Canterbury’s curtain call
The theatre stays true to a modernist tradition of clear delineation of functions
A design that separated the New Marlowe Theatre into discrete functions called for multiple cladding solutions. Stephen Cousins reports. Photographs: Morley Von Sternberg
For over a thousand years, the cathedral has dominated Canterbury’s skyline. Its 72m-high gothic towers are omnipresent above the narrow medieval streets, drawing in more than a million visitors a year. But now the centre of English Christianity has a new monument on its skyline — the bold and uncompromisingly modern profile of the New Marlowe Theatre.
On site under main contractor ISG Jackson to the west of the city centre, just a short distance from the cathedral, the £25.5m project has been designed by Keith Williams Architects (KWA). The practice has carved a niche in the arts and public buildings sector with designs that may lack the fashionable “wow” factor favoured by shape-making architects, but remain true to a pure modernist tradition.
As such, its arrival in Canterbury has certainly attracted attention, explains Colin Overall, project manager at ISG Jackson: “There was a huge debate in Canterbury about whether this building should go ahead. Some said its palette of materials was unsuitable, others thought its relative height was an affront to the cathedral. But we stayed true to the design because it’s a very important building. There’s a lot of local feeling for the theatre and we wanted to create something that people could be proud of.”
KWA chose to divide the building’s distinct functions — foyer, auditorium, second auditorium and fly tower — into separate geometric structures, each one expressed externally using a different material. “We wanted the theatre to have several distinct elements, which clearly connect to give a clarity to how the building is read,” says project architect Matthew Green. “We talked about it in the office as a form of relaxed classicism, detailed in a sophisticated way.”
As a result, the theatre incorporates a total of seven different cladding systems, which include traditional materials such as hand-worked copper panels and stone render, plus contemporary glass curtain walling and Kingspan insulated panels.
At ground level, an elegant 9m-high colonnade of glittering white dolomite wraps around the front and side of the building, while the pinnacle topping the fly tower is clad in a shiny industrial mesh.
Developing the envelope designs was a lengthy process. The New Marlowe stands in a UNESCO World Heritage Site and planners required the design team to strictly monitor the theatre’s impact on views of the cathedral and select only the highest quality materials.
On site, main contractor ISG Jackson had to co-ordinate the multiple cladding contractors, as well as work up complex details where modern and traditional materials meet. ISG endeavoured to get the subcontractors involved early on in the design to iron out any problems. “There are interfaces of glass, copper and stone render; or stone render, copper and composite panels. We spent a lot of time understanding how they meet and designed details that would work for each element,” says Overall.
The original Marlowe theatre began life in the 1930s as an Odeon cinema, which was remodelled in the 1980s to include a fly tower and extra seating for staging plays. But the building was still not fit for purpose: actors found it hard to project their voices to the back of the long auditorium and the 950-seat capacity made it unsuitable for larger productions.
By 2003, the theatre was dated and badly deteriorating, so Canterbury City Council completed a feasibility study to examine options for refurbishment or redevelopment. It decided to demolish the old theatre, apart from its fly tower which was structurally sound and could be remodelled, and create a new purpose-built 1,200-seat theatre around it.
The New Marlowe has a shallower footprint, but extends upwards to provide three levels of seating in the main auditorium, giving patrons more intimate views of the stage. A second 150-seat auditorium has been added at first floor level for community and educational productions and workshops, while a new orchestral pit in the main auditorium will provide room for up to 80 musicians.
From the outside, the Marlowe rises in levels from a public piazza in the south to the pointed pinnacle of the fly tower to the north. Visitors enter the building from the piazza via a foyer identified by its double-height curtain-walling, where a feature staircase provides vertical circulation and access to the balcony levels, box office, cafe, bars and amenities. The foyer is enclosed behind a white stone colonnade, which sweeps around the front to the east side of the building, partially covering the large copper-clad box of the second auditorium.
This box “floats” at first floor level above the cafe, which opens out onto a newly landscaped riverside walk to the rear, alongside the river Stour. Above the tooth-like grin of the colonnade rises the large grey bulk of the auditorium, which is clad in Kingspan insulated panels.
The theatre’s dominant position on the Canterbury skyline and its sensitive location next to a grade I listed Dominican friary and church meant paying careful consideration to its form and composition. KWA was required to complete a study comparing the heights of various structural elements in relation to the cathedral and their impact on views across the city.
