Leeds City Council
Quarry Hill, Leeds
Internal Floor Area
A theatre turning to embrace the city
The Leeds Playhouse has been transformed by a radical reconfiguration and extension of the existing building to create a new face for the organisation and improve accessibility for all.
The new frontage created on St Peter’s Street turns the theatre around to face the city centre and provides a new entrance and café at street level. The new façade of brightly coloured ceramics creates a strong visual identity that reflects the creativity and diversity of activity withing the building.
Along with the re-imagining of the two main theatres spaces to increase seating capacity and enhance access, a new flexible performance space has been created through the imaginative reuse of an existing basement. Improvements in access extend throughout the building to better connect the Playhouse with the streetscape on St Peter’s Street, the existing entrance on Playhouse Square and the new public space between the theatre and Leeds City College – Playhouse Gardens.
Designed in the 1980’s the interiors had grown tired, the site topography resulted in complex levels and a convoluted and inaccessible entrance sequence. Designed by the Appleton Partnership and opened in 1990, the building contained two theatre spaces – the Quarry, a fan shaped tiered auditorium (based on the original temporary theatre in which the organisation had been housed on the Leeds University campus) and the Courtyard Theatre, a galleried flexible space with a retractable seating bank – and was considered a seminal design at the time.
Page\Park Architects were appointed in early 2016 and our immediate response was that, whilst a focus on the creation of a new entrance to give the organisation a stronger visual identity was important, there were other fundamental issues that needed to be addressed to meet the expectation of today’s audiences in terms of facilities, accessibility and inclusivity.
A new face to the city
The completed project comprises the new entrance extension onto St Peters Street (with a large new passenger lift), a re-imagined original entrance onto Playhouse Square and further proposed future developments (important to maintain as this is where taxi and coach drop off and accessible parking bays are sited) and the formation of a new internal foyer at the mid-level of the building to connect the entrances and provide improved access and connection into the Quarry and Courtyard. The box office is relocated to the literal heart of the building, opening up to a newly landscaped area named Playhouse Gardens that provides an accessible outside link between St Peters Street and Playhouse Square, and connects the Playhouse with the newly built creative arts campus of Leeds City College.
The circulation now creates a route through the theatre – offering the prospect of chance encounters with the performing arts and other activities hosted by Leeds Playhouse.
The use of ceramics externally roots the façade in the strong local tradition of ceramic and faience seen around Leeds. In our research on the historical context of the site we learnt about Burmantofts Pottery, with their colourful ceramics made locally but exported globally, and 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.
Ceramic enabled us to exploit the plasticity of the material to create a three-dimensional façade that alters with the light conditions, with the trapezoidal form linking back to the geometries of the original building. As professional story tellers, Leeds Playhouse pushed us to develop a strong narrative behind the pattern of these panels and the idea emerged of the actor standing on the stage being represented into the patterning on each of the four panels, with each panel depicting one of the four main spaces (Quarry, Courtyard, Bramall Rock Void and Barber Studio). 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.
Despite being diminutive in scale against the neighbouring buildings, the new entrance has an assertive presence on St Peters Street, in part due to the roofline and the symbolic Playhouse capital letters – which are themselves reminiscent of the original Leeds Playhouse on Leeds University campus – further connecting the new extension back to the origins of the theatre.
The motif of the ceramic elements is referenced internally in the wayfinding and other internal elements to create a strong holistic visual identity for the Leeds Playhouse resonating with the new brand. Even before Leeds Playhouse has officially reopened this entrance façade has created a real buzz on social media, heightening the anticipation of the theatre’s reopening.
How to better integrate the wheelchair and companion spaces into the heart of the Quarry Theatre audience was a key component of our proposals, and the idea of democratic access for all drove the decision-making process behind the internal alterations to the auditorium and the wider building.
Having observed the difficulties of accessing at the top of the steep rake, and the segregation of wheelchair users and their companions at the periphery of the auditorium, we proposed new vomitory entrances at mid-tier level to enable everyone to enter the space unassisted, and to embed the wheelchair and companion positions within the body of the audience. These new entrances then related to a new foyer and route driven through the core of the building, to more closely connect the theatre spaces with the foyer and encourage movement and exploration.
Leeds Playhouse were keen to increase the seating capacity in the Courtyard by introducing a shallower rake of fixed stalls seating and working with venue consultants Charcoalblue a new arrangement was developed to provide an extra three rows of seating, not dissimilar to the Dorfman Theatre at the National.
Bramall Rock Void
There was a lot of discussion around the Bramall Rock Void and the nature of this as an ‘as found’ space, which maintains the rawness of the existing brickwork and concrete soffits and a heightened sense of entering into the bowels of the building through the entrance sequence.
Whilst the original design had cleverly utilised the topography to minimise the bulk of the Quarry Theatre, it resulted in a building with a complicated arrangement of internal levels.
Our signage commission looked to strengthen the visual identity of the new façade, and so the tile motif formed a key part of the wayfinding concept. Having been involved in all facets of the project we were able to start the concept design at a much more advanced stage.
The geometry of the façade, the colours of the ceramics and the tones of the internal finishes were all blended to create a holistic wayfinding scheme for Leeds Playhouse. As part of our process we examined visitor, performers, audience and staff routes through the building to integrate the most appropriate location for signage to be installed. We worked collaboratively with the client’s digital signage contractor to explore the fusion between digital and physical signage.
The new entrance extension delivers a strong visual identity for not only Leeds Playhouse but also the wider cultural quarter located in Quarry Hill. The theatre building can now better support the artistic, Creative Engagement and Furnace artist development programmes, enabling Leeds Playhouse to remain a key player in Leeds City Council’s commitment to delivering a world class cultural programme, embedding culture at the heart of the city.
“It is just fantastic to see the transformation which Page\Park have conceived landing so well with people as they begin to come back inside the building.”
Robin Hawkes Executive Director
“The transformed Leeds Playhouse marks the most exciting new chapter in our history for decades and we can’t wait to welcome everyone to enjoy and explore. The new building will allow us to offer the magic of theatre to everyone, all under one roof.
There is a tangible buzz around culture in Leeds right now – with the relocation of Channel 4 and the upcoming plans for Leeds 2023, this really is the most fantastic time to be re-opening a theatre that the whole city can be proud of.”
James Brining Executive Director
Shortlisted for RICS Award 2020