Bennetts Associates / Storyhouse Theatre, Chester

The practice took a cinema unused for a decade and transformed it into a multi-use focal centre for the city.


Project Info
Client:
Cheshire West and Chester Council
Architect: Bennetts Associates
Interior designer: Hannah Wehbeh
Lighting design: Whitecroft
Size: 7,500 sq m
Duration: 2.5 years
Budget: £37m


Words by Emily Martin
Images by Peter Cook

After a decade-long absence, a theatre and cinema to be enjoyed by all in Chester sees a welcome return. Completed by Bennetts Associates, the project is described as one with ‘partnership at the very heart of its establishment’, by connecting people through storytelling and great art.

The former Odeon cinema dating from 1936 is now known as Storyhouse, which retains the Grade II listed building plus a brick, glass and copper-clad extension. ‘The main cinema volume of the old Odeon had been sub-divided into five screens and many original features removed,’ explains Simon Erridge, director at Bennetts Associates. ‘Stripping out these subdivisions as well as a redundant balcony structure revealed an enormous internal volume that retains much of its original streamlined art-deco plasterwork. This has become the focal point of the new building.’

Red steel stairs and walkways in the building’s original proscenium arch lead visitors to the new facilitiesRed steel stairs and walkways in the building’s original proscenium arch lead visitors to the new facilities

This area, now with library, restaurant and cafe, winding its way across two floors, with a boutique 100-seat cinema housed in a glass-clad ‘lightbox’ suspended on the first-floor mezzanine. A new 150-seat flexible studio along with the bar and shared backstage facilities are placed in a striking new brick and copper-clad extension.

Red steel stairs and walkways in the building’s original proscenium arch lead visitors to the new facilitiesRed steel stairs and walkways in the building’s original proscenium arch lead visitors to the new facilities

‘We knew that it was possible to justify alterations to historic buildings in order to sustain their future use,’ says Erridge about the city missing a cinema for 10 years. ‘Drama and film were kept alive in the city through grass-roots organisations and volunteers using community buildings and even outdoor spaces during the summer, but there was a very strong desire for a permanent building to open up greater artistic possibilities year-round.

Translucent glass cladding has been added to the Grade II buildingTranslucent glass cladding has been added to the Grade II building

The result was a bold set of proposals, which would turn the challenges posed by the Storyhouse brief into compelling architectural opportunities.’

A bar and restaurant are sited in the foyerA bar and restaurant are sited in the foyer

At night, Storyhouse restaurant and bar transforms as the foyer is animated with a film projected on to a new screen in the old proscenium arch showcasing its original plasterwork. The arch was once covered by an Odeon screen. Theatre audiences pass through the arch to access the main auditorium, housed in a brick-clad structure, encircled by red-painted steel open stairs and walkways, which are visible from the street through translucent glass cladding.

Art-deco features have been discovered and retainedArt-deco features have been discovered and retained

‘The main theatre itself is designed to operate as an 800-seater with a programme of touring productions for some of the year, but is reconfigurable to a 500-seat thruststage,’ explains Erridge. The 150-seat studio sits on a series of steel transfer beams and columns, which provide acoustic isolation.’

A 100-seater cinema is among new features now offeredA 100-seater cinema is among new features now offered

This versatile studio space can double-up as a rehearsal or events space, with its own catering facilities and fourth-floor bar with panoramic views over the city.

Sitting comfortably? A performance in the new theatre gets underwaySitting comfortably? A performance in the new theatre gets underway

‘There are lessons from Storyhouse that should resonate with other UK towns and cities,’ says Erridge. ‘The capital investment has been significant, but the way in which Storyhouse has spearheaded the transformation of Chester’s Northgate and the way in which it revitalises a much-loved historic building are important here.’

 

Key Suppliers

Cladding
PLF
Curtis Moore
J&C Architectural
Wasp
Proteus

Auditorium
Stage electrics
HOAC

Timber / Joinery
WJL
Demco





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