Haworth Tompkins' Performing Arts Centre for Perse School Cambridge

Perse School in Cambridge enjoys a new-build performing arts centre from Haworth Tompkins

Images Philip Vile

The New Peter Hall Performing Arts Centre for the Perse School in Cambridge includes a 400-seat auditorium, an adaptable foyer, a teaching room, an exhibition space and even classrooms.

These new facilities provide an array of opportunities for both the students and the local community, whether for drama, lectures or art. The auditorium provides a beautifully intimate room for dance, theatre, assembly, music and speech, wrapping the audience around the performers, but also allowing for a more conventional end-on configuration when required.

The challenge was to design a new building robust enough to stand the test of the school day and excite pupils and visitors alike, while being formal and beautiful enough to be a theatre.

Durability, ease of maintenance and interior climate are important in any project in this sector, therefore the flooring needed to be hard-wearing to withstand the volume of people that would use the building. Savoy, from Hakwood’s Sierra Collection, was specified to add a warm and inviting atmosphere; a homely feel that exudes both style and comfort. Its sawn face texture is also robust enough to cope with students using it daily as well as remaining beautiful and formal enough for theatre-goers in the evening.

Rich, dark timber lines the auditorium. The seats have been upholstered in wool in colours that allude to the outside. Credit: Fred Howarth

One with nature
Haworth Tompkins designed the centre to have a multitude of sustainable features. From natural materials, such as the European oak used for Hakwood’s flooring, to the photovoltaic panels on the roof of the auditorium, an aim of the project was for it to consume as little energy as possible. Natural ventilation throughout and a ground-sourced heat pump also help to lower the building’s carbon footprint as it utilises the natural resources surrounding the centre to fulfil its climatecontrol needs.

The triple-height, galleried foyer with a ‘diagrid’ timber roof structure is illuminated by natural daylight and overlooks a landscaped courtyard that will form the new heart of the school. The space operates as a cafe for pupils and staff during the school day, and as a foyer for audiences during events in the auditorium. Spanning the full width of the courtyard, the highly glazed foyer allows views into and out of the building and blurs the boundary between the interior and exterior.

Even the colours and features used throughout the centre reflect nature. Autumnal red, oranges and greens beautifully integrate the interior with the surrounding landscapes. Rich, dark timber lines the auditorium and contrasts with the pale foyer, while the seats have been upholstered in wool in colours that allude to the outside. The flooring has a beautiful surface that works very well with the palette. Moreover, when it marks and ages it will look even better. This is also true of the handmade bricks, precast concrete, and timber, which will mature over time to give the centre a whole new character.

Note here, too, the use of an autumnal orange shade. Credit: Philip Vile

Bespoke features
The team used a beech LVL timber structure and buffcoloured brick, which is local to Cambridge.

To give the pupils of Perse School the chance to put their stamp on the building, Glasgow-based artist Victoria Morton worked with a group to explore the school archives for inspiration. The result of the collaboration was a wall hanging – a textile artwork – that’s located in the foyer and visible when approaching the building.

Underfloor heating was specified throughout and is combined with the wood flooring, and the floor in the rehearsal room is semi-sprung so that sound doesn’t carry through the rest of the building. Meanwhile, the doors leading into the auditorium are designed as dark ‘cut-outs’, emphasising the contrast between the foyer and the auditorium.

The flooring in the pale-coloured foyer will look even better with age. Credit: Philip Vile

A suite of dressing rooms and technical areas complete the theatre space, with full backstage facilities enabling students to experience all aspects of staging a production. The centre is named after the late Sir Peter Hall, who was a pupil at the school from 1941-1949. He was also the founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company and an ex-theatre director of the National Theatre.

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