Issue 61Arrested Decay

The Alexandra Palace Theatre reopened last month after 80 years in the dark. FCBStudios Associate Matt Somerville talks about our restrained approach to restoring the Victorian Theatre.

The Alexandra Palace Theatre reopened last month after 80 years in the dark. FCBStudios Associate Matt Somerville talks about our restrained approach to restoring the Victorian Theatre.

Walking into the Alexandra Palace Theatre five years ago was an experience I'll never forget.

What you get is a sense of perspective in time, of looking back through the 140 years of this room’s existence. You can almost hear the echoes of the last performance 80 years ago before the curtain came down. 

Conceived as a place for the entertainment and enlightenment of London’s burgeoning population in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Alexandra Palace was a speculative project on a grand scale. Although initially successful, audiences for its theatre soon dwindled. The space has since served as a cinema and, during the First World War, as a chapel and hospital. When the BBC occupied the East Wing of the Palace from 1936 - inaugurating the world’s first scheduled television broadcast – the theatre became their props store and scenery workshop. Finally, for 30 years, the space lay abandoned and almost forgotten.

This eventful history is legible on the surfaces and in the fabric of the building – its inception in a period of grandeur, overlaid with decades of alteration, damage and slow decay. All of this is integral to the atmosphere, the character and the story of this space. The past is suddenly tangible. To bring the theatre back to life some far-reaching interventions were called for, but of paramount importance was the preservation of the evocative and layered character that made this space unique – a fragile quality that could have been destroyed by well-meaning repair.

Behind the scenes, extensive engineering works have been undertaken. The theatre’s sloping floor has been replaced with a new, level one. This enables performances to be drawn out from the stage into the auditorium itself in contemporary formats never conceived by its Victorian designers. Seating was added above the two side corridors built in a 1920s remodelling, the better to surround performers with their audience. We also inserted an entirely new circle balcony structure immediately above the original, to increase the rake and improve sightlines into the middle of the auditorium. The result is a sense of intimacy that’s surprising for such a large space.

Above this voluminous room, the roof structure has been re-engineered to support a grid of 64 rigging points which carry the scenery, lighting and audio equipment necessary for modern productions. These extensive works, however, are masked by the elaborate plasterwork ceiling. Found to be in very fragile condition, it has been conserved and consolidated from above but, where pieces were missing or damaged, they have not been restored. As with other historic surfaces, the ceiling is treated and presented “as found”; as an artefact that tells of the opulence, decay and rebirth of the theatre.

The East Court, a vaulted, glazed exhibition hall with a scale and character reminiscent of a Victorian railway terminus, has been brought back to life as an extremely generous foyer space for the theatre which, during the daytime, serves as the public face of Alexandra Palace. Seen as an extension of the park, it is freely open to all as a welcoming place to stop for a coffee, to learn about the people and events that make up the palace’s extraordinary history. A striking addition here is a new floor, painted as a 1000m² graphic installation by artists, Art + Believe, very much in the spirit of the palace as a place of fun and spectacle.

Elsewhere, the project has been about the exercise of restraint: of knowing when to stop. We used the term ‘arrested decay’ to describe an approach of consolidation rather than restoration. In treating rooms as found spaces, we’ve addressed the mechanisms of deterioration, removed elements that were unsafe or could not be viably repaired, and presented the result to public view as a direct manifestation of the stories embodied in all of these spaces.

By avoiding restoration, elements that are new are legible as such. They are informed by the super-scale of the Victorian Palace and the ambitions it represents, so need to be assertive to find their place in this context. At the same time, this is one more layer added to many previous ones.

Matt Somerville

Alexandra Palace's East Wing reopened to the public in December 2018. Read more about how the East Court and Theatre have been brought back to life here.

All images © Richard Battye for FCBStudios, except:

1. Detail of the Theatre, © Lloyd Winters for Alexandra Palace
3. Friday Night is Music Night, December 2018, © Graham Joy Photography for Alexandra Palace
4. Courtney Pine at Alexandra Palace Theatre, December 2018 © Lloyd Winters for Alexandra Palace
7. Alexandra Palace East Court, with graphic floor installation by Art + Believe © Art + Believe