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Burrell Foley Fischer

Photo by French & Tye

What a dream moment – the opportunity to be architects for the refurbishment of a well-loved theatre – to increase its capacity, improve the sight lines and give it a sustainable future. At Hall for Cornwall, this was wrapped up in a fine collection of Grade II* listed buildings and a mission aligned with the values of our architectural practice – to encourage the arts, celebrate the heritage of listed buildings and enable access for all without distinction.

The Green Room Café by Hugh Hastings

The seeds of the project were all there in that first, well-written brief. In essence, it asked us to create a dynamic and strong relationship between performers and audience; embrace a building that had evolved with the vicissitudes of fortune for 175 years; develop a site that had been occupied for much longer, and celebrate the Cornish context, the culture, the language and the independent attitude.

We hadn’t anticipated falling in love with Truro

It happened on that first evening as we looked at the rain-swept granite, listening to the noisy rills of water and the disappearing estuaries that danced and twisted through the streets, subtly carving the shape of the city. We explored the idiosyncrasies of the Opeways with their crazy shortcuts – you enter Squeeze Guts Alley next to the shoe shop and pop out at the back of a Gothic Revival cathedral that should be in Northern France.

View from Lemon Quay by Hugh Hastings

As architects, you always start with questions

The building has always been civic - a market, skating rink, cinema, shooting range amongst others. Could we create an open public building where the audience flowed as naturally and easily through the internal spaces as they did in the streets? The precedent of the Plen-an-Gwari, was in our minds, a sophisticated contemporary of the transient, Medieval pageant wagon. The Plen was the permanent circular playing space of Medieval Cornish theatre. Sited at the edge of town, the audience was accompanied from scene to scene by the narrator and free to move around the staging.

The auditorium prior to renovation - photographer unknown

What was the quality of the existing building? We saw the austere beauty of Christopher Eales’ 1847 marketplace on the Boscawen side, and the softer, light-filled Back Quay with tall spaces and fine windows looking onto Lemon Quay. But the space in the middle was covered in plasterboard and painted purple. The volume of the space could potentially provide a fine acoustic, but risk lay in what we might uncover when we stripped out the late 20th century insertions around the perimeter.

Standing on stage in the arena style auditorium with the audience vanishing into the far corners we absolutely understood the disconnect between the audience and performer. The space was too wide and the proscenium enormous, but we needed to make it bigger, adding 300 seats and a roof extension too.

During the renovation by Hugh Hastings

On meeting Julien and the team for the first time it was evident they’d already worked on reimagining the building and gathered enough funding to realise their vision – we knew we had to respond by making something unique. Not a London theatre transposed, no red velvet upholstery or closed shutters if there wasn’t a performance. Comfortable, relaxed, welcoming and of the highest quality is what the Cornish people deserved.

Julien was brave enough to say yes to our question and prompt more

History uncovered... by Hugh Hastings

Yes, to an open space where the audience easily moves from the foyer to stalls and balconies and where there is always a stair or ramp to connect through to the next level. Yes, to exposing the perimeter walls regardless, revealing a palette of rough and friable
Cornish Killas stone, blocks of Carn Brea granite, modern concrete blocks, old roof lines and redundant steels that sketched the history of the building. Yes, to allowing the auditorium to sit as a simple, robust and modern insertion clearly differentiated from the restrained classical formality of the architecture of the listed building.

Seating in the Cornwall Playhouse by Hugh Hastings

Working closely with Charcoalblue, Skelly and Couch, and Price and Myers, we designed a three-tiered auditorium. We replaced the old one and introduced new circle and balcony levels by reusing the existing structural frame, extending it at roof level and digging down into the ground. This created 1,250 seats in the stalls, circle, and balcony combined with 100 standing seats, increasing the overall capacity from 900 to 1,350. Enough to compete with top-tier presenting theatres and receive the first tours of brand-new shows. Installing movable shutters and drapes means the theatre can tailor its acoustic and atmospheric profile to suit drama, stand-up comedy, amplified music, orchestral music and other live events.

The new auditorium is an open space within the granite box of the original marketplace

With new views through and out to the back façade of the city hall and Back Quay on the harbour side, the public can now glimpse the world of theatre in the daytime during rehearsals and set-ups. Together with the lifts and gentle ramps across the site there’s universal access. Better seating for all audience members includes thirteen spaces for those using wheelchairs and with a variety of locations within the auditorium to choose from. Improved dressing room facilities, and for the first time, accessible facilities for performers with disabilities.

The fantastic arcaded marketplace on Boscawen Street has been restored. It now forms a new foyer for the theatre and Playhouse Bar. We also remodeled the original Duchy offices at the Back Quay to form Husa, a new co-working space with a relaxed café bar.

The Playhouse Bar by Hugh Hastings

Embarking on a huge refurbishment project is always a leap into the unknown, but Julien and his team were quick to make thoughtful decisions throughout. The early reference to Basil Spence was a clear signal and we followed a clear set of principles – the building’s past had to be celebrated as part of the local collective community heritage; it wasn’t a restoration, but we had to stabilise the building, and the ask was to show the scars of the previous alterations, as well as be true to the materials, adding only honest and robust detailing with refined surfaces that want to be touched (oak, steel, soft-stained wood) and maintain simplicity everywhere else.

A standing ovation in the Cornwall Playhouse by Hugh Hastings

The Cornish are proud, independently-minded people with a keen sense of historical and cultural identity. In revitalising the Hall for Cornwall, we were asked to design a theatre that was representative of its location and culture; a space that was open to all, without barriers to attendance or participation. The finished building successfully connects the past and the present, the social with the artistic, and the community with heritage and place.

Opening night of Fisherman's Friends: The Musical by Hugh Hastings

It felt like we’d got it right at that first Saturday night performance of Fisherman’s Friends. When the audience rose to its feet to sing along with the cast – any barriers between the community and the performers vanished.



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