Brixton House Theatre is a new artistic hub for Brixton and the new home for the Ovalhouse Theatre, previously located in Kennington, that has been producing exciting and challenging work for new audiences since the 1950s. The new building mixes theatre space together with recording studios, rehearsal rooms, university teaching spaces, and small tech and start-up company workspaces, aiming to blur the boundaries between professional and community facilities.
After a pandemic during which the death of live theatre, indeed of theatres themselves, was mooted at times, the opening of Brixton House holds a symbolic value in its reinstatement of faith in shared communal spaces and experience, quite aside from its value as a new local venue.
Facing the south edge of Brixton’s covered market, it is the first theatre to serve the area for many years, previous local venues having been either demolished, turned into bingo halls, or bombed – as happened to the original Brixton Theatre in 1940.
Whereas all its predecessors had inflexible proscenium-framed stages with balconied auditoriums, only able to accommodate large, single productions – Brixton House is designed to offer a quotidian range of uses. It has two smaller flexible black-box type performance spaces joined by seven studios, together with two floors of workspace above, a series of recording spaces planned for the basement, as well as a café off the street. These operate independently whether the theatre has a performance or not, and contribute to a healthily diverse range of activities supporting its business plan.
‘It’s intended as a distinct and local offer, one not trying to compete with the West End,’ says its designer, architect Ed Wilson, partner at Foster Wilson Size.
Brixton House’s exterior also appears at first sight a world away from its glitzy faux-Egyptian or classically garlanded predecessors, being contrastingly sober; an almost brooding orthogonal bulk of panelled dark aluminium cladding.
It’s the new home of the theatre company run by artistic director Gbolahan Obisesan, which under its earlier name of Ovalhouse, was previously based off Kennington Lane. The company has its roots in a club founded in the 1930s by graduates of Christ Church College, Oxford, which offered sporting and leisure activities for disadvantaged youngsters in Lambeth, before becoming more focused on drama in the 1960s under its then warden, Peter Oliver. The Oval House Theatre, as it was then known, became a significant hub for experimental drama, including emerging gay, lesbian and women’s theatre in the 1970s and new Black and Asian writing from the 1990s onwards. It has been the proving ground for many young directors and actors, including Steven Berkoff, David Hare, Tamsin Greig, Tim Roth and Piers Brosnan (the latter helped spearhead fundraising efforts for this new building).
The plans for the project came about when Ovalhouse began looking to expand and update its building, which had accessibility issues. Initially, reworking it was considered, but a main arterial sewer running through the site and rights to light issues with neighbours mitigated against this. Lambeth Council then offered the theatre the opportunity to move to this site it owned in central Brixton, previously used as a car park, the land provided on a no-cost basis but a long lease.
This meant funds from the sale of the Ovalhouse site in Kennington could go directly into the build of a new theatre, which would now have the added advantage of being sited more in the area from which the majority of its audiences were drawn.
The new theatre provides the ‘community use’ element of a larger mixed-use scheme being developed on the rest of the elongated council-owned site running along Somerleyton Road to the south. Masterplanned by igloo, this will eventually result in 304 new dwellings, 50 per cent affordable, in a scheme developed in a partnership between Lambeth Council, Homes for Lambeth and Galliford Try. Lambeth Council was also a co-client of the theatre scheme, which went ahead after securing a £3 million capital grant from Arts Council England.
The new theatre building forms the public face and cultural ‘head’ on Coldharbour Lane to a long tail of housing blocks, designed by Mae, Haworth Tompkins and Met Works, currently under construction along Somerleyton Road, which will also incorporate Extra Care homes, a street gym and nursery. The whole site was originally occupied by large Victorian houses that by the 1950s had become a nucleus of the Caribbean community in Brixton. These were compulsorily purchased in 1967-68 by the GLC and demolished in anticipation of the building of an elevated section of a planned six-lane inner London dual-carriageway.
This never happened, but a trace of the mooted road is still discernible to the north-east side of Somerleyton Road in the near-barrier-like façade of Southwyck House. Designed by Lambeth Council architects – including Magda Borowiecka – in 1970, this block’s elevations have tiny windows and are otherwise relieved only by two zig-zagging overhangs of concrete, as though braced against the anticipated traffic.
On the south-western side of the street one remaining Victorian fragment, Carlton Mansions, escaped demolition: a small mansion-type block sitting close to a railway viaduct to its west. It was originally designed in 1891 as housing for railway workers, becoming a housing co-op from the 1970s to the 2010s. During this time it gained a 25m-high Nuclear Dawn Cold War-themed mural on a blank side wall, painted by Brian Barnes in 1981.
This building has been renovated and reworked by Zac Monroe Architects as a series of workspaces and incorporated into the overall scheme. The mural has been restored too, its warning message of a giant skeleton of nuclear conflict stalking above a handful of belligerent leaders (including Thatcher), gaining new relevance in the past few months.
The mural occupies a wall, set-back at a slight angle, where old and new buildings link, maintaining the scheme’s connection to the site’s history. The eddy space this juncture creates is met and mirrored by a more diagonal cut-back in the new building’s façade. Together they form a small town square-like area of pavement adjacent to the theatre’s main entrance, large enough for bike racks, a couple of trees or for audiences to spill out onto after a performance.
The rhythm of the vertical architectural trimmings of Carlton Mansions are also picked up in vertical fin-like features on Brixton House, which break up and texture the new block’s bronze-anodised aluminium façades. They give it a slight Deco-feel, a shadow version of Brixton’s 1930s stone-faced department store buildings.
This nod to the architectural context is also seen to the rear, where the façade stacks up in a series of terraces, designed for use as break-out spaces by theatre staff, performers and others working in the building. They cut back in a bold diagonal that echoes the concrete angles of Southwyck House opposite. The cladding material here is large, glazed bricks, an appropriately meaty facing to the theatre’s service yard and back-of-house entrances. The bricks have a slight blueish iridescence, providing a utilitarian shimmer inspired, Wilson says, by masonry at Berlin’s Friedrichstraße railway station.
In comparison, the building’s front façade has a muted, moody materiality. Only the pale gold expanded metal cladding of its set-back top floor offers a suggestion of theatrical pizzazz. But this all changes at night, when showtime glitz can be cranked up to the max, with programmable LED lights set behind the vertical façade fins animating the façade.
The theatre’s steel frame structure sits on a raft foundation, its relatively lightweight construction necessitated by the Victoria Line running beneath. A key aspect of the design was the need to acoustically isolate the theatre spaces not only from adjacent trains, tubes and traffic, but also from each other. Box-within-box construction has been used, with inner plasterboard linings held up on steel studwork structures independent of the outer blockwork walls. Floating sprung floors rest on rubber pads, which are also used to separate the Vierendeel trusses that support soffits above the auditoriums from the main structure.
The two main theatres spaces, which seat up to 220 and 120 respectively, are designed to be ultra-flexible. The larger has stackable bleaker seating to one side, but otherwise they can be orientated audience/performance-wise in any direction. With their main entrances sitting across a linking access passage, they can also be made to work together, with audiences able to move between the two.
There is full accessibility not just for audiences but also in all back-of-house areas for theatre staff, including wheelchair-accessible lighting rigs. Large service doors allow for the easy movement of props and equipment. ‘A Ford Cortina can be driven into the space,’ Wilson remarks. (Apparently this was once required for a performance and so became a working rule-of-thumb metric in the design.)
The exteriors of the theatre boxes sit visibly angled adjacent to each other at the back of the lobby as you enter. On plan, the linking passage between them leads directly back through a series of fire-rated doors to the ‘get-in’ area off the service yard at the rear. This sense of direct connection between front and back-of-house is underlined in the solid utilitarian nature of materials and finishes continued into the lobby. Blockwork walls, screed floors and exposed services and soffits give a working studio theatre-like feel to the whole space, while also contributing to passive cooling.
Against these generally monochrome finishes, some key elements are picked out in rich colour, most notably the hot pink of the steel stair, which rises behind the reception desk. This chimes with pink elements in a graphic mural by artist Damilola Odusote, which works its way up the lift core through the building.
Like theatrical players in the space, these elements are clearly visible from the street through a generous strip of ground-floor glazing which wraps around the building. This acts like a permeable plinth in front of the lobby and adjacent café, with its sculptural, copper-topped bar. It effectively expands the public realm of the street inside and nicely reflects the half-interior/half-exterior spaces of Brixton Market opposite.
More colourful accents appear throughout the building, in particular on doors, acting as wayfinding – turquoise denoting loos and yellow for studios – while animating circulation spaces. The planning is straightforward and generous: from more specialist acoustically lined rehearsal studios to large, flexible workspace floorplates at the top.
The broad-brush but effective design moves that animate the spaces of this pragmatic but spirited building allow it to feel at once neutral yet also promise the potential for accreting their own history, and even perhaps acquiring a quietly radical new edge.
This is a building as both sophisticated armature for performance as well as straightforward solid urban presence on the street. More than just a sum of its parts, it’s a pleasingly substantial piece of civic infrastructure, quietly and matter-of-factly fitting in during the day, while standing out and putting on the Ritz at night.
The Design for Brixton House brings together a wide range of new arts spaces under one roof. It provides robust studio environments for performing arts that are capable of constant adaptation and change, together with a large new ‘public living room’ foyer.
