Rejuvenate: How do we protect, preserve and re-imagine our cultural and community assets for future generations?

25 March 2024

Brighton Dome Corn Exchange -  Music Concert

We began our recently launched programme of events around ‘Architecture For A Changing World : Rethinking The Future’ with a critical look at the culture and arts sector, discussing how the re-use of buildings is an integral part of creating sustainable architecture whilst being vital in keeping the culture of our towns and cities alive.

The discussion centred around Brighton Dome Corn Exchange and Alexandra Palace - two fascinating historical structures which are now both regarded as boundary pushing, leading arts venues in the UK. In many ways their stories draw parallels– both having gone through numerous lives and uses over their rich histories, both choosing an approach of restoration and conservation which stripped back the layers of interventions, and both now able to be the flexible, accessible, viable, creative venues that are needed to be fit for the future due to the reimagining of the spaces within.

Andrew Comben, Chief Executive of Brighton Dome and Brighton Festival and Emma Dagnes, Chief Executive of Alexandra Palace shared their experiences of overseeing the major re-working of these buildings and reflected on both the challenges and the successes.  Their thoughts were followed by a presentation by Elena Giakoumaki, Director at Charcoalblue, which highlighted approaches to several different theatre and arts venues both in the UK and internationally which have adapted to remain relevant and practical to current and future audiences and creative directions.

Alexandra Palace - Space in use

Designing for flexibility

Key, it seems, in all of this is the ability to flex, to transform staging, seating, technical rigging to allow for a range of genres, artforms and experiences with as little disruption and time as possible. As Elena noted, ‘Immersive environments, layered reality, interactivity, overlap of visual and performing art forms and media are no longer the next new thing they are now an absolute given, so enabling this kind of work, not always, but often requires spaces that share some, if not all, of the following: generous scale, no notion of a 4th wall, not relying on sightlines to a specific area, are typically flat floor, have simple and robust technical infrastructure and more importantly space that do not feel particular to a singular artform or media.’

Both Alexandra Palace and Brighton Dome placed that flexibility at the heart of their brief. Emma Dagnes - ‘I think it is important to note that what the theatre has done for us is open us up to genres that we would never have been able to have prior to the theatre. The flexibility is the commercial bullet-proofing for us. And because it is so light touch we can shift the space around quickly. I remember the conversations at the time about how many people hours is it going to take, and it has worked really well for us. It is an incredibly busy and versatile space.’

Rich Garfield who had worked at Brighton Dome as Head of Production and then went on to work for Charcoalblue during the renovation commented ‘making a space truly flexible is difficult – the Corn Exchange is big so trying to keep that beautiful historic timber, hanging enough weight from it is tricky – what do you need to change it from a 500 seated to a 900 standing and everything in between? It felt that we pretty much got it right – now having a light space that people can work in, more automation, relatively simplistic systems which keep maintenance budgets down, but doing it in a way that is sensitive to the building and is operationally right which means it can turn around is one of the successes.’

Andrew Comben noted ‘Almost any artist that you take into the Corn Exchange responds to it, loves it and wants to make work for it, so being able to do work at scale as well as be a real engine of mid-scale theatre and dance has always been in my mind – being able to do that in a commercial way as well as an artistic way.’

Alexandra Palace - Space in use

pragmatic approaches to change

Ahead of their ‘rejuvenation’ both Brighton Dome and Alexandra Palace were dated and no longer fit for purpose. The need for a new approach was clear if they were to remain relevant. But as a sector this is nothing new as Elena reflected: ‘Theatre has always been extremely pragmatic about finding practical solutions with little room for sentimentality. Since its birth, theatre has always been a reflection of who and where we are as a society both in the work presented on stage and the building itself.’

Emma Dagnes agreed : ‘I can’t highlight enough what a game-changer this project has been for Ally Pally, going into the next 150 years of the estate we will go on to bigger and better and brighter things and that has all come from this project.’

To learn more about the ‘rejuvenation’ of Brighton Dome Corn Exchange and Studio Theatre watch our film.

And you can learn more about our work with Alexandra Palace here.

architecture for the arts

We make successful, sustainable spaces for culture and communities. Whether working in existing buildings galleries or institutions to upgrade and remodel found spaces or starting from scratch with a new building, we remain focused on designing environments and creating content based on experience, plurality, learning and theatricality. Our award-winning projects are a testament to our innovative and inclusive approach to design. We create buildings that are designed in response to place, culture and the environment.

Andy Theobald is our Arts & Culture lead.