical, it calls to mind the work of militant modernists such as Aldo van Eyck in the 1970s, the Smithsons at Bath and Florian Beigel’s seminal Half Moon Theatre in the East End. Extending the bonded warehouse analogy, McLaughlin proposed inscribing LAMDA in superscale stencils on the fly tower over the main practice theatre, but the planners demurred. Ironically, during construction, the scaffolded Talgarth Road facade commanded premium rates as an advertising hoarding.

  • Drama students are used to industrial spaces, which the teaching spaces echo.
    Drama students are used to industrial spaces, which the teaching spaces echo. Credit: Nick Kane
  • Basic materials are used to good effect in the tradition of postwar theatres.
    Basic materials are used to good effect in the tradition of postwar theatres. Credit: Nick Kane
  • Studio theatre is a black box rehearsal and performance space.
    Studio theatre is a black box rehearsal and performance space. Credit: Nick Kane
  • Almost like a set for a TV show but with theatre red seating.
    Almost like a set for a TV show but with theatre red seating. Credit: Nick Kane
  • Minimal, but a real theatre.
    Minimal, but a real theatre. Credit: Nick Kane
  • Service zone with walkable mesh floor is scary at first.
    Service zone with walkable mesh floor is scary at first. Credit: Nick Kane
  • From this view it could almost be Victorian.
    From this view it could almost be Victorian. Credit: Nick Kane
  • Did we say scary – this is the view the technicians get.
    Did we say scary – this is the view the technicians get. Credit: Nick Kane
  • This is what they mean by up in the flies.
    This is what they mean by up in the flies. Credit: Nick Kane
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The fly tower itself is a vertiginous Phantom-of-the-Opera world of rigging, levers, counterweights and safety netting. Since students may end up working in Victorian or Edwardian theatres they need to have hands on experience of the technicalities involved. Optimising site constraints, back-of-house spaces become under-house spaces, tucked below the stage rather than behind it. The volume housing the theatres backs gently into the main body of the building, loosely coupled to it by the entrance concourse and a first floor gallery. Caged in a timber armature suspended from the main structure, the serpentine form of the gallery traces the apsidal outline of the practice theatre. Eschewing traditional plushness, the set piece space of the auditorium is lined with warm wood, like being inside a musical instrument. Underneath it, the smaller studio theatre conjures a more intimate and informal atmosphere.

The interface of performance and teaching is marked by a staircase threading its way up the end wall of the studios. ‘It’s treated almost like an urban facade,’ says McLaughlin. ‘There’s a sense of it being a gable end with windows looking into a public space. The key thing conceptually was how that space operates in response to a change of orientation so the entry sequence makes you feel like you’re not being yanked around.’ Animated by students coming and going, this part of the building feels lighter and looser, temporarily breaking out of its Kahnian corset of served and servant spaces. Nonetheless, the corset has served the project well. ‘It shows how little space you need to create quite dramatic architectural effects just by pushing slightly disparate things together,’ says McLaughlin. More method actor than drama queen, as the latest newcomer to London’s urban stage, LAMDA can now enjoy its curtain call. 


IN NUMBERS

Total project cost £28.2 million

Construction cost £18.5 million

GIFA cost £3,300/m2

Area 5,500m2

Carbon emissions 21.8kgCO2/m2/pa

Number of students up to 275

Form of contract JCT Design and Build Contract

Credits

Client LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art)

Architect Niall McLaughlin Architects

Contractor VolkerFitzpatrick

Employer’s agent, project manager & cost consultant Baqus 

Mechanical and electrical engineer Pell Frischmann

Access consultant Jane Toplis Associates

Acoustic consultant Gillieron Scott Acoustic Design

Approved inspector HCD Building Control

Theatre designer Charcoalblue

Fire engineer Fire Guidance UK 

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