“On a sunny day it looks gorgeous, just like a cube of sugar…”

Alison Rae, former Head of Tours, National Theatre, writes for the Open House Festival:

“…performance of the National Theatre Company began in October 1963 at the Old Vic Theatre. The following month Denys Lasdun was unanimously selected as the architect for the new permanent home to not just plays and actors, but of everything needed to run a theatre, to be housed under one roof: workshops, rehearsal rooms, provision for planning and administration, along with dressing rooms, extensive foyers and public areas and not a single stage but three performance spaces, with backstage storage capacity for shows to be presented in repertoire.

The foundation stone, still in the main foyer, had been laid on the South Bank, though not at this location, in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain but quarter century passed before audiences visited. Lasdun’s brief was, in fact, a commission for a National Theatre and Opera House. The Opera House part of the project was dropped in 1967 when the government of the time declined to make available the additional funding required for the building and running of an opera company.

Work on the National Theatre building next to Waterloo Bridge finally started in 1969 and was completed in 1976 when it was officially opened by The Queen. The largest auditorium with over 1,000 seats is named to honour the first Artistic Director, the actor Laurence, later Lord, Olivier and takes its inspiration from the ‘fan-shaped’ plan of a Greek Theatre. Oliver Lyttelton is commemorated in the ‘proscenium’ theatre, which also owes its name to his parents who both campaigned for a national theatre. Lord Cottesloe, as Chair of the South Bank Theatre Board, gave his name to the smaller flexible space and his bust can be seen in the Cottesloe Room.

The South Bank area has seen much change since the GLC first gave the site. In the 1970s there was no river walkway connecting Lambeth to Bankside and so the National was something of a ‘bookend’; it appeared to face towards Westminster so the back of the building where the service yard was located, was therefore the north east corner. In the 1990s the first modernisation programme opened up the space next to Waterloo Bridge, creating Theatre Square, by removing the road that once encircled the site.

By 2008 a conservation plan had been produced by Howarth Tompkins, the practice who later headed the ‘NT Future’ project. This opened up even more of the building. It addressed the fact that the NT sat mid-way in the now vibrant South Bank, between the London Eye and London Bridge, and that bookend of the north east corner could be repurposed to reveal an addition to the public realm with a bar, cafe and outdoor space…

… “I give Lasdun’s building six years. On a sunny day it looks gorgeous, just like a cube of sugar, but on a wet day it doesn’t look nearly as impressive.”
Kenneth Campbell – Principal housing architect for GLC Building, 16 May 1975

The sugar cube has survived and was listed in 1994 as Grade II*…”

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