“We set up long distance views and got consultants involved to assess the impact,” says KWA’s Green. “The pyramid-like pinnacle added to the top of the existing fly tower divided most opinion, but we felt it was needed to give the building a more iconic status.”
Likewise, the choice of cladding materials was crucial and ISG Jackson had to ensure the same high-quality materials promised at design stage were actually installed. “Our value engineering had to focus on other elements of the design and, generally speaking, the main palette of the envelope has been retained from the start to the end of the project,” says ISG’s Overall.
Model shot showing the relationship between the city’s two landmarks
A traditional copper standing seam system covers the second auditorium block — a KWA favourite previously used on its Unicorn Theatre in London’s Southwark. Installed by subcontractor TR Freeman, the TECU Oxid copper material is pre-weathered to give it a brown-tinged rusted appearance. “The weathering will change on different areas depending on exposure to weather, so the area covered by the colonnade will look totally different to the copper on the facade,” says Overall.
The material was first passed through a forming machine to create the profiles and standing seams, which were then nailed and fixed by hand to the facade from scaffolding. Individual panels were created at 200mm, 400mm and 600mm widths, and at random lengths.
At just 0.7mm thick, the copper surface visibly undulates, a natural variation which posed some challenges, explains Paul Webb, contracts manager at TR Freeman. “Once on the building it takes the shape it wants to. This was problematic at the abutment between the copper and the rigid prefabricated curtain walling in the foyer and meant tweaking the flashing details to accommodate the raking interfaces,” he says.
On the southern-most section of the facade the copper wraps around the base of the auditorium box to create a soffit, which appears to extend through the external glazing into the foyer space. Achieving this unusual illusion was no mean feat, adds Webb: “We have never installed copper upside down like this and we had to detail the soffit to give the impression that the copper continues through the glazing without a break. It wasn’t easy as we had to allow room for the glazing to be removed for repairs.”
Some 2,100m2 of woven stainless steel mesh will enclose the theatre’s fly tower walls and its pyramid-like pinnacle. Mesh is already an architectural favourite, used to create an industrial aesthetic — at London’s Young Vic Theatre it gives the slightly rough-around-the-edges feel that matches its artistic programme. But here, the mesh is raised 800mm above the top of the fly tower on metal brackets to create a more ethereal transparent effect (see box). Depending on where the viewer stands, and the time of day, the material is designed to change hue and reveal different areas of light and shade.
Just seven months from completion, the New Marlowe is already shaping up as a bold new presence in the city, but one that’s also subtle in its detailing and colours. Anyone viewing the mesh at sunset will see the same tones of brown as on the oxidised surface of the copper standing seam. Meanwhile, the austere white colonnade lends the building the calm orderliness and purity of the cathedral. Perhaps, rather than competing as rivals, the theatre and its neighbour can complement one another after all.
Dolomite aggregate colonnades enclose the foyer’s curtain wall glazing, with the cathedral in the background
The bronze-clad second auditorium interfacing with the colonnade, while its soffit appears continuous on either side of the curtain walling
Cladding the fly tower – at a stretch
The walls of the fly tower and its distinctive roof are covered by a woven stainless steel mesh, which is stretched over a steel skeleton frame raised 800mm from the surface of the fly tower on metal outriggers. The skeleton is formed from steel members and connection plates, plus hollow circular support members to provide additional tension. The roof shape created is a quarter-pyramid, with two sloping planes that meet at a central hip joint.
The mesh is tightened over the skeleton using U-shaped “tensioning forks”, also known as clevis joints, that grip on to the mesh at one end of the line of tension. At the other end, the mesh is gripped by a spring joint, which bolts through folded steel panels at the edge of the mesh.
“Normally this kind of mesh is used on large flat-walled buildings and is easily tensioned from horizontal to horizontal,” says Matthew Green, project architect at Keith Williams Architects. “But the pinnacle slopes in two directions, so it has been tricky for the structural engineer, Buro Happold, to work out how to tension it correctly for all the various angles. It has never been done on a roof before.”
The solution lies in the articulated ball joints set into the clevis joints, which allow a degree of movement.
When that job is complete, a team of abseilers will descend the walls of the fly tower in the space between the raised mesh and the walls to fix the rest of the mesh together.
The mesh on the fly tower’s pinnacle is used to give a light, ethereal effect
The mesh is held away from the fly tower structure by metal outriggers