For the Creative Arts
University of Sussex, England
The Gardner Arts Centre, built in the early 1960s on the campus of the University of Sussex, was the product of a collaboration between two very different sensibilities: those of architect Basil Spence (who designed the whole campus) and mercurial theatre designer Sean Kenny. Spence –grounded in mainstream, monumental European modernism- and Kenny -a pioneer of ‘environmental’ staging and complex stage machinery- produced a somewhat conflicted offspring, a ‘freeform’ auditorium (which Kenny intended to be reconfigured without constraint) realised in Spence’s language of robust, curving masonry cylinders. The energy required to reconfigure the space drained down as the questing spirit of the 1960s subsided. When we were asked to rethink it as a whole –starting in 2009- the building was rather sleepy, and in bad physical shape.
Through studies developed to RIBA Stage 3 we attempted to isolate something in the building’s core identity which could come to the fore and flourish with less laborious management needs. Working with ARUP and Charcoalblue, we settled on a spatial simplification (improving circuits of people –including the differently-abled- and stage goods), adding new seating technology (retractable, curved bleachers) which allowed hourly reconfiguration of the space by students. We proposed supplementing a new volume (following Spence’s massing) to house bulky air handling equipment; we also proposed enhancing the flow from outside to auditorium from a new (but already implicitly strong) approach. Theatre technical provision would be from a centralised tension wire grid with compliant access and ease of use for students and technical staff.
Client: University of Sussex
Studio Andrew Todd architects and auditorium designers
Federica von Euw
Structural Engineering: ARUP
Theatre Tech and Acoustics: Charcoalblue