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Students Theatre For Queens University Belfast

Part 1 Project 2001
Will Thornton
Queen's University Belfast, UK
"Central government in France spends on the arts twice as much as in Bntian, even allowing for the lottery, which is not properly government money anyway, while regional expenditure in France is four times that of British local authorities."

Sir Nicholas Serota. (Richard Dimbleby Memorial Lecture 2000)

Queens University main site is considered one of the most important landmarks in the city, in the context of Northern Ireland the buildings are of architectural significance. The buildings stand in an orthogonal arrangement around a formal lawn. The design of each building is that of classical proportions, symmetry, orthogonal internal arrangement; structure and enclosure are one in the same.

The brief for the project was to design a building to house the Queens University drama department, the auditorium was to be a simple "black box" allowing the maximum experimentation in the space. There was to be an emphasis on the social aspect of both studying drama and visiting the theatre.

The drama department is currently housed in a converted attic space, this is a "make do" arrangement and the authorities have seen this arrangement as adequate.

In designing a new drama department it I felt it was necessary to break visually from the authority of the university, and to try to put drama and the arts on equal footing with the surrounding departments that are housed on the main site.

Will Thornton

The brief was developed with the Drama department at Queen’s is for an experimental teaching theatre including all the normal social and backstage facilities. The students who tackled this brief were given the choice of two sites, both in the vicinity of the centrepiece of the Queen’s University campus, the Lanyon Building, which provides the identity of Queens within the city and which is one of the signature buildings of Belfast. Will started by considering only the need to react against the context that he feels is given too much respect - the ascendant concern being for the preservation and reverence of history rather than the continuation of it. This starting point could easily lead to an esoteric and superficial response, but the resulting proposal addresses the issues of a physically difficult site. The project was built up from the initial response using diagrammatic plans and sections that addressed site issues. These were developed with ideas that responded to particular concerns and requirements of the brief. Will increased the level of engagement with the scheme, each time making intelligent proposals enhancing the formal ideas while providing means of addressing technical and programmatic concerns. This was developed to the level of detail design of parts of the building and studies of the materiality of the scheme. As such the project is an example of a the progression of a process leading to a completed proposal.

Queens University Belfast has a reputation for literature and drama – Seamus Heaney and Simon Callow studied here – and the largest arts festival outside of London is here every November. This project was conceived as a way of the Drama Department developing their own ideas and requirements ahead of discussions with University Estates for a new student theatre. Architecture and drama students worked together with teaching staff to develop the brief and spirit of a new student theatre – understanding the nature of student performance and the interaction with the architecture that surrounds it. Visits to theatres and to teaching and performance classes lead to drama staff and students contributing to design reviews. Special thanks to David Grant and Michael McKinnie from the drama Department of Queens School of Languages, Literatures and Arts. Two challenging sites were proposed – both front stage of the University’s iconic Lanyon Building. Will’s solution to the thin infill site is a student reaction to the formalism of the mid Victorian and mid 20th Century neighbours – a rather staid university precinct that is now being upgraded. His technical development of the project kept a keen eye on his architectural intention - enforcing the diagram through clear decision and proposal.

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