PagePark Architects’ renovation of a theatre in Yorkshire
Leeds City Council
Leeds Playhouse (Leeds Playhouse Trust)
End user advisor
New Stages Ltd
Architect and principal designer
Turner & Townsend
Rex Procter & Partners
Sandy Brown Associates
Jane Toplis Associates
Re-form Landscape Architecture
Words by Sophie Tolhurst
Images by Jim Stephenson (Clickjim)
When designing a theatre, you’ll probably have visibility and accessibility front of mind.
Unfortunately for the Leeds Playhouse, it was built with its back to its prospective audience – away from the city centre and facing a proposed development that never came to pass.
That was in 1990, when the Playhouse finally moved from its ‘temporary’ home in Leeds University – where it had been for 20 years – to a new building designed by The Appleton Partnership. It was the UK’s largest purpose-built theatre after the National Theatre, and featured a then groundbreaking design for its Courtyard Theatre, a galleried, flexible space with a retractable seating bank.
The Courtyard Theatre
The Playhouse’s recent renovation and extension coincided with major developments in the vicinity of the theatre, and the city’s investment in culture working towards Leeds 2023, which, pre-Brexit, was a bid to become the European Capital of Culture and has since been taken up by Leeds Culture Trust. PagePark Architects was appointed in 2016 following a competitive process. It was quickly clear that creating a new entrance would be a priority, but that ‘there were other fundamental issues that needed to be addressed to meet the expectation of today’s audiences in terms of facilities, accessibility and inclusivity’, the architects explain.
Due to the site’s topography the existing theatre had a complex mix of levels and a difficult entrance sequence, all of which needed improving in terms of accessibility. Externally, new landscaping has created an area called Playhouse Gardens. From here you can enter via one of three entrances: the new St Peter’s Street entrance, the Playhouse Gardens Entrance or the original Playhouse Square Entrance. The gardens also connect the Playhouse to the new creative arts campus of Leeds City College. A new internal foyer, at the mid level of the building, connects these entrances to the venue’s Quarry and Courtyard theatres.
3D tiles are from Darwen Terracotta and Faience
The new entrance increases the theatre’s presence on St Peter’s Street despite it being small in stature in comparison to neighbouring buildings. The eye-catching facade of brightly coloured 3D ceramics helps communicate the creative message of the Playhouse, but it also links back to a local tradition of ceramic and faience rooted in the Burmantofts Pottery, which exported its colourful ceramics globally from this region. Burmantofts closed in 1957, and so the 3D tiles came instead from Lancashire-based Darwen Terracotta and Faience.
The tiles’ trapezoid form also references the geometries of the building, and their arrangement represents the activities taking place within. This was encouraged by the end user, PagePark explains:
‘As professional storytellers, Leeds Playhouse pushed us to develop a strong narrative behind the pattern of these panels, and the idea emerged of the actor standing on the stage being represented in the patterning on each of the four panels, with each panel depicting one of the four main spaces: the Quarry and Courtyard theatres, and the Barber and Bramall Rock Void studio theatres. The black tiles represent the actor in the footlights looking out at their audience, with the fading of the colours into darkness. Each panel is lit from the bottom (representing the stage footlights) with the light fading out as your eye rises up the panels.’
A new cafe at street level was created
PagePark says that its involvement in all facets of the project allowed for the creation of a strong holistic identity for the Playhouse. The colours and geometric motif of the facade continues into the wayfinding, and the architects also worked closely with the client’s digital signage contractor.
For the theatre spaces, PagePark worked with theatre consultants Charcoalblue. In the Courtyard, where Leeds Playhouse was keen to increase seating capacity, a new arrangement was developed to provide an extra three rows, in a similar arrangement to the Dorfman Theatre at the National. The Bramall Rock Void, a further studio theatre, was created within an unusual space within the foundations. Its ‘as found’ state, including exposed brickwork and concrete soffits, explains PagePark, creates ‘a heightened sense of entering into the bowels of the building’.
Even before the challenges that Covid-19 brought to theatres, improving the Playhouse’s resilience was high on the agenda. Outdated mechanical and electrical systems have been replaced with more efficient and sustainable options, and improved catering and conferencing facilities will help it to generate further revenue in the future. Toilet provision – that perennial problem for theatres – was overhauled; in-line with the Playhouse’s vision and values, they include both gendered and gender-neutral toilets as well as family-friendly cubicles.
Before the initial reopening, the theatre’s executive director Robin Hawkes said: ‘It is just fantastic to see the transformation PagePark has conceived landing so well with people as they begin to come back inside the building.’
The new entrance increases the theatre’s presence on St Peter’s Street
Hopefully, with light appearing at the end of the Covid tunnel, it will not be too long until they are back inside the building once more.
Darwen Terracotta and Faience
Ceramic tile support system
FCB Building and Roofing
Signage – letters