Resources Provocation paper

Bricks and Mortar

Angus MacKechnie, Performing Arts Consortium Fellow 2014-15 explores the current challenges and opportunities facing cultural buildings.

Outside of the National Theatre at night, a brutalist building in London, lit up by spot lights
‘Concrete Inferno’ by The World Famous at the National Theatre’s Watch This Space Festival, 2012. Photographer: Ludovic des Cognets (c) National Theatre.

It feels like there’s a big downer on cultural buildings at the moment. The notion of constructing something for culture that has walls and doors, and requires people to cross a threshold, is deeply unfashionable. Big capital projects, once a mainstay of British cultural development and the backbone of the national arts infrastructure, are no longer seen as the core element they once were. This seems to hold particularly true of buildings for the performing arts; with museums and galleries there is an acceptance that oil paintings and dinosaur bones and royal jewels need, at least, a roof to offer protection. But where there is a live interaction between audience and artist, where there is participatory involvement and where work is striving to be as accessible as possible, there is more ambiguity about the value, appeal or even necessity of a dedicated building. 

In the UK, we have a slightly bumpy relationship with cultural buildings, due in part to an over-enthusiastic building programme. After the Second World War and the formation of the Arts Council, there was extensive programme, placing theatres in towns and cities across the country. This reached its height in the sixties, as can be seen in much of the unorthodox architecture, when building a modern, local repertory theatre was seen as a quick and easy way of disseminating the arts. Now many of these buildings stand empty or derelict, or have been converted into conference venues, while others are seen as a financial drain on the local economy. The times when a medium-sized town could support a full-time repertory company to fill its stages have long since passed, and the audiences that were once happy to flock to an un-starry, local production have virtually disappeared. Now all the drama we need is on our laptops or phones, and the idea of making a trek to sit in a darkened room and watch a play seems an archaic pastime to the tech-savvy generation. So in 2015 we can go to Leatherhead and Farnham to find abandoned theatres named for actors who inspired them to be built: Thorndike and Redgrave, ghostly names, fast being forgotten.

The seventies saw a post-counterculture rise of the multi-disciplinary arts centre, responding rather bluntly to the shifting demands of the audience. More catholic tastes, international influences and new moves towards wider participation meant that buildings needed different facilities and a different relationship with their audiences. As culture was moving towards a more central role in the community, the arts centre attempted to fill a gap and provide a local hub alongside libraries and schools.

The arrival of a culturally indifferent government under Margaret Thatcher meant that many of these relatively new buildings found themselves without the financial support to keep them filled with any culture at all. At this point, the arts sector had little entrepreneurial experience to move ahead in such altered economic times. The virtually non-existent role of professional arts fundraiser suddenly became central to any cultural institution that wanted to survive. The bigger building-based organisations began snapping up the available private and corporate support; rooms in galleries rapidly began to acquire names of their philanthropic supporters; anti-establishment playwrights found their productions being underwritten by banks and insurance companies. Of course, most of this wasn’t new. The idea of cultural patronage is a long tradition; for centuries individuals have chosen to give their cash and lend their names to artistic endeavour. Elizabethan gentry supported the dubious world of plays and players to have their titles attached to their companies: The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, The Admiral’s Men and Leicester’s Men were rivals in prestige as well as ticket sales. Much later, the Victorian magnates of the Industrial Revolution began building museums and galleries for the edification of the populace; so easily do we refer to ‘the Tate’ as a cultural institution that we forget it bears that same name as our sugar. 

But philanthropic money loves a building. It loves something solid that you can engrave your name on. It loves a plaque, a name above the door, a legacy. So if we’ve now built enough buildings, we need new ways to convince our supporters to continue to part with their cash. Even with blockbuster exhibitions, star-studded productions and outstanding outreach programmes to support, it is revealing to see the degree to which cultural fundraisers still have to focus on ‘selling’ bricks and mortar. Existing institutions can be renamed; previously unadorned rooms, terraces, corridors, seats, walls or paving slabs can be given lofty titles to transform them into ‘sponsorship opportunities’. But such ongoing investment seems to fly in the face of how we really feel about buildings.

Perhaps we are moving away from buildings altogether. The brilliant Welsh and Scottish redefinitions of what a national theatre can be, have led to some radical debate about just how necessary a building is to a major cultural organisation. Being fleet of foot and without geographical constraint has clearly allowed these two companies to stretch out and embrace new audiences and new theatrical forms, both essential if our cultural landscape is to grow and thrive.

Here I have to remind myself that I spent more than 30 years working at the National Theatre in London – a major cultural organisation which is largely defined by the fact that it is based in a very solid, very recognisable, very concrete building. I remember visiting the building shortly after it opened, with its posters confidently announcing that ‘The New National Theatre is Yours’. It’s a building that was boldly designed with radical ideas to make it open, welcoming, egalitarian and inclusive. To me, as a child, it seemed like a vast playground, full of places to hide, staircases stretching in all directions and carpets to roll around on. There were vast foyers where you could sit and have a picnic while you waited for a show to begin.

A National Theatre building was a long-cherished dream made concrete. It was a dream stretching back to the vision of liberal Edwardian playwrights Bernard Shaw and Granville-Barker. A dream championed by the formidable Lillian Baylis, who, in pre-war Britain, was motivated by very modern, uncompromising views about universal cultural access. When the dream stalled a little in the fifties, the wily critic Kenneth Tynan dressed in mourning suit and top hat to stage a mock funeral for the abandoned National Theatre Foundation Stone. The dream was eventually driven into financial reality by championing socialist politician Jenny Lee, who took the 1950s Festival of Britain spirit and turned it into something tangible. And that it was steered into place by the actors Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright, eschewing their Hollywood lives to set up and run the National Theatre Company before it moved into the new building. The vision of all these pioneering souls was for a building-based National Theatre, which they envisaged standing proud alongside the other big cultural institutions. Its 1976 opening, on a prime piece of central London real estate, was the final flag atop the summit after a very long climb.

To me, the building was always a magnet and I was happy to be drawn into its concrete embrace, first as an audience member and then, literally as soon as I was old enough to work, as an employee. I liked its brutalist simplicity, which saved all the colour and light for the stage; I liked the way the terraces provided better views higher up where you paid less for your ticket; I liked the way the architecture encouraged the unfussy, casually dressed audience to lounge around on the carpet. On the stages, the work was inspiring and modern, attracting criminal prosecution for indecency and brazenly attacking the establishment. To my eyes, it was the opposite of the West End or those tired repertory theatres with their be-suited spectators watching dusty productions of pallid plays. But very soon, I was aware that my perception of the National Theatre wasn’t everybody’s. The building’s very existence was seen as a barrier. It was described as intimidating, unwelcoming, cool and unfriendly, the opposite of everything that those early champions had intended it to be.

And herein seems to be the problem. As soon as the building goes up, it is the building that becomes the focus; it seems that a building can turn a good idea into a hostile institution.

There are reasons for buildings – on a very basic level, culture still needs offices, workshops, rehearsal rooms and laboratories. But more interestingly, people visit institutions with the spirit of a religious pilgrimage; they literally travel across the globe to walk into The Globe. Entering the doors of a major gallery, there is often a breath-taking sense of scale and awe; children marvel and gasp at that sense of occasion and magnitude. But it is near impossible to ensure that every child has that experience and if they do, to make sure that it isn’t just a one-off.

People working in these large organisations do exceptional work to ensure that the doors are wide open. They push geographical boundaries to develop as wide an audience as possible and embrace digital opportunities to reach out even further. