ARCHITECTURAL ICON ROYAL NATIONAL THEATRE BY DENYS LASDUN
An icon of the Brutalist movement that adds drama to London’s South Bank
Although it is one of the best examples of Brutalist
architecture in the UK, the Royal National Theatre (completed in 1976) has always been controversial. HRH Prince of Wales – not the biggest fan of modern architecture – once described it as a ‘clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting’. However, Brutalist buildings and Modernist housing estates have been growing in popularity in recent years, with concrete now the material of choice for many contemporary architects and creatives. Even Instagrammers have become obsessed with the look, beginning a trend for capturing the angular lines of Brutalist masterpieces (follow @thisbrutallife and @brutal_architecture for inspiration).
Designed by Sir Denys Lasdun (1914– 2001), a champion of the British Modernist movement, the Royal National Theatre complex consists of three different-sized spaces, the grandest being the Olivier Theatre, named after the venue’s first artistic director and legendary Oscarwinning actor Laurence Olivier. Next in size is the Lyttelton Theatre, named after the theatre’s first board chairman Oliver Lyttelton, and lastly, the Dorfman Theatre, dedicated to the renowned philanthropist and investor Lloyd Dorfman.
Lasdun’s original inspiration for the building was taken from the grand layout of the Piazza San Marco in Venice, a historic square that he believed was like a public theatre, where Venetians played out their daily lives. Incorporating this idea into the design, Lasdun hoped to create a ‘fourth theatre’ out of the open foyer, which would connect all three auditoria with a series of open stairwells, balconies, walkways and ramps, as well as a large outdoor space at the river entrance for summer performances and displays.
The detail of the building is exacting: the textured yellow hues of Waterloo Bridge and Somerset House were colour matched and incorporated into elements of the concrete façade and the structure was designed so that it would frame rather than block views of iconic London buildings such as St Paul’s Cathedral.
Last year, London-based RIBA awardwinning architecture practice Haworth Tompkins renovated many of the theatre’s interior spaces, including the Olivier Theatre, the foyer levels and the forecourt, ensuring that this Brutalist landmark will continue to inspire for many more generations to come. Architecture tours of the building are available, £12.50 per person. Upper Ground, London SE1 (nationaltheatre.org.uk).