Performance Boosters


FX explores how designers make our shared spaces more resilient in the face of pandemics


FANS OF LIVE THEATRE and music have been holding their collective breath over the last three years, waiting to see if beloved arts venues and the vast body of mostly freelance professional talent would survive the devastating loss of revenues and gigs caused by sustained closures. By winter 2021, that held breath had turned into a massive sigh of relief. With fingers still tightly crossed against further pandemic crackdowns, the sector appears to have survived and proved both its creativity and resilience.

Summer 2021 saw a tentative resurgence of festivals in the gaps between lockdowns, while summer 2022 saw outdoor activity flourish on a larger scale, with over 900 festivals small and large planned in the UK alone, including the return of Glastonbury. Have music festivals bounced back, asked presenter Shahida Bari on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, on 21 June? Melvin Benn, managing director of Festival Republic said he was busier than ever, with new large events added. However, Paul Reed, CEO of the Association of Independent Festivals confirmed an estimated 975 festivals are happening regularly in the UK, though with a core of 194 festivals with a capacity of 5,000 or more. Of that core group, 91 per cent of them were going ahead in 2022, when last year 53 per cent were cancelled or postponed – though he did warn of continuing ‘very difficult trading conditions.’

In the interim, there has also been a flourishing of pop-up stages that transformed parks, farms, forests and public plazas into temporary outdoor venues. And some of these al fresco art hubs look likely to become permanent fixtures. After all, if we have learned anything from the pandemic, it is that the threat is likely to remain a constant, given the high-speed, global nature of the way we live, shop and trade. The Crawick Multiverse – part land art, part amphitheatre created by Charles Jencks in the Scottish borders – introduced a two-day festival in summer 2021 of folk, traditional and classical music featuring musicians from Dumfries, Galloway and Ayrshire. This festival was repeated for 2022, albeit moving the dates to early September. Thorington Theatre in Suffolk is a brand new venue, constructed for summer 2021, utilising a crater left by two World War II bombs in the privately owned woodland setting of Mark and Lindy O’Hare.

Initiated and now run by this duo, the theatre was built from locally sourced coppiced timber and opened last year with a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed by children from the local Minnie Mouse theatre group. Its programme is going strong so far in summer 2022. Shropshire farmer Tim Ashton dug out an earthen amphitheatre in one of his fields to host shows of the same Shakespeare favourite by the National Youth Theatre in September 2021, as well as a production of Animal Farm – fitting, given the location. Ashton hopes to make this venue, called ‘The Sanctuary’, a seasonal favourite for local and national community theatres.

One of the big successes of 2021 was a small, grassy amphitheatre surrounding a lake in the middle of Crystal Palace Park in South London – a place of legendary concerts from the 1960s to the 1980s. Now a local charity is determined to restore its stunning corten steel stage, the Crystal Palace Bowl, constructed in the 1990s by Ian Ritchie Architects, in order to provide a year round venue. The charity, Back the Bowl, has managed to crowdfund over £60,000 towards that end, as well as prove the demand for outdoor events here with a series of weekend concerts during August 2021, attracting audiences of around 10,000.

Campaign manager Oliver Marshall was inundated with requests from parties interested in using the space, with its pandemic-proof properties high on their list of desirable attributes. Marshall says: ‘We had loads of people that got in touch last summer, and they were interested in booking it for just those reasons. There are lots of theatre groups and promoters looking for covid-safe spaces. It would have been wonderful if we could have said yes to all of them.’ However, there is still major work to be done. While a temporary pontoon stage took care of 2021’s festivities, Back the Bowl aims to achieve year-round occupancy through a two phase refurbishment (see case study). Says Marshall: ‘We hope it will be a two speed venue: the big commercial festival in the summer, with big international acts and the whole amphitheatre as a ticketed arena; and for the rest of spring and autumn, community events. We have had interest from local schools, performing arts trusts and charities. We hope it can be the sort of thing you could come to on the weekend, have a picnic and watch free jazz in the bowl…We’ve had people express interest in things like yoga on the stage. We see it as almost like having a community hall but without walls.’

For the entertainments industry as well as audiences, the pleasures we have discovered of alfresco or nature-enriched live arts could be a game changer – with the added advantage of reducing risk of closure and cancellations should pandemic conditions return. For those of us who have sampled these joys, the beauty of experiencing live music or theatre immersed in the multi-sensory delights of a natural landscape is something we are not likely to want to give up soon. And bad weather is less of a hindrance than we used to believe – doesn’t everyone now have stout, weatherproof coats and boots, or at least a robust umbrella? When faced with the prospect of no live culture at all, dampness is less of a hindrance than we thought.

For all that some of the world’s most iconic venues responded through 2020 and 2021 with amazing streamed and online content, what we missed, when we consume culture from our laptops or living rooms, was serendipity – those moments of casual and delightful encounter that so enrich an excursion, providing moments of social improvisation. There is nothing improvisatory about – and little spontaneity in – a scheduled zoom call, whether it is for bingo or a book group.

When you venture out into the world to enjoy live culture and meet fellow arts lovers, you have no idea who you might see, nor how you will feel about what you are listening to or looking at. You have to maintain openness and curiosity. And all of those enriching, connective moments of the journey, including the movement through and around the interior or exterior landscapes, play a crucial part in why we enjoy going out. It is a means of flexing and toning social and intellectual muscles that are crucial to our sense of community and identity in a way that no Microsoft Teams appointment or street WhatsApp event ever could be.

Cristina Seilern, director of Studio Seilern Architects, says: ‘Performing arts spaces, and the act of going to see a live show is akin to taking time out of your routine to be transported to a more abstract space where time is suspended for a bit and your thoughts are transported, challenged or expanded. I would say that it is a near necessity, a moment when you are cut off from the constant buzz of the daily routine, and can share an experience with others.’

Seilern knows well the value of these performance spaces to a community. As director of Rafael Viñoly’s London office, she worked on the hugely successful Curve Theatre, Leicester. And since setting up her own practice in 2006, she has built on that experience – infused with her own passion for live music – to create two remarkable performance spaces that are very much in line with current and future trends, in that they conjure up a sense of immersion in nature and enrich connections with their wider audiences. One is set within woodland for a small private school in Berkshire and the other is a world-class concert hall in the Swiss Alps, offering views of snow-capped mountains and clear or night skies through windows during performances.

The return to live performance is imperative, says Seilern: ‘Our acousticians are currently overwhelmed with work as venues are reopening and retuning. The pull of live arts is too strong, and neither pandemics nor social media will be able to threaten our fundamental need as humans to gather and share.’

She adds that there have also been gains thanks to the most forward-thinking venues’ willingness to enrich their offer with online performances. She concludes: ‘I believe that social media is opening our eyes to art forms that we may not have come across casually. It certainly makes me want to attend events that I did not previously know existed.’


CASE STUDY
ANDERMATT CONCERT HALL

The Andermatt Concert Hall is the first – and only – world class concert hall in the Swiss Alps. Its arrival in June 2019 confirmed Andermatt’s transformation from 20th century military stronghold – strategically located at a major crossroads between Switzerland and its European neighbours – into a new luxury leisure resort. To achieve the quality of space and acoustic that would attract both the best orchestras and the most pampered cultural consumers here rather than any of Switzerland’s other delightful resorts, architect Christina Seilern of Studio Seilern had to aim high both in experience and acoustics. She has worked miracles in what was originally planned as an unattractive basement conference centre for the host hotel, Radisson Blue Reussen.

The 12m ceiling height in the main auditorium enhances acoustics for a more immersive experience. Image Credit: ROLAND HALBE
The 12m ceiling height in the main auditorium enhances acoustics for a more immersive experience. Image Credit: ROLAND HALBE

A single storey, curved glass wall announces the concert hall’s presence on the new central Piazza Gottardo. Anyone can walk up to the glass, whether a performance is taking place or not, and gaze into the warm, wood-panelled auditorium, admiring the light bouncing off the three plexiglass discs that float over the stage, acting both as acoustic attenuation and sculptural intervention.

The auditorium is accessed via a passageway from the hotel, or from a discrete entrance off the piazza, either route then descending towards the auditoriium via a wide staircase. At mezzanine level, guests pass by a small, curving foyer with an interior wall of opaque faceted acrylic panels, whose smooth planes capture and reflect light in a largely successful bid to distract visitors from the rather cramped dimensions of the foyer; what space there is has been given over to the audience and performers’ experience, rather than front of house. And Seilern makes the moment of entering the auditorium count: a broad sweep of tiered seating curves around you in this generous, partially submerged space, warmed by the walls of origami-esque oiled oak panels, each segment angled so as to improve acoustics.

Anyone can walk up to the glass to gaze inside the wood-panelled auditorium, whether a performance is taking place or not. Image Credit: ROLAND HALBE
Anyone can walk up to the glass to gaze inside the wood-panelled auditorium, whether a performance is taking place or not. Image Credit: ROLAND HALBE

Seilern campaigned hard to add the extra ground floor pavilion, bringing the ceiling height up to 12m (anything less and the world’s best acousticians – and musicians – would refuse to get involved). She also won the argument for placing the stage as centrally as possible, with seating curved around it, to enhance that sense of intimacy she so admires in Frank Gehry’s Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin – which she regards as one of the finest new performance spaces in Europe.

The extra roof height allows for an extra mezzanine balcony around the auditorium, which doubles the potential audience to around 455 with a full symphony orchestra of 75 musicians and over 700 for a smaller chamber ensemble, thanks to retractable seating at the lower level.

Seilern’s efforts were more than repaid when the Berlin Philharmonic agreed to play its opening concert. Having been lucky enough to attend that concert, I can vouch for it as the most immersive, sensorily-thrilling live music experience, enriched by the ability to sit back and watch clouds or snow move across the sky as you surrender to the music being played just a few feet away.

Client: Andermatt Swiss Alps and BESIX

Architect: Studio Seilern Architects

Area: GEA 2,072 sq m

Budget: 11 million Swiss Francs

Acoustic Consultant: Kahle Acoustics

Theatre Consultant: Ducks Sceno

Structural Engineering: Suisseplan

MEP: BESIX

Landscape Design: Hager

Contractor: BESIX

Acrylic foyer wall: Seen and Acrylic Couture

Lighting: Iguzzini

Glass Facade: Ruch

Seating and retractable tribune: Figueras


CASE STUDY
CRYSTAL PALACE BOWL

The site of legendary concerts by Pink Floyd (1971) and Bob Marley (1980), the landscaped amphitheatre in Crystal Palace Park resounded with live music in summer 2021, and again in 2022. 2021 saw the successful staging of a new open air music festival over four summer weekends, called South Facing. Featuring Max Richter, The Streets and Dizzee Rascal, it marked the first phase of a highly successful crowdfunding campaign, by local charity Back the Bowl, to revive this outdoor performance space, and restore the much admired Crystal Palace Bowl stage that Ian Ritchie Architects completed there in 1997, but which has lain unused since 2010.

Back the Bowl has sought to restore the Crystal Palace Bowl in London back to its former glory as a place both for big festivals and community events. Image Credit: LUIS KRAMER
Back the Bowl has sought to restore the Crystal Palace Bowl in London back to its former glory as a place both for big festivals and community events. Image Credit: LUIS KRAMER

Inspired by the monumental sculptures of Richard Serra, the stage was designed for simplicity and acoustic effectiveness, its form that of an open book facing onto the lake. Says Back the Bowl campaign manager Oliver Marshall: ‘From an acoustics perspective, they were looking for a simple sculptural form which would project the music out, whether low amplification or no amplification. They wanted it to be vandal proof and something which, when it was locked up and left, wouldn’t look like an out of use arts venue, but something beautiful in the landscape.’ The use of corten steel was most unusual at the time, but ‘represented something rooted, earthed’, he says. At the rear of the structure is a steel door which leads into surprisingly spacious back of house facilities. Says Oliver: ‘It’s quite a Tardis on the inside, with changing rooms, make-up rooms [and] a green room. The main use in the 1990s was for classical or orchestral music, so there is space for 100 performers to get changed. We’d like to do something to make that space more flexible, more of a multi-use space.’

A series of weekend concerts in August 2021 attracted crowds of 10,000 people, proving there was still demand for large-scale events despite the pandemic. Image Credit: LUKE DYSON
A series of weekend concerts in August 2021 attracted crowds of 10,000 people, proving there was still demand for large-scale events despite the pandemic. Image Credit: LUKE DYSON

For the festivals in 2021, a temporary pontoon stage was constructed by outdoor events specialists Star Live. Thanks to crowdfunding money of over ?60,000, the first phase of restoration was completed in 2022, with the stage’s rotting timber replaced with new timber ready for this summer’s festivities. For phase two, architects will be appointed to adapt the structure sensitively so it can be usable all year round.


CASE STUDY
LAHOFER WINERY

Deep in the Moravian countryside, the Lahofer Winery and visitor centre has found its outdoor setting, with amphitheatre roof and landscaping, a far greater attraction than they ever anticipated pre-pandemic.

This image The sensitively designed roof terrace space provides intelligent seating as well as splendid views. Image Credit: ALEX SHOOTS BUILDINGS
The sensitively designed roof terrace space provides intelligent seating as well as splendid views. Image Credit: ALEX SHOOTS BUILDINGS

Designed by Chybik + Kristof Architects and Urban Designers, the building responds to the rolling landscape of this Czech wine-making region, as well as architectural tradition. Incorporating wine-making facilities, an administrative base and visitor centre with tasting room, the winery echoes the archetypal wine cellar with a grid of reinforced concrete arched beams framing the interior space, each beam aligned with the geometry of the nearby vine rows.

Live music can be enjoyed by audiences across a multi-level and open-air space all year round. Image Credit: LAURIAN GHINITOIU
Live music can be enjoyed by audiences across a multi-level and open-air space all year round. Image Credit: LAURIAN GHINITOIU

The winery’s multi-purpose structure not only allows for traditional wine-making facilities. Image Credit: LAURIAN GHINITOIU
The winery’s multi-purpose structure not only allows for traditional wine-making facilities. Image Credit: LAURIAN GHINITOIU

The buildings are set into the landscape according to desired temperatures, in two halls at two levels. The upper hall is dedicated to wine-making, and the production and employee facilities can tolerate higher temperatures while the lower hall, which is cooler, houses the wine press, cellar and store. This allows for an undulating roof that becomes an amphitheatre for cultural events for both locals and visitors, spilling into a shared courtyard space with the visitor centre, whose glazed, south-facing frontage draws ample natural light into the interior and allows sweeping views of the landscape.

but also for visitors to enjoy the views across the vineyards even as they immerse themselves in live music. Image Credit: LAURIAN GHINITOIU
but also for visitors to enjoy the views across the vineyards even as they immerse themselves in live music. Image Credit: LAURIAN GHINITOIU

Opening in spring 2020, initial plans to host cultural events, including local grape harvest celebrations and theatre performances, had to go on hold. However, in the summer of 2021, the winery has really come into its own, with initial events expanded and joined by a host of other local musical and theatrical activities, making the most of its pandemic restriction-friendly and spectacular setting. 

Client: Lahofer Winer 

Architects: Chybik + Kristof Architects and Urban Designers 

Area: 2,900 sq m (ground floor area) 

Completed: Spring 2020


CASE STUDY
GW ANNENBERG PERFORMING ARTS CENTRE

Set against the backdrop of old woodland and in front of the historic Victorian buildings of Wellington College, the GW Annenberg Performing Arts Centre’s circular shape and stained timber facade make it a thing of nature – a thing slightly apart from academia – where the school’s art, life and performance culture can evolve and thrive.

Studio Seilern were inspired by ancient Greek ampitheatres, but also wanted to create a sense of intimacy for performers. Image Credit: KANIPAK PHOTOGRAPHY
Studio Seilern were inspired by ancient Greek ampitheatres, but also wanted to create a sense of intimacy for performers. Image Credit: KANIPAK PHOTOGRAPHY

For the exterior, architects Studio Seilern were inspired by the form of ancient Greek amphitheatres, but in designing its 1,400 capacity auditorium their priorities were intimacy as well as acoustic excellence. The broad rows of curved seating are stacked low and wide to encourage a feeling of intimacy for performers, so those of all ages and levels of experience will not feel overwhelmed. Balcony fronts and walls are contoured in pale wood to optimise acoustics but also create a refined, crafted aesthetic of carved timber, complementing the warmth of the rich, red upholstery.

The entrance to the building features a large, curving glass facade that opens onto the broad lobby. Image Credit: HUFTON+CROW
The entrance to the building features a large, curving glass facade that opens onto the broad lobby. Image Credit: HUFTON+CROW

The exterior has also been thoughtfully landscaped to encourage casual yet creative congregating. Image Credit: KANIPAK PHOTOGRAPHY
The exterior has also been thoughtfully landscaped to encourage casual yet creative congregating. Image Credit: KANIPAK PHOTOGRAPHY

The entrance to the building features a large, curving glass facade that opens onto a broad lobby space with workshops and rooms beyond. This multi-purpose area is intended for informal exhibitions and events, for impromptu performances, creative teaching and cultural gatherings, and its large glazed facade speaks of connection and openness onto the wider campus, whose thoughtful landscaping and planting create yet another area for casual and creative congregation.

Client: Wellington College, Berkshire

Architects: Studio Seilern Architects

Area: 3,512 sq m

Completion: 2018

Theatre Consultant: Ducks Sceno

Theatre consultants: Charcoalblue

Landscape Design: Todd Longstaffe-Gowan

Acoustic Consultants Bickerdike Allen Partners

Contractor: BESIX

Awards: Best Building in Education at the World Architecture Festival 2019








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