Key to the planning context is the relationship to the flow of public space around this busy urban site in the centre of Brixton and its place as part of new development along Somerleyton Road, that will bring large-scale affordable housing along a new tree-lined street. The building is orientated with a highly accessible ground floor foyer that provides a continuation of the public space of the nearby market and an open courtyard square that gives a setting for the restored Nuclear Dawn mural.
The environmental design approach aims to minimise the power used by the building at the same time as maximising power production on site. To do this, a bio-diverse green roof is covered by an array of solar cells to generate electricity, while all of the rehearsal and work spaces make use of assisted natural ventilation through the façade to reduce power consumption.
A super-insulated building envelope, using layers of mineral wool, reduces heat loss to a minimum, while exposed soffits and walls help to provide passive cooling for periods of peak use.
Another challenge of the site is its location over a section of the Victoria Line Underground tunnel and the requirement to minimise the weight of new construction. In response, the strategy has been to use a fully recyclable steel frame and lightweight aluminium cladding. The cladding has a dark bronze anodised finish that gives longevity to the façade and helps give the building a visual, if not actual, weight in its setting.
Ed Wilson, partner, Foster Wilson Size
Acoustic consultant’s view
Gillieron Scott Acoustic Design started working on the Brixton House project seven years ago.The location– on a noisy road next to overground and underground railway lines and with residential buildings surrounding the site – required a high acoustic performance of the façade and glazing to reduce noise breaking in from outside as well as noise breaking out from the studios and theatres to surrounding residential buildings.
Two building elements added to the complexity of the task: firstly the curtain walling, which had to be specified to maintain high sound insulation in the façade while reducing flanking noise between studios; and secondly the passive ventilation strategy, where attenuated passive ventilators were used. In addition, mechanical ventilation and fan coil units were employed and had to be attenuated both internally and to atmosphere to meet planning requirements.
A further challenge was the proximity of numerous noise-sensitive rooms producing high levels of noise, which were to be used simultaneously. Fully acoustically isolated rooms were specified to achieve high airborne and impact sound insulation. Ductwork penetrating these rooms was isolated from the main structure and cross-talk attenuators used between rooms.
Room acoustics was an essential design element of this project. The theatres and studios were all modelled individually using CATT-Acoustic computer modelling, and the acoustic treatments, locations and areas specified to achieve high-quality room acoustics and speech intelligibility.
Lucie Zalberg, director, Gillieron Scott Acoustic Design
One of the main technical challenges of Brixton House has been to provide performance spaces that are in close proximity to each other but acoustically isolated. The audiences need to be unaware of the noise of other performances taking place nearby and undisturbed by sound from adjacent busy roads and the Victoria Line tube running directly underneath the building.
The design solution was to build each performance and rehearsal space using an isolated box-within-a-box construction. The principle is that two dense, sealed envelopes surround the performance space and any solid connections that might transfer sound between the two are avoided.
In the main theatre, an interior plasterboard wall lining is separated from external block work walls using a separate metal studwork structure. The floor sits on rubber pads to prevent a sound bridge to the concrete slab below and the ceiling is suspended on flexible hangers.
Construction mass is also required for the absorption of low-frequency sound. This is provided by a dense concrete blockwork outer layer, an inner three layers of dense acoustic plasterboard and the addition of dense cement board to the floor build-up.
Great care was taken to seal around wiring or ducts that penetrate the acoustic envelopes and to provide soft connections where they pass through the void between the two boxes. At a larger scale, the Vierendeel trusses that support the floor above the auditorium are acoustically isolated from the main structural frame using rubber connecting pads at each junction.
Internal finishes of MDF wall panelling and a hardboard floor surface protect the acoustic layers of plasterboard lining. At higher level, dark-veneer perforated plywood panels provide articulation and rhythm to the walls of the auditorium.
Mike Whitfield, associate, Foster Wilson Size
Start on site July 2019
Completion February 2022
Gross internal floor area 4,850m²
Gross external floor area 5,300m²
Construction cost £18 million
Architect Foster Wilson Size
Client London Borough Of Lambeth/Brixton House
Structural engineer Conisbee
M&E consultant Dodd Group
Quantity surveyor Currie & Brown
Project manager Capita
Principal designer Turner & Townsend
Acoustic consultant Gillieron Scott Acoustic Design
Landscape consultant Hyland Edgar Driver
Theatre design consultant Charcoalblue
Main contractor Galliford Try
CAD software used Vectorworks
On-site installed energy generation 24.6%
Heating and hot water load 8.96 kWh/m²/yr
Total energy load 23.39 kWh/m²/yr
Carbon emissions (all) 9 kgCO2/m²/yr
Airtightness at 50Pa 2.91 m³/hr/m²
Overall area-weighted U-value 0.26 W/m²K