Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
A star is born on Anzac Parade
NIDA’s new building is a stylish synergy of dramatic function and form, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Theatre is about pretence, but pretence with a difference, designed to reveal truth, not hide it. If the actor’s role is a mask, bringing revelation through concealment, so buildings themselves, one might argue, play a similar masking role, hiding reality in order to express some greater, more proximate insight. How, then, should a theatre building masking the masked be designed?
Palladio’s fabled Teatro Olympico, built in 1580 in Vicenza, is credited with being the first permanent purpose-built theatre after ancient times. While theatres in modern Sydney may not be quite so infrequent, they’re mostly either black-paint conversions of warehouse space or high-glitz jobs swallowed by new towers or casinos as part of the planning trade-off. Either way they have insides, but no outsides.
The new NIDA building on Anzac Parade in Kensington is an exception, a full-frontal public building with the express and focal purpose of providing an excellent venue for dramatic performance. Reconciling these two opposing needs introverted theatre space and bright organisational face gave Hassell architects (in association with Peter Armstrong) an ideal opportunity to explore issues of revelation and concealment.
The existing complex, designed by Armstrong in the mid-1980s, was a well-mannered two-storey brick animal, an immensely habitable working building, with its little, knitted courtyards and colonnades, but almost pathologically retiring.
It was always ironic to find so celebrity-generative an organisation Mel Gibson, Robyn Nevin, Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Judy Davis and the rest so deeply closeted, despite the mainstreet location. Even on open days, NIDA-the-place presented an intensely private and somewhat forbidding public face. Books shouldn’t be judged by covers but inevitably, no doubt increasingly, they are. And brown paper, however laudable spiritually, is no page-turner.
The new building, extending the existing cone-shaped site, needed to change this and establish a suitably charismatic presence on Anzac Parade. An early strategic decision, therefore, was whether to emulate or abandon the style and scale of the existing. Abandonment won.
This may sound harsh, but it was clearly the right decision, enabling the new building to flash and flaunt unabashed, while maintaining a clear distinction between public face and private hinterland.
Being such mute objects, theatres need all the architectural costumery they can get; yet they are almost entirely unapproachable, planning-wise, because of their huge requirements for adjunct space, both working and ceremonial, and their awkward shape. It was in response to this quandary that Leslie Martin and Peter Moro, architects for the 1951 Festival of Britain, developed the Royal Festival Hall’s “egg-in-a-box” model, where the Difficult Object nestles lightly within a large, light-filled public volume.
Hassell has reinterpreted this model, encouraging the new 730-seat Parade Theatre to protrude visibly through the roof of its quadruple-height box, beckoning passers-by like some huge designer Easter egg. Enhancing the allure is a giant curved-and-louvred screen, known colloquially as the “veil”, that part-obscures the Object from view, while rendering it both more obvious and more interesting.
Enticement, though, is only part of it. Architecture relies on maximising roles per cast member, and the veil justifies its existence by performing also as a daylight foil and an air-directing device within the naturally lit and ventilated foyer.
Of course it’s what’s inside an egg that counts. And what’s inside the Parade Theatre leaves no doubt that this is the organisation’s central and most fecund space. Noticeably close and vertical, as theatres go, it lifts almost half the audience above-ground in flying galleries that form a tight horseshoe around the stage.
Theatre shape has been for some time a matter of philosophical debate. The 20th century saw theatres modelled increasingly on cinemas, fan-shaped in both plan and section, with perfect sight-lines for everyone but half the audience, in NIDA technical director Tony Youlden’s words, “another suburb away”.
Re-theorising theatre design from a more traditional more Globe point of view, British writer Ian Mackintosh has long supported much tighter, more intimate and more vertical drama spaces, with at least 40 per cent of the audience below the eye-level of the actor and the rest suspended close-to around the walls. This gives less technically perfect sight-lines, with at least some viewing the action from the side, but compensates with a greater sense of engagement for, and with, both actors and audience.
Hassell’s Ken Maher, strongly Mackintosh-influenced, had previously designed the Canberra Playhouse, in Civic, with a similar, vertical, horseshoe arrangement. NIDA’s director, John Clark , and its general manager, Elizabeth Butcher, liked the Playhouse, and approached Hassell accordingly.
The resultant space combines the unspun intimacy of fringe theatre, though there’s no matte-black in coo-ee, with a sense of occasion worthy of the Vienna Opera. Even empty, there isexcitement in the tight proximity, the great, soaring fly-tower with its 49 counterweighted scene-layers, the spindly sky-bound catwalks and the deep vivid colours, fading to black as the lights dim. As Clark says: “We think it’s sensational. It’ll inspire everybody here to think more broadly and imaginatively to lift our game, in a word. And like the Opera House, it’ll generate activity. It’s pretty exciting.”
Backstage it’s all bare bulbs and breeze-block, as is only proper, with a huge, no-frills, top-lit workshop crossing the full width of the site. Up with the pigeons, overlooking this vast space from studios waist-high in scale models and colour swatches, select design students agonise over coming productions.
That’s the main game. In addition, though, there’s a director’s theatre the Parade Studio an authentic black-box intended to address the shortage of emerging young directors. And a sound stage, essentially a film studio, in recognition of the fact that, stage-emphasis notwithstanding, most NIDA graduates will survive principally on acting to a camera, not an audience. And it’s a budget alternative to Fox in the venue-hire stakes.
Above these two mini-theatres sits the country’s best drama library, so airy now it scarcely knows itself, and a glass-eyed boardroom over the street, from which slides the grand stair down to the foyer. The Nancy Fairfax Foyer is a gracious and successful space, confident enough to hit the existing geometry without blush or stammer, strong enough to be warmed by colour and complexity, not cluttered. Overlooked from a number of vantage points, most of them publicly accessible, the foyer is fronted by a sheer glass wall, 11 metres high and some 50 metres long.
It is this wall, breathtaking as it is, that generates my main reservations. Early sketches showed it articulated by a dozen or so vertical panels hung like banners along the scaleless skin. These were rejected, says Maher, for their inhibition of transparency. But, whether it’s the glacial smoothness of the wall itself or the processional nature of the Parade, the roar-past context of the place might reward a little calibration.
One imagines, alternatively, a blazing neon supergraphic, declaiming NIDA! to the babbling gossip of the air, and every passing carriage. The project graphic consultancy Emery Vincent, which excels in just this sort of thing, appears to have let an opportunity pass, contenting itself with small, polite letters above the small, polite entrance, no bigger than a bus-stop.
Of course, there’s nothing to prevent such amendments in the future. In the meantime, though, NIDA-the-building looks set to become as widely and justly celebrated as NIDA-the-institution.
TWO ILLUS: Gracious space …
a grand stair leads down to the Nancy Fairfax Foyer.
Photos: Quentin Jones
The Parade …
combines unspun intimacy with a sense of occasion.