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Shaftesbury Theatre Renovation

Bennetts Associates

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Shaftesbury Theatre / The Theatre of Comedy Company


  • Structural Engineer: M.J. Consulting
  • General Contractor: Fabrite Engineering Ltd

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Project Description


Bennetts Associates has designed a striking new fly tower for the Grade II listed Shaftesbury Theatre. The project is the final phase of a three year, £5m extension which has completed in time to welcome the acclaimed Broadway musical, Motown.

Located on the corner of Bloomsbury Way and High Holborn, the scheme’s fly tower and existing stage house have been enhanced to increase loading capacity and consolidate additional office accommodation and back of house facilities, which were previously housed in several locations across the site.

The serrated shape of the new flytower box forms a dramatic angular volume on the skyline and is fabricated from panels of weathering steel, complementing both the terracotta and the adjoining building’s faience and brickwork.

Since 1984 the Shaftesbury Theatre has built a reputation as a receiving house for large-scale musical theatre, but with the technical demands of productions increasing, the existing timberframed fly tower was increasingly seen as a limitation on the commercial potential of the venue. A state of the art building fit for large scale musicals was required to ensure the theatre’s long term viability.

Bennetts Associates’ design has permanently extended the fly tower by 10 metres above the existing roof, thereby eliminating the need for temporary adaptation in future, and the new fly tower can now take weights of up to 35 tonnes allowing the venue to stage larger productions.

The form of the new extension was developed in order to create a distinctive contemporary intervention on the theatre’s skyline. With the volume and height fixed by technical constraints, a serrated form was developed which would accommodate windows, smoke vents and other technical requirements within a unified geometry of angular planes.

The theatre’s Grade II listing and position within a conservation area had a major influence on the manner in which the fly tower was designed. In order to be more sympathetic to the scale and grain of the neighbouring buildings, its extruded saw-tooth box appears to simply float above, and only lightly touch the existing building. The proximity to King Edward Mansions and the retention of the

Victorian openable rolling roof to the auditorium, the last remaining example of its kind, were critical constraints to the design and reinforced the building geometry, location and its floating aesthetic.

The self-finished weathering steel cladding oxidises from a vibrant orange colour to a warm burnt umber patina. This material was chosen to correspond to the extensive use of brick and terracotta in the existing theatre’s, and adjacent mansion blocks façades, and creates a distinctive, contemporary addition to the streetscape. Taking the faceted treatment over the entire roof has created a strikingly bold and animated skyline, which obscured a roofscape of glazed roof lights and stage smoke venting from public view.

Much-needed office space straddles the existing stage on four steel columns, which are rooted deep in the bowels of the theatre’s sub-stage. This approach enabled the extension to be independently built above the existing stage house roof, minimising disturbance to the theatre which continued to operate below during much of the construction works. Internally the spaces created by the extension are ideally suited for use as theatrical working environments as they are largely open-plan, adaptable and robust, utilising natural light via the ribbon windows. Richness has been achieved by the playful use of colour on the exposed structural framing elements, with a memory of the existing building captured through the retained section of proscenium brickwork wall.

The new lower office floors enable the theatre to provide office space for the production technical team, thus releasing dressing rooms and increasing the capacity of the theatre to accommodate a production company of 90 people. The upper office floor has enabled the theatre administration team to move out of offices rented in an adjacent building and be closer to the production activity which fosters much better working relations.

Originally designed by the renowned theatre architect Bertie Crewe and being the first steel framed theatre in London, the Shaftesbury Theatre dates from 1911 and was the last of Shaftesbury Avenue’s venues to be completed. The theatre was realised in an elaborate Renaissance style which is exemplified by its rusticated lower floors, high level Diocletian windows and a prominent grand cupola, features which are offset by a flamboyant mixture of terracotta with stone finery and brickwork.

James Williams, Chief Executive of the Shaftesbury Theatre/ The Theatre of Comedy Company, said:

“Whilst maintaining the grace and beauty of the Shaftesbury we now have a contemporary addition that enhances the facilities of the Theatre, giving us the capacity to accommodate the increasing demands of productions. We are thrilled with the benefits that this brings to our customers, producers and actors visiting and working at the Shaftesbury.”

Paul Bowman, Associate at Bennetts Associates, said:

“Despite its challenging brief, the ultimate success of this project has come from a combination of structural ingenuity, contractor know-how and a single-minded approach to architectural form and materials. Add a committed and decisive client and it represents the construction industry at its best”

Bennetts Associates is behind the Stirling Prize shortlisted transformation of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, completed in 2010, and Hampstead Theatre in London. It is currently working with leading UK theatres on a variety of projects, including the proposals for The Old Vic, The Chester Theatre and Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre.
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