Issue 16 Suspended animation

"...if we restore the theatre to a pristine condition we will destroy the very quality of the space that makes it so intriguing and unique."

Our fascination in recent years with images of the decaying splendour of public architecture in Detroit has served to emphasise the poignant attraction of abandoned spaces. But, when we set out to bring these spaces back to use, what value do we attribute to their 'as found' character? They are eloquent of a slide towards dereliction, but should we strive to turn back the clock? These are some of the questions raised by our work at Alexandra Palace in north London.

The Palace’s east wing contains its most important historical spaces; the fire that destroyed the Great Hall and west wing in 1980 at least spared this part of the sprawling Victorian edifice. They include the BBC television station from which the world’s first scheduled high definition television broadcasts were made in 1938, and a Victorian theatre that has been ‘dark’ for eighty years. It survived because it was used by the BBC as a prop store and occasional rehearsal space and, as a result, escaped any attempt at modernisation. The space we’ve inherited is the little known gem of Ally Pally – a theatrical space substantially unchanged since the 1920s.

As a theatre it was never a great success. The Palace's architect, John Johnson, had no experience as a theatre designer. The auditorium is too long and narrow, with the stage much too distant from the circle balcony. Acoustically the space was too reverberent, and it is difficult to think that audience members near the back would have been satisfied customers. On the stage, there is no fly tower to speak of, since this would have compromised the Palace's bi-axial symmetry. Instead, a deep stage pit contains the most complete and elaborate set of Victorian stage machinery anywhere in the country - but this did not remedy the deficit and it was abandoned in the 1920s.

Since its closure, the processes of decay and wear have effected a gradual but dramatic transformation of the theatre's auditorium. An emergency 'temporary' roof installed 15 years ago has solved most of the damaging leaks from roofs and gutters and held the theatre in a state of suspended animation; a condition of arrested decay. The impact of the space now lies in the sense that, on first entering, you feel you might be the first person to see the theatre for many decades. At the same time, the echo of Victorian pantomime seems just to have faded out of hearing.

It is this condition that makes the theatre at Ally Pally unique. The challenge faced by our team is to preserve the special character of the space while making it safe for public access, and addressing its inherent design defects. This means making the theatre work in ways not anticipated by its original designer: bringing the stage out into the auditorium for performances in the round, or on a traverse stage running the length of the auditorium. Users must be able to configure and occupy the space in the way that best suits their own needs but, importantly, the context for this is a room presented very much as it now stands.

This 'found space' character is undoubtedly fragile and could very easily be obliterated through well-meaning repair. Historic plasterwork will only be touched where necessary to make it stable and safe; we need to resist the urge to repair for purely 'aesthetic' reasons. More difficult questions arise where we need to remove plaster that is unstable beyond reasonable repair. The ceiling is a particular challenge. The flat lath and plaster sections (actually the original Victorian ceiling onto which elaborate moulded profiles were added in the 1920s) is suffering the effects of water ingress and is in a poor state of repair. If large sections are unsound, as seems likely to be the case, do we remove and replace them with new plaster? And how would we decorate the new plaster surface? Or should we leave the gaps in the ceiling instead? Investigation on site will help us shape an approach informed by the condition of the fabric. What is clear, though, is that if we restore the theatre to a pristine condition we will destroy the very quality of the space that makes it so intriguing and unique.

Matt Somerville

Images courtesy:
©Getty Images for Alexandra Palace
The Theatres Trust