The historic neighbourhood of Covent Garden has had a number of theatre buildings on this site culminating in the present building designed by E. M. Barry in 1858. In 1999, a major extension and refurbishment was carried out by the architects Dixon Jones/BDP. Building on that legacy the Royal Opera House launched the Open Up project as an international architectural competition in 2012. Stanton Williams were appointed and over the following two years the brief was developed and refined. In 2014 detailed design commenced with the following objectives: to create a world class second theatre for the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet alongside the historic auditorium; to create new facilities and spaces to enhance the experience for audiences around performances in both theatres; and to invite a new daytime audience to connect with the extraordinary world of ballet and opera, often for the first time. At all times of the day, the Royal Opera House building should be a place to glimpse the remarkable forces at play behind the scenes; a place to relax and have a coffee, lunch or a drink in the midst of the one of the world’s most beautiful opera houses; a place to see artists at work; and a place to showcase its guiding principles of excellence, theatricality and curiosity.
The design represents a physical manifestation of cultural change at the Royal Opera House. Seen as an inclusive and multifaceted cultural and social hub, the new ground floor public areas are expanded, providing a café, new shops and informal event/ exhibition spaces. In addition there is a remodelled entrance from the Covent Garden Piazza, and a new glazed entrance pavilion on Bow Street. At the lower level is the new Linbury Theatre and associated foyer as well as learning spaces and new female toilets. A new restaurant, bar and terrace at the amphitheatre level gives visitors spectacular views over Covent Garden. Stanton Williams developed the designs with the Royal Opera House via sketches, physical models and visualisations.
Constructed over nearly three years, the project enabled the Opera House to remain operational throughout, allowing for 996 uninterrupted performances. Therefore, the carving out of new space posed considerable design and engineering challenges throughout. Working with a carefully chosen palette of materials, every element of the design was subjected to a process of detailed development, prototyping and testing, working with a team of specialist craftsmen, to achieve a high level of quality.
Redesigned Bow Street Entrance
As a heritage listed and fully operational building, the opportunities for visually opening up the perimeter of the building posed a significant challenge. A new glazed extension is erected beneath the historic, glazed Paul Hamlyn Hall. Requiring significant structural alterations and reconfiguration of the existing foyer ventilation system, an excavation of the basement beneath creates a double-storey height void. The glazing at street level has been detailed with reference to the historic ironwork above. Panels possess a similar proportion to the framing on the Paul Hamlyn Hall, and junctions between glass are pronounced with projected capping. Fabricated from brushed stainless steel, the extension structure is defined by its crisp detailing and the use of a dark patinated brass for the entrance at the northern end.
Redesigned Covent Garden Piazza Entrance
To the west, at the Covent Garden Piazza entrance – once considered the ‘back door’ – where over 50% of patrons now enter the building, the available opening is constrained by two retail units and, above, by the stage trucking area. To overcome this, Stanton Williams proposed the introduction of a new curved glass screen. This contains a new revolving door and a large, floor-to-ceiling digital screen behind the glass entrance. The new entrance is designed to sit within the piazza colonnade, welcoming the many visitors who pass through Covent Garden each year.
The new foyers have been enlarged and enhanced by:
— removing significant elements of structure, such as back-of-house stair cores and ventilation shafts
— reducing the extent of the cloakrooms by redistributing them across several floors
— re-locating the female toilets to the previous private dining rooms in the vaults beneath the main auditorium
— re-working the previous ramped floor surfaces to make better use of the floor area
The new, expanded and integrated foyers provide a flowing space from the piazza entrance, through the ground floor to the Paul Hamlyn Hall, and then down into the Linbury Theatre. Within the foyers, a palette of warm, natural materials – stone and timber – together with improved lighting, form a backdrop to the animation of the spaces by the ROH’s creative teams as the performance seasons develop.
The new ground floor foyer accommodates the large volume of visitors immediately before and after performances, and also provides a range of characterful spaces that can be activated outside of these times with small-scale public events. Spaces throughout can be used for large gatherings or as quiet seating areas.
As part of the ‘Open Up’ vision, the foyers provide:
— showcases against the entrances to the historic 1858 auditorium — designated walls and lighting for display
— digital screens
— structural supports in the ceilings for potential suspension of theatrical objects
— digital projectors in the space beneath the existing escalator for image mapping specifically commissioned films, intended to be projected throughout the day
The foyers have been designed to function as a series of spaces that interconnect and flow between different levels and activities. The public has (ticket-free) access to retail areas, cafés, and exhibition and formal event spaces throughout the day. Access into the original 1858 foyer is via a new grand staircase leading to the Paul Hamlyn Hall. The escalators then lead to a new Brasserie and terrace at Amphitheatre level overlooking Covent Garden Piazza. Adjacent
to the Bow Street entrance to the foyers, a double-height space (visible from the street, as well as the interior) links down to the Linbury Theatre, and also provides a location for impromptu events.
At this lower level, the Linbury Foyer will accommodate audiences, and allow education programmes for all ages to take place during the day. A stepped floor edge in the Linbury Foyer creates an informal performance area. The Linbury Foyer also incorporates a bar and new cloak room.
