July 18, 2019 \ Arts & Culture
by Nicola Walls
Identity and Belonging
Page\Park has been working in Leeds since early 2016 on cultural projects, including the major redevelopment of the Leeds Playhouse for our client Leeds City Council. Our challenge was to give this major cultural organisation a strong visual identity and connection back with the city by re-orientating the entrance.
The Leeds Playhouse is a phenomenal organisation that reaches many communities through their artistic and participation programmes. However, the former theatre building did not represent the identity of the organisation. Municipal in appearance this ‘Leeds Look’ building gave no sense of the creativity and energy within, and with the stalled Farrell Masterplan for Quarry Hill, the building had since opening its doors in 1990, effectively turned its back on the city.
A new extension to create new entrance was a ‘given’ – but our challenge was to translate the vitality of the Playhouse into a physical form, ensuring that it gave a sense of being rooted in the city, relevant and representative of the Leeds Playhouse organisation.
We very quickly became aware of the importance of the tradition of ceramics and faience evident across the city. Our research on the historical context of the Leeds Playhouse site lead us to learn about Burmantofts Pottery, with their colourful ceramics made locally but exported globally. We discovered an appropriate synergy with Playhouse productions that are very frequently ‘local’ in content yet focus on universal themes that allow them to be toured nationally and internationally.
We therefore made an early decision to use ceramics in the elevations and exploit the plasticity of the material to create a three-dimensional façade that would alter with the light conditions. And that this trapezoidal form would link back to the geometries prevalent in the original building.
Looking back to this original planning submission image you could argue this was a bit banal as it was not yet relevant to the Leeds Playhouse. Whilst we showed the 4 ceramic panels we did not yet know what the story behind the pattern would be. As professional storytellers the Leeds Playhouse pushed us hard to find a narrative that was appropriate to them.
The clue to the narrative lay in the architecture. Could we present each of the four performances spaces on the four panels? We are using colour internally to amplify the physical differences between the four spaces and highlight their uniqueness, and also as part of the wayfinding strategy.
Artist colleagues developed the colour palette through exploration by sketches and painting. From the early stages of the decision to work with ceramics we liaised with Darwen Terracotta over the colours available, with the saturation of colour and affordability as key considerations.
And the idea emerged of the actor standing on the stage being represented into the patterning on each of the four panels. The black tiles represent the actor in the foot lights looking out at their audience, with the fading of the colours into darkness. Each panel is lit from the bottom (representing the stage foot lights) with the light fading out as you eye rises up the panels.
Building as a sign
Even without the ceramic tiles the extension is certainly packing a punch. Despite being diminutive in scale when compared to its neighbours, it has an assertive presence on St Peters Street,
In part this is due to the roofline and the symbolic Playhouse letters – which are themselves reminiscent of the original Leeds Playhouse on Leeds Uni campus, rooting the new extension back to the origins of the organisation.
Rooted / Relevant / Representative
As an actor stands on the stage connecting with their audience – the Leeds Playhouse now stands proudly reconnecting with the city.
The new extension projects loudly and clearly its message to the wider city as a place of creativity, energy, drama and welcome, with a new façade that is rooted, relevant and representative of Leeds Playhouse, their audiences and Leeds.