Initially designed from the inside out and without a predetermined site, Andrew Todd’s Elizabethan theater at France’s Château d’Hardelot emerged from what he calls a “very peculiar process.” Proposed as part of a design competition hosted in 2013 by the local government in the northern region of Pas-de-Calais—just across the English Channel from the U.K.—the theater needed to be discreet to avoid competing with the 13th-century castle that occupies much of the historic area.
The building would replace a temporary theater structure used by the Center Culturel de l’Entente Cordiale, an institution dedicated to celebrating what Todd calls “Franco-British friendship,” and though the brief called for an untreated wood cladding, the precise location of the structure would be left up to the architects.
For their submission—which ultimately won the competition and contract—the theater-design specialists at the Paris-based Studio Andrew Todd focused first on the auditorium. Inspired by early Shakespearean theaters, such as the Rose, in London, as well as contemporary spaces such as Peter Brooks’ Bouffes du Nord, in Paris, Todd conceived of a three-story, cylindrical auditorium constructed almost entirely of wood, including a structure of curved cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels. “We had a few simple paradigms that we followed,” Todd says. “One was: What are the absolute minimum volumes which can respond to the brief? [Another was:] What is the most intimate 400-seat auditorium that we can design?”
Still lacking an overall form, Todd’s team honed the details. “We literally started drawing detailed sections, showing sight lines to get the balcony heights as low as possible, to get a rhythm of the columns that would follow a rhythm of the seats,” he says. “Once we’d gotten a handle on the core relations, we expanded outwards.” They added the necessary stairwells, foyer, and backstage areas, wrapping the main volume in staggered, truncated layers until they arrived at a “lumpy-bumpy building” that was pleasingly asymmetrical and functionalist in nature.
Only then did the architects select a site for their proposed theater, nestled among a small copse of trees just outside the castle. To soften the building, the architects clad the façade in thin larch battens and added a circular screen of bamboo posts. “We realized that you could make it sort of vibrate with its surroundings a bit,” Todd says, “and dematerialize the mass by using shadow and the contrast of platonic solids and very, very fine things.”
The building was completed in June 2016, becoming France’s first permanent Shakespearean theater and one of the first buildings in the world to be made entirely of curved CLT panels. Other than the concrete floor slab and a few steel elements for the stage, nearly 100 percent of the building is timber, a material Todd believes “presents numerous benefits in our faltering attempts to live in balance with our world.”
All of the building’s concentric layers, from the innermost circular auditorium to the exterior walls, are formed by the curved timber panels. A typical wall section is a 4-inch-deep curved spruce CLT panel, a vapor barrier, 6 inches of Rockwool insulation inside a pine-wood frame—also with a vapor barrier on the inner face and plywood on the outer—and a Phaltex band that serves as an acoustic barrier. On the outside is a rainscreen and then the larch battens, twisted 45 degrees, giving the timber walls a monolithic feel. The vertical bamboo posts, which stand nearly 40 feet tall on steel footings, clip to a cantilevered galvanized steel ring, to which the radial horizontal members also attach. (Bamboo is not a recognized structural material in France.) The approach was akin to Brutalism, Todd says, “but instead of concrete we were doing it in wood.”
The building’s cylindrical form brought novel challenges. Because the geometries all related to one another, the architects eschewed parametric design tools. “We may just as well have drawn it from hand,” Todd says. “When you’re working with circles and you’re offsetting radii, if you mess up with one thing, with an escape corridor, you have to redraw the entire building.”
Fabrication of the curved CLT panels, on the other hand, was surprisingly simple (and less expensive than Todd expected). Not that every company was so sure it could be done. Todd called two CLT manufacturers about the possibility of doing curved panels. “The first one said, ‘Not on your life, it’s totally impossible.’ And the second one said, ‘Why not?’ ” That second company was Finnish brand Metsä Wood, which fabricated the panels in Bavaria using vault-like positive forms to create the six different radii of the building’s curved walls. The panels, the largest of which were 30 feet tall and 10 feet wide, were then trucked to the site and erected in seven weeks.
This summer, Todd had the rare experience of performing in his own theater. To celebrate the building’s first birthday, Todd and the department of Pas-de-Calais invited renowned jazz pianist Enrico Pieranunzi to perform in the auditorium. Todd, who is also a professional-level jazz drummer, accompanied him. “It was so moving to experience it for myself,” he says. “I got to play with one of the musicians I most admire in my building, which is a fairly unusual thing in the history of architecture, and a great privilege.”