Chester’s new Storyhouse by Bennetts Associates is full of fantasy and fictions, housing a theatre, cinema and library. But its very real presence marks a significant moment in the city’s evolution
Alice in Wonderland, Julius Caesar, Beggar's Opera; artistic director Alex Clifton of Chester Storyhouse reels off the plays of the opening season. They sound familiar because that is what brings in theatre-goers in Chester. After seven years of playing to park audiences around the city with a roster of summertime favourites selling ‘94-95% of seats – crazy good’, Clifton has a feel for the city’s audiences. Visitors to the half timbered streets of the Roman city make up a large part. But his role now is to appeal to the wider constituency of locals too. Under his aegis are three cultural institutions: theatre, cinema and library, all housed in one building, part new, part refurbished art deco cinema, designed by Bennetts Associates working with Ellis Williams Architects.
Storyhouse comes at a time of change for Chester. Over the years there have been many plans to rework its shops. At one time Hopkins had a grand scheme here with ING Real Estate. More recently the council commissioned ACME to rethink Northgate. The bus station in front of Storyhouse is about to shift to a green roofed horseshoe designed by Austin-Smith: Lord with Jefferson Sheard Architects for the contractor. The library has been decanted from its old home too, its books now lining the walls of Storyhouse. Its 25m tall grand theatre entrance will face a new axis for the city and open directly to the new quarter, whenever that should come into being.
But until then, Storyhouse borrows the entrance of the cinema it has taken over, drawing energy from the historic centre where tourists and shoppers become one bustling stream between cathedral and visitors’ centre. The 1936 Odeon acted as an edge to Town Hall Square, its unprepossessing brick facade curving into bronze-framed shops fronting onto Northgate.
Odeons of yesteryear were huge with single screens. At their art deco best the screens were cloaked in pomp and pageant, grand staircases and scrolls, married with the elegant modernity of terrazzo. So it was here. But today, variety is everything and the large cinema gets chopped into smaller screens. After being split up this way, Chester’s Odeon was closed in 2007 in favour of larger multiscreen offerings. At the same time funding was withdrawn from the Gateway Theatre, which also closed. The council started planning for a new cultural centre, conceived for the city. During the long years of its gestation the nascent Storyhouse took over city spaces for plays and films.
But despite that diverse history and a rich collection of uses, the new building has a very traditional performance-space approach: it looks in on itself rather than engaging spatially with the city. Yes, the café and bar have views out, but the building is experienced a set of distinct scenes that share an encompassing, internalised sense of energy. This is something we are used to in theatre and cinema but, more unexpectedly, the huge performance foyer and the library look inwards. Perhaps it is not surprising in such a large (7,500m2) volume, and there is a great pleasure to this concentration and focus; less longing and more doing. It means people are a huge part of the experience. Perhaps it will become an adopted as part of the city, a democratisation of the institutions within it, rather in the way London’s Royal Festival Hall could be understood – though it lacks the in between areas of the RFH’s terraces to connect it to the wider city.
If there is little mediation between outside and in there is at least no imposing box office or issue desk. Instead, floating members of the customer service team equipped with an iPad point you in the right direction; which is likely to be needed. The cinema entrance has neither the atrium-style layout found elsewhere in the building, nor a theatre’s processional ante-spaces; instead it has bifurcating routes with invisible destinations. Materials send subtle signals. Even arriving at the performance foyer – which is an atrium in all but name, and where the building’s different functions are more visible partly due to applied supergraphics pointing out the most necessary directions – there is a bold complexity to the space. This is partly the result of the levels and internal mass of the cinema screen and rooms above it. Most of all it is due to the incidental moments of library which slow down the experience, blurring the distinction between circulation and spaces to stop and browse or search.
The building is best understood as four sections: theatre, foyer, cinema and the historic entrance. The first is the theatre, rising high into the city with a fly tower, the studio theatre below it and the allied bar – which is available at cost for community hire. In its thrust configuration the auditorium has something of the Young Vic or the Swan in Stratford about it, with audience members, closely gathered around an apron stage, visible to each other and within eye contact of the actors. This is how it will be used for in-house productions. However, ever-popular touring productions have different needs and the thrust can be simply dismantled to make space for more seats (500 becoming 800) looking onto a traditional proscenium arch and end stage.
The theatre is supported (and in some ways upstaged) by the second section of this long, narrow building. Here is the star of the show, the performance foyer with bold red steel stairs and bridges that straddle the new entrance and push through the arch which once framed the Odeon’s huge screen. A gentle slope to the floor sorts out both level differentials and gives the slightest rake to impromptu standing audiences. The bridges throw up theatrical possibilities; one, truncated with a glass balustrade, positively demands drama.
This is all best seen from above the cinema stack topped with offices, over the café, in what is the third section. The Odeon’s balcony level has been turned into a mezzanine but cut into to articulate the mass of accommodation so it can be read, conversely, as a giant pod insertion. The leftover edges of floor plate are the least convincing library spaces, dominated by the bulk of the cast glass clad cinema, and a little gloomy on the day I visited. But they may become a retreat for readers: after all, everything happens just below on the ground floor, as the performance foyer coalesces in the café and bar.
The cinema belongs to the existing, fourth, section, from which it is accessed. The entrance appears intact, the stained ply reworked and terrazzo reinstated, stairs rolling up to a relaxed upper foyer with an enclosure of books and one of the original sofas before entry into an intimate cinema that makes use of the plan to tilt its viewers gently towards the screen. The original two storeys of shop units facing out to Northgate have been used to create comfortably intimate spaces on each floor. The children’s library here is particularly appealing with a stepped storytelling space at one end. Each space has been restored or taken back to bronze frames, though with additional supports.
This may be a new model of community and cultural provision but, happily, it has not felt the need to go down the route of jazzy interiors or external expression. It emanates warmth and despite its size in a city of smaller buildings it feels more human scale than some of Bennetts’ other projects – such Brighton Library or Hampstead Theatre which, while admirable, have a certain hard-heartedness in their materiality. And it is clear that the energy brought by the client will animate the building for years to come.