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In the great white cave of an art deco Odeon, its rake and seats removed, sits a glowing glass box that contains a smaller cinema, at about the height where the balcony used to be. At one end the old proscenium frames red steel galleries and stairs serving a new theatre of up to 900 seats and a 150-seat studio. Beneath the glass box, at ground level, is a “Levantine” restaurant serving “light, vibrant, colourful” food. Insinuated into the spaces between them are shelves and shelves of books, labelled and sheathed in plastic in the manner of libraries, not bought-by-the-metre literary wallpaper but things you are encouraged to take down, read and borrow.
This is the Storyhouse in Chester, designed by the architects Bennetts Associates, a brave and intriguing attempt to take some things that aren’t what they used to be – public libraries, giant old cinemas, regional theatres – and give them new vigour by bringing them together. Local government finances – something else not in the best of health – might also benefit.
The project, says its energetic artistic director Alex Clifton, is “nobody’s good idea” but the product of “opportunism” and “evolution”. It started as a feeling by the local authority that it might be nice to create a prestigious cultural centre, but without a clear idea of who might fill the venues. This could have been disastrous, but a theatre company came into being, putting on successful summer seasons of outdoor performances, which helped inform the shaping of the new place.
A site was considered away from the city centre, by the river Dee – another questionable idea – before it was decided to remodel and extend the old cinema, which stands conspicuously at the end of one of the streets that the Romans laid out, close to the cathedral and the ornate Victorian town hall. It was decided to relocate a public library there, from premises just down the road. There was some expediency here – there were cost savings to be had in moving the library – and according to Clifton there were tears from the librarians, but there was also a positive intent: to make connections between one use and another, such that someone coming for a show might leave with a book, or a school party visiting the library’s education rooms might also see some acting. […]