The New Linbury Theatre
The existing ‘black box’ studio theatre was constructed during the previous development. For the ‘Open Up’ project, Stanton Williams, together with the theatre designers Charcoalblue, have designed a new auditorium within
the existing concrete shell that matches the previous audience capacity of 400 people, whilst improving comfort, acoustics, technical performance and providing a theatre with its own distinctive character. The Linbury Theatre will have a programme of opera and ballet performances, as well as being used for orchestral rehearsals and the extensive activity of the Learning and Participation programme. The space has been designed to allow adaptability for a diverse range of productions, and to accommodate more experimental pieces of work. The design concept for the new theatre was to provide an ‘inclusive’ form that creates a strong connection between audience and stage. The ‘horseshoe’ of the auditorium embraces the performance space while allowing the stalls/stage area to be re- configured into different staging formats (‘end-on’, ‘thrust’, ‘traverse’, ‘in-the-round’, ‘flat floor’). Architecturally, the new theatre space is conceived as a timber ‘shell’ setting within the ‘black box’ of the structural container. The auditorium is built in American Black Walnut (as used in the foyers). The warmth and richness of the timber grain is highlighted against the black walls, and the level of skilled workmanship used in its fabrication is highlighted in the detailing throughout. Seats are upholstered in a purple woven fabric. The theatre has been equipped with new digital technical systems and a state-of-the-art electro-acoustic system to enhance the acoustic performance of the existing concrete ‘box’. Structural alterations were also made to the stalls floor to accommodate a series of seating elevators that enable a steep rake seating configuration
at stalls level (so that performers can be seen in their entirety during ballet performances) or a shallow rake setting for opera and other performances.
Paul Hamlyn Hall
An attractive feature of the Royal Opera House, the Paul Hamlyn Hall at first floor level maintained operations throughout the construction period. Previous access to this space was primarily via a stair from the foyer below that landed within the hall and separated the event floor from the historic glazed façade. As this was also the only route to the existing escalator that took visitors to the Amphitheatre spaces above. If events were taking place in the hall, no access was available to the upper levels. As a part of Stanton Williams’ proposals, a new stair was positioned to allow continuing public access to the Amphitheatre level and its new restaurant facilities, whilst still enabling events to take place within the hall. The new extension into Bow Street below also enabled the creation of an external terrace at the Paul Hamlyn Hall level. This is accessed by two new doors within the historic façade. The new ‘grand stair’ from the ground floor foyer has stone treads with integrated lighting elements, and forms part of the ‘sweep’ of circulation from the ground floor up to the amphitheatre level.
Refurbished Amphitheatre level and Amphitheatre Terrace
The amphitheatre level currently serves audiences seated within the upper tiers of the auditorium and those attending special events in the Clore Studio on the floor above. The space is now open to the public throughout the day and has a new restaurant, bar and terrace extension that overlooks Covent Garden. The restaurant has been designed by Dutch interior design practice Studio Linse. Stanton Williams has refurbished the existing external terrace to create a glazed glass conservatory, thereby permitting dining to take place throughout the year. Glass box extensions provide dining alcoves that link interior and exterior.
Seating and drink shelf locations by Studio Linse are positioned to maximise not only views down to the Piazza below, but also to enhance the level of perceptible activity at this level from the Piazza.
Female Toilets and Learning Spaces
The first stage of works undertaken was the transformation of the vaults beneath the nineteenth century entrance lobby (which previously housed private dining spaces) into new toilets. The completion of these in late 2016 allowed works to commence in the main foyer spaces whilst maintaining operation of the building.
The toilets were designed to serve the main auditorium and the Linbury Theatre. Increased numbers of toilets in one location that can be accessed from both sides of the main auditorium significantly reduces both travel time and queues. Individual American Black Walnut cubicles are provided either side of a central access route. In the central space washbasins are provided on one side, while the other side has dedicated vanity counters.
One of the major interventions of the scheme is the creation of a ‘void’, which leads visitors from the ground floor foyer to the Linbury Foyer below. Its incorporation simultaneously eases circulation, produces an informal, small-scale performance space, and creates a strong visual connection between the passing public and activities taking place within, inviting the public inside by ‘opening up’ the building. This void is the result of ambitious engineering – undertaken firstly with Arup, then with Robert Bird Group – with highly aligned understanding and collaboration between engineer, architect and specialist contractors. The previous heavy wall and large concrete piers were sequentially removed, while a large steel truss was located above them to support the Paul Hamlyn Hall.
The Royal Opera House ‘Open Up’ project consists of a series of interventions in the existing Royal Opera House building in Covent Garden. The key objectives of the project are to increase permeability and visibility for the building and, with this, to increase public engagement, all while contributing towards meeting the Royal Opera House’s environmental strategy. The ‘Open Up’ project will result in an improvement to the public access of the Royal Opera House. In turn, this will lead to greater enjoyment of the public and possibly increased foot-fall and will support the wider objectives of the Royal Opera House with regard to whole building reductions in energy consumption and related carbon emissions.