INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects

The Bush Theatre Company was established in 1972 and has gained a reputation for championing the best in new international writing. The move to Shepherd's Bush came in 2010 when the company took over the Passmore Edwards Public Library, which had stood disused for two years. The imposing Victorian library, built in 1885 under the patronage of British philanthropist John Passmore Edwards (1823 - 1911), was redesigned by Haworth Tomkins Architects for the theatre group. Sarah Roberts met Imogen Long, Project Architect, in the cosy theatre café to discuss Phase I of the interior design scheme and to see how the theatre is functioning within its new space.

Imogen, what was your involvement in this project?

It was always seen as a collaborative project between Bush Theatre, who are very hands on, and Haworth Tompkins Architects, in terms of design input. Bush Theatre constructed a lot of the bar itself [in the main social space of the building], the light fittings etc. and basically the final look and feel of the space. As architects our role was two-fold: very traditional on the one hand and much more immersed on the other.

Was it a tricky brief?

In terms of the way you would plan the building: the auditorium, back / front of house and so on, it was pretty straight forward. It was tricky in the sense that it was a very new venture for Bush and they had a new image to formulate.

The building is a work in progress. It's part of a much bigger master plan. We started with a feasibility study for a whole scheme, which included proposals to redevelop the garden adjacent to Shepherd's Bush Market. Alongside the regeneration of the market, a new public square would be formed. We designed the garden part of this so that the theatre would interact with that shared space. However, for the front of house part, it was really a question of what do we need to get done to be able to open? The company could then think about raising the money to complete the whole scheme.

How did the budget restrictions on this project affect your design?

We had to look at the scope and identify the most important aspects. There was a tension between the technical requirements of the theatre, the environmental prerequisites of the old building, and the look and feel of the space because ultimately that is what attracts people to visit.

Originally, this was a library run by the council and was a very institutional looking interior. It had carpet tiles, beige walls and track lighting. It was dismal and soulless but you knew from the outside that it had all this character, waiting to be unleashed.

We opened up the space by removing the original foyer and demolishing some walls. We found an arch hidden behind one of the walls, which provided a natural opening between the café and the bar. We used that and revealed the brickwork surrounding it. In terms of layout, we kept to the original footprint but made a multiplicity of small interventions to efficiently use the space.

What recycled materials have you used?

We found a lot of materials here when we started, for example the front of the bar and the café shelves. Photos from the 1980s showed that the library had almost lost its soul. But in earlier pictures the timber furniture looked beautiful. In a locked room at the back of the building we found a massive cabinet full of shelves and cupboards. We used the wood to make new shelves and fit out the space. In the basement we found a pile of timber doors, which have also been used in the front of house area.

So our use of recycled materials was on that level. We also revealed what was already there. In the auditorium we stripped back the walls to expose some really lovely textures and a variety of brick work.

The main building is Victorian but the back extension, which was built on the original footprint of a part of the building that was demolished in the 1950s and rebuilt with a flat roof and roof light, supported by four columns. We resisted getting rid of them as they felt like an intrinsic part of the space. Instead, we removed their thick render cover and revealed the pre-cast concrete plinths beneath. Once they were stripped down the colour of the columns was much more sympathetic. They had a beautiful multisided shape to

them that allowed them to either work with, against or outside of the seating configurations.

The artist Antoni Malinowski designed murals for this interior. How did your collaboration with him begin?

Steve Tompkins knew Antoni Malinowski from a very long way back. We first collaborated with him on The Royal Court Theatre in 1999. Since then we have worked with him several times.

On this project he was initially commissioned to paint the alcove that looks out onto Uxbridge Road, which he chose to make dark indigo, and other walls in the bar area. Using his sense of colour he carried out a lot of test palettes and then decided to go with reflective paints on the ceilings. Along with a real sense of shape, the paint draws in the light and deepens its colour. As we started working with him the brief actually grew due to his love of the space and our shared ideas for it. We had this amazing day of selecting a grey for the auditorium and we finally found the perfect one. You realise then how much of a colour specialist he is and how much he knows about paint!

What was the most challenging part of this project?

Time. There was a set date to open in October. We started the feasibility study in January and started design work in April. We then had a three month implementation period over the summer.

There were also some budget issues in terms of wider engagement. Bush wanted as many people involved as possible including their set building chippies, corporate volunteers who came in to paint doors for a day, locals who had offered their services, and by the end I was here a lot of the time as well. There was a great energy and in some ways, it was like putting on our own show, with the intense build up that comes before opening night.

You still seem very involved. What will Phase II of the project entail?

We do have a continued relationship with Bush and many of our other clients such as the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park who we have worked for since 2003. The second phase is pending due to funding from grants or individual donors so we are just waiting for that to come through.

Battersea Arts Centre has been awarded a £2.5m grant by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to undertake works to its Grade II* listed building. As the appointed designers, what are your plans for the space?

The scale of Battersea is completely different but the client is again very involved. The theatre and the building are far more interrelated. The minute you cross the threshold and enter the auditorium you are surrounded by this sense of mystery and magic that only a theatre can bring.

The building itself is already so rich that the things that we're doing are really selective interventions. We have to work around performances and classes that are continuously taking place.

The main brief was, "We don't want to close, if we do need to close, keep it to a minimum in terms of time, and the part of the building affected." It will be a much longer implementation period, carried out in phases such as grand hall, front of house and so forth. In the vast foyer area we tried to create a sense of intimacy by installing stair-chairs as if on a floating carpet. When you walk in you see this crazy carpet wiggling down the stairs and back up again. It's just the first playful intervention reflective of the interior's theatricality.

About Haworth Tomkins

Haworth Tompkins was formed in 1991 by architects Graham Haworth and Steve Tompkins. The London-based studio has designed buildings in the UK and elsewhere for clients across the public, private and subsidised sectors including schools, galleries, theatres, concert halls, housing, offices, shops and factories.

The buildings they design are influenced by the specific chemistry of individual places and cultural situations. Haworth Tompkins strives to understand a building's context and the needs of its users, a process which often yields original or unconventional solutions. What they have in common is an approach rather than a stylistic signature.