Haworth Tompkins: the architects who hid ‘the biggest factory in central London’ inside the National Theatre

Haworth tompkins: the architects who hid 'the biggest factory in central london' inside the national theatre
The Dorfman Theatre: Haworth Tompkins have reinvented the National’s former Cottesloe Theatre / © Philip Vile

For all their shared interest in shaping space, light and human activity, architects and theatre-makers are creative animals of notably different stripes. “As a profession we do have this impulse to tie things down,” admits the architect Steve Tompkins. “We always tend to want to have the last word but in the world of theatre that can be inherently unhelpful.” It is a conundrum that he and his partner in Haworth Tompkins Architects, Graham Haworth, have grappled with over the past 20 years. In that time they have built or remodelled more than a dozen theatres, this year alone completing a new – and Stirling Prize-nominated – building for Liverpool’s Everyman, the revamp of Chichester Festival Theatre and the first phase of their most complex project to date: the £35 million redevelopment of the Royal National Theatre in London.

It is a body of work as rich in character as that of any practice working in Britain today but strongly informed by Tompkins’s wariness of lumbering his clients with architectural monuments. These buildings feel like eternal works in progress, open to reinvention from production to production, even from night to night.

Haworth Tompkins’s entree into the theatre world came courtesy of the director Stephen Daldry, who selected the then eight-strong firm to remodel London’s Royal Court in 1994. At the time they had completed just one building, a shoe factory. “But it was precisely because we hadn’t done a theatre that Stephen decided we were the people he wanted to work with,” says Tompkins. “He could never be accused of being a brake on leaps of faith and risk.” Handsomely funded by the new National Lottery, the commission was an enormous escalation in size, cost and complexity for the practice and went on to prove something of a baptism of fire. As well as reconstructing the main auditorium and facilities, it included an expansion beneath Sloane Square, to enable the creation of an enlarged foyer and bar.

The engineering difficulties were compounded by the proximity of two tunnels, one housing a Tube line and the other a stretch of the River Westbourne. Delays and overspends ensued. The architects effectively lived on site for the final three months of construction and, after, took half a year off to recuperate.[]

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