The Royal Academy of Music’s Theatre and new Recital Hall project has created two distinct performance spaces for Britain’s oldest conservatoire and new circulation improves connectivity within the Academy. The overall concept seamlessly integrates these two exceptional performance spaces within the historic context of the Academy site. The Theatre, designed for both opera and musical theatre, now forms the heart of the Academy, and was realised within the gutted shell of a 1970’s fan-shaped auditorium and stage. Above the Theatre, the 100-seat Recital Hall skilfully exploits the last major area into which the Academy could expand, providing 230m2 of additional space for student rehearsal, performance, public events and recording. The Recital Hall has a footprint as large as that of the main stage, providing an ideal rehearsal space.
In May 2009, we were commissioned to design a Theatre for students and the public’s enjoyment of performances, while delivering the ambiance, aesthetics and the environmental credentials befitting the Academy’s status as one of the world’s premiere musical academies.
Beyond the brief, we explored the potential of creating new rooftop spaces over the Theatre. An epiphany during a discussion between the Client and Architect led to the development of the new 100-seat Recital Hall suitable for professional recording.
Within the boundary walls, the Theatre incorporates 40% more seating than previously through the addition of a balcony, a larger orchestra pit, stage wing and fly tower. All seats offer excellent sightlines to the stage, while the larger orchestra pit expands repertoire choice from early to modern opera and musical theatre. The 309-seat cherry-lined Susie Sainsbury Theatre has been acoustically refined to deliver excellent sound qualities. The lighting deconstructs the traditional chandelier into an exploding theatre-wide galaxy of light through 600 fibre-optic crystals.
Above the Susie Sainsbury Theatre, and acoustically isolated from it and all other buildings, the new 100-seat Angela Burgess Recital Hall is entirely lined in pale, lime-washed oak. An oculus floods the room with daylight and provides the space with a central focus.
Accessed primarily from the Main Stair, dating from 1911, the new glazed lobby to the Recital Hall enhances the Academy’s circulation routes, creating a visual and physical link between the old and new buildings. The new light well reveals the previously concealed Grade II rear façade, in which bricked-up windows have been reopened, improving the ambience of many practice rooms. In addition to providing access to the Recital Hall, the introduction of a new glazed lift means that the Theatre is now fully accessible, connecting the new Theatre Lobby on the Ground Floor with both the Stalls and Balcony levels. The new lift also provides access to the Basement accommodation for the first time.
In designing the new spaces, we took inspiration from string instruments: their curved shapes, their construction and tuning mechanisms, tension and tone, and the physical relationships between artist and instrument. For the Theatre, our ambition was to conceive a space both intimate and epic. Our intention for the Recital Hall was to deliver a tranquil, and visually cool space. Externally the new additions were conceived as a unified form to respect the local built environment. They are clad in pre-patinated grey-blue copper, imperceptible from street level and blending with the sky when seen from adjacent properties and from within the Academy through the clear glass connection to the old building.
The project was unusually complex due to the very constrained site into which new volumes with their myriad functions were to be introduced. Prefabrication was key to the success. A very collaborative design team enabled successful integration of architectural and theatrical/musical requirements with structural, acoustic, safety, mechanical and electrical systems.
“The spaces are stunningly beautiful, acoustically brilliant and inspiring. They will raise the bar and challenge the students and staff in every possible form of music to reach higher and search further.” Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, Principal, Royal Academy of Music
The completed spaces are a testament to the hard work of the professional design team, the contractor and their subcontractors, and the patience, will, determination and support of the Royal Academy of Music.
Ian Ritchie leads one of the world’s most thoughtful, original and influential contemporary architectural practices. Over four decades, it has consistently delivered projects of exceptional individuality and long-term functionality while exceeding clients’ expectations.
The practice focuses on work of exquisite quality and often startling innovation rather than sheer quantity. Work is underpinned by strong analysis of context and profound understanding of materials and construction, allied to an appreciation of the subtle connections between its social role, the arts of construction and the role of beauty in architecture.
By advancing the practice of environmentally, socially and culturally sustainable architecture, the practice has a worldwide reputation of improving the quality of life in contemporary cities across Europe while creating inspirational designs and pleasurable, adaptable spaces.