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Denys Lasdun's National Theatre

To establish a national theatre company at all took over a hundred years, from the first suggestion in 1848 until the National Theatre Bill passed through Parliament in 1949. To build a theatre expressly planned for the purpose took even longer; but in the event the nation gained not one, but three theatres, radically different in design from one another, all under the same roof, all intimate auditoriums.

The first site suggested was opposite the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington. Various sites on the South Bank were proposed from the early 1950's, and the final one, to the east of Waterloo Bridge, was settled on in 1967. The South Bank Board was appointed by the government to build the theatre, which on completion, was to be handed over to the National Theatre. The original scheme was to incorporate an opera house and was called the National Theatre Opera House Project (NTOP).

Denys Lasdun and Lawrence Olivier
Denys Lasdun and Lawrence Olivier
Photo by Angus McBean
  One of Britain's leading architects, Denys Lasdun, was chosen to design the building. In spite of Lasdun's fine modernist credentials he was to many a surprising choice – he had never designed a theatre.

Perhaps Lasdun's interview technique helps explain his appointment: of the twenty finalists interviewed by the committee Lasdun was the only one to appear without the support of a team. Lasdun's solo interview and such comments as “the essence of designing a theatre is a spiritual one,” seem to have appealed to the theatrical sensibilities of the committee: Laurence Olivier later wrote, 'Oh, my dear! We all fell for that. Well, he was a unanimous choice; we knew we'd got by far the most suitable man and probably the most brilliant man in England.' Lord Cottesloe, the Chairman of the Arts Council and the South Bank Board, wrote that “the committee was particularly impressed when he said he knew nothing about designing theatres and would have to sit down and learn what was needed from our committee.”

Image of a letter from Prof Gollancz, 1912, content detailed below
Letter from Olivier Lodge to Professor Israel Gollancz, Chairman of the Shakespeare National Theatre Memorial (SMNT) Committee, from the SMNT collection. The letter seems to forsee the over 60 years of raised and dashed hopes that would pass before the National Theatre finally opened on the South Bank. Text of letter reads: 'The University of Birmingham
7 Nov 1912
Dear Sir, Shakespeare Memorial, With reference to the meeting tomorrow, I do not know whether the site proposed is south of the River, but if it is I think that to select such a position for a Playhouse is inexpedient.
Yours faithfully, Olivier Lodge'

This committee, which advised the South Bank Board, comprised theatre directors, designers and technical experts: Laurence Olivier, Norman Marshall (joint chairmen), Stephen Arlen, Michael Bentall, Peter Brook, George Devine, John Dexter, Frank Dunlop, Michael Elliot, Roger Furse, William Gaskill, Peter Hall, Jocelyn Herbert, Sean Kenny, Tanya Moiseiwitsch, Richard Pilbrow (appointed to fill the gap caused by the death of George Devine), Michel St Denis, Robert Stephens, and Kenneth Tynan. After working with the committee on various designs for an adaptable auditorium Lasdun realized, and slowly convinced the committee, that the theatre experience the committee desired for the new National Theatre could only be achieved by building several auditoriums.

Architects model of the proposed NT building
Architects model of the proposed NT building
© Denys Lasdun and Partners

Despite a widespread favourable reception the opera house part of the NTOP was abandoned by the cash-strapped government. The Shell Tower behind it would dwarf the remaining amputated building - to Lasdun and the committee this was unacceptable. In early 1967 a magnificent riverside site just east of Waterloo Bridge, was offered by the Greater London Council. Work began on the site in 1969. The building's design was modified to suit its new site, especially to develop an aesthetic connection to Waterloo Bridge. The site suited the scale of the new smaller project; Lasdun described it thus: 'it's at a point in the river called Kings Reach, which turns through almost 90 degrees and picks up a panorama of the City of London that stretches from St. Paul's round to Somerset House and on to Hawksmoor's towers at Westminster Abbey. It's a magical position…probably the most beautiful site in London.' The natural relationship of the site to St. Paul's Cathedral to the east across the river and to Somerset House and West End theatre-land directly across Waterloo Bridge suggested to Lasdun a triangular geometry that he would incorporate into every angle of the National Theatre.

From mid-1964 two main auditoriums were projected, a proscenium theatre and an open-stage theatre; the need for a studio space was proposed, dropped then reappeared on the plans in 1972. This space forms the last of the three auditoriums, the Cottesloe Theatre.

Topping Out Ceremony 1973 wit hLord Cottesloe and Lord Olivier
Lord Cottesloe and Lord Olivier at the National Theatre's 'Topping Out' ceremony, 1973

'Within the NT are three separate and very distinct theatres. Symbolically and practically they are loosely modeled on theatre designs from the three greatest periods of western drama: the Olivier on classical Greek theatres, the Lyttelton on the proscenium-arch theatres of the past three centuries, and the Cottesloe on Tudor inn-yards.' (Britain's Royal National Theatre: the first 25 years.)
For further information, see Three Theatres

The National opened theatre-by-theatre, as the building became available. The Lyttelton opened first in March 1976, with a season of plays transferred from the Company's first home, the Old Vic. It was followed by the Olivier in October of that year with Tamburlaine The Great; the Cottesloe opened on 4 March 1977 with Illuminatus!, an eight hour play by Ken Campbell. The Queen officially opened the National Theatre on 26 October 1976.

'Britain now has the finest national theatre in the world…now, at last, we have not only a national theatre company, but a home worthy of it…' Bernard Levin, The Times, 13 July 1976

Lasdun Bibliography:
Ed. C. Amery – The National Theatre, special edition of The Architectural Review Guide; 1977
W.J.R. Curtis – Denys Lasdun and his place in the Modern Tradition, World Architecture; 1991, 14 (p.34-39)
W.J.R. Curtis – Architecture, City, Landscape, Phaidon Press Inc.; 1994
L. Doumato – Sir Denys Lasdun, Fromm International; 1984
L. Drake - Obituary in RIBA Journal; December 1980
R. Eyre – Space and the Director in Making Space for Theatre: British Architecture and Theatre since 1958, by Ronnie and Mulryne and Margaret Shewring, Mulryne and Shewring Ltd; 1995.
D. Lasdun - Architecture, continuity and change, UIA – International architect; 1984 (p.22-23)
D. Lasdun - Architecture in an Age of Skepticism, Oxford University Press; 1985.
D. Lasdun - Tradition Classicism and Myth, World Architecture; 1991, 14 (p.40-53)
S. Lyall - Dinosaurs or giants?, Building; 44/1984 (p.24-25)
J.M. Montaner i Martorell, J. Mora – Notas Biographicas, El Croquis; 1988, 36 (p.21-29)
D. Sharp – Rational Lessons from Lasdun, Building Design; 1989,939 (p.10)

Riba Gold for Lasdun, Building; 1977, 6975 (p.51)
A Language and a Theme, the Architecture of Denys Lasdun & Partners, Riba Publications
Sir Denys Lasdun, RIBA Journal; 9/1977 (p.366-367)
Various articles in The Complete Guide to Britain's National Theatre, Heinemann; 1977.

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