Theatre becomes a constantly changing urban spectacle in the new extension to the National Institute of Dramatic Art, by Hassell and Peter Armstrong. Andrew Nimmo reviews this striking, environmentally responsive facility.
Photography by Patrick Bingham-Hall
A stunning taut curtain glass wall, eleven metres tall, jammed right against the footpath edge and capped by an awning roof that reaches almost out to the kerb line as a grand verandah gesture. Inside this great glazed box a suspended and curving “veil of louvres” partially wraps the circular theatre behind and cuts through the main roof like a great light scoop. Irreverently referred to by some as a “tiara”, the louvres are bathed in natural light during the day and at night become the focus of colourful artificial lighting.
This is the new public face of NIDA. An extension to the existing building, it symbolises the prestige and confidence of an institution which claims some of world’s most highly paid and internationally lauded theatre and film actors among its alumni. For a building that has been delivered on a relatively tight budget, a disproportionate amount of that budget would appear to have been expended on this dramatic elevation. But one might argue that every project deserves its memorable space, its bit of immoderation. Perhaps the worst thing to do with a modest budget is to try and spread that budget evenly across all parts of a building. And, if ever there was a case for a dramatic, showy piece of architecture, it is probably the major extensions to NIDA.
The building’s success rests a little heavily on one of the most effective street elevations in Sydney. And it is this street elevation, more than anything else, that has aroused debate – it is the aspect of the extension that people find either most exhilarating or most difficult. Located on Anzac Parade – Sydney’s longest boulevard, stretching from the southern edge of the city all the way to La Perouse – the engagement of the building with the street is both blunt and monumental. (Although, with the footpath is halved in width, there is little space in front of the building to appreciate this monumental scale). This is a building that understands the lessons from Las Vegas – it is best appreciated from a moving car as a shifting perspective. Only from the distance afforded to the vehicular approach is the scale of this giant glass showcase, with the illuminated veil as the backdrop to patrons milling in the foyer, appreciated to its potential.
NIDA shares part of the University of New South Wales campus at Kensington. The bulk of this campus is on the eastern side of Anzac Parade, where the university’s street presence is passive, with the main gesture being the classically proportioned, negative form of University Mall. Across the street, to the west, NIDA provides a much needed positive form in counterpoint to the mall. This is the great success of the elevation. Although it is a little too far north to truly frame the edge of an imagined extension of the mall, the form strengthens the efficacy of the mall and will hopefully set a precedent for the future buildings that will be built to its south.
The original NIDA complex was designed by Peter Armstrong and completed in 1987. NIDA approached Armstrong again for the extension, who in turn suggested an association with Hassell. NIDA were particularly impressed with Hassell’s Canberra Playhouse theatre, with its perfect circular auditorium. It is rare these days for a public project of this scale, $24 million, to not have gone through some form of competition or competitive tendering, but the result does not seem to have suffered for this.
The original NIDA is a low-scaled face brick building which sets up a one-room thick wall to Anzac Parade to protect the intimate and introverted spaces of the courtyard. The courtyard opens and closes along its length to create a series of beautifully scaled outdoor rooms. The feeling is collegiate in the tradition of the university campus – a place to study and learn the craft of dramatic art. The existing elongated courtyard feeds directly into the new Parade Theatre foyer as an extension of the public zone of the complex, but it transforms into an extroverted space that is now transparent to the view from Anzac Parade. The new entry between the original NIDA complex and the extension has to negotiate the significant shift in scale between the two stages. Yet it seems surprisingly under-scaled – there is perhaps an overcorrection as the space compresses further before opening up into the major space of the foyer.
The centrepiece of the extension is the new 730-seat Parade Theatre and foyer. The Director’s Theatre, a second smaller experimental theatre, is to the south of the foyer, with a library above, a video sound stage and dressing rooms behind, and a box office, cafe, toilets and a student exhibition space on the first floor gallery. To the west of the Parade Theatre is a large new set construction workshop. Under all this is a car park, plant, additional dressing rooms and the Green Room. New smaller property workshops and additional rehearsal rooms are behind the existing NIDA complex.
The new Parade Theatre has the feeling of a workshop theatre. It is raw, with only the warmth and grain of the bent plywood fronts to the gallery seating to soften the space. This is wholly appropriate. Performances here should be as much about experiment and learning the craft as they are about refinement. The circular shape of the auditorium creates an intimacy that is lost in many recent theatres that overemphasise the importance of perfect sight lines. This is not a two thousand-seat opera theatre, and the reality is that everyone will see perfectly well. The shape also means that the audience can view each other as well as the stage in a recreation of the familiarity of the Elizabethan theatre.
The “veil of louvres”, as the architects call it, provides the dramatic focus of the foyer as it wraps the cirular theatre. Its form was generated by the passive ventilation strategy initiated by environmental consultant Che Wall of Advanced Environmental Concepts (AEC – an offshoot of mechanical engineers Lincolne Scott). AEC, and other similar firms, represent the next phase of ESD – where the discipline is increasingly recognised as a legitimate consultancy in its own right. They have taken ESD to a more sophisticated and scientific level, where buildings are computer modelled and the environmental performance thoroughly predicted. It is a far cry from the days when ESD meant separating your waste into different coloured bins.
The veil is angled to direct diffuse light into the foyer though high level glazing. The foyer itself is designed to perform equally well in winter and summer. In summer, fresh air enters into the chamber at high level behind the veil. As the air passes over cooling coils, it naturally sinks down the cooling chamber located between the Parade Theatre and the foyer galleries. As the cooled air leaks out of the base of the chamber it creates a gentle breeze across patrons within the foyer. The air heats up as it approaches the glass curtain wall then is drawn out again at high level through the roof ventilators that are visually dominant from Anzac Parade. While the automated motorised external blinds shade the curtain wall of Low E glazing in summer, they let the sun in during winter to be absorbed as radiant heat by the dark coloured polished concrete floor. In-slab water coils additionally heat the floor. Perimeter convectors offset glass heat loss and prevent condensation.
But passive ventilation is not the only agenda of the foyer – it is also represents the theatrical agenda of the greater project. NIDA is an instructive example of how a form, suggested by environmental modelling, can be integrated into the architectural concept. Far too many projects around the country with unquestionable environmental credentials have an architectural form and expression that is too heavily dictated by the environmental agenda. Along with its Sulman Medal, (from the RAIA NSW Chapter), NIDA had a genuine claim on an Environmental Award, precisely because the extension is not quite so overt in its environmental display.
However, while the louvred veil provides the iconic presence that is the focus for the foyer, the bottom edge, which attempts to profile the rising stair to the Parade Theatre lobbies, is awkward in its execution. The gauge of the louvre seems a little too large and cumbersome to attempt to profile in this way. But this is only upon close inspection.
From a distance, especially at night from the street, the louvred veil is a magnet for the eye, like a memorable fragment from a grand stage set.
In general the NIDA extension is not as finely detailed or as resolved as the Olympic Park Railway Station, Hassell’s other recent Sulman Medal winner, but then that was an exceptional building. Certainly the budget difference explains some of this, but beyond the big idea of the street presence and the environmental performance of the foyer, the NIDA extensions lack a certain rigour. This is a building that tries to do a lot, and this very ambition perhaps makes it easy to point to shortcomings. Sometimes it also is easier to criticise a building that you strongly support – because you know that in end your critique will be positive. This is a memorable building that gives NIDA a headline address that no one will ever have trouble finding. For the client, it surely fulfils the need for an assertive public face through invention and a strategic use of available funds.
Andrew Nimmo is a director of Lahz Nimmo Architects and a regular contributor to architectural journals
National Institute of Dramatic Art
Architect Hassell in association with Peter Armstrong Architecture—principal in charge Ken Maher; project architect Nigel Greenhill, Peter Armstrong; site architect Steven Fighera; design team Ken Maher, Nigel Greenhill, John de Manincor, Peter Armstrong; project team Jane Bassett, Andy Bhahi, John Choi, Grant Coles, Robert Collins, Phill Darmanin, John de Manincor, Bill Dickinson, Deborah Eastment, Vanessa Filkins, Steve Fitts, David Fung, Tony Gee, Miriam Green, Susan Gunther, Anthony Horan, Sarah Kiernan, Sarah Kelly , Michael Luders, Alex Martin, Brooke Matthews, Joanna MacKenzie, Patricia Petsas, Bronwyn Pickering, Chalong Phijidvijan, David Rappo, Vanessa Sales, Laraine Sperling, Natalee Thompson, Troy Uleman, Paul Vass, Amber Vidler, George Wong, Ellen Wooley. Structural Consultant Taylor Thomson Whitting. Electrical Consultant and Lighting Consultant Barry Webb & Associates.
Project Manager Root Projects Australia.
Mechanical Consultant Lincolne Scott. Hydraulic Consultant LHO Group. Acoustic Consultant RFA Acoustic Design. Environmental Consultant Advanced Environmental Concepts. Quantity Consultant Rider Hunt. Colour Consultant Carroll & Carroll. Landscape Consultant, Interior Design, Planning Hassell. Signage & Graphics Emery Vincent Design. Facade Consultant Hyder Consulting. Fire Services LHO Group.
Geotechnical Engineer Douglas & Partners. BCA Consultant Building Safety Services. Arborist Arborcraft. Builder St Hilliers. Client National Institute of Dramatic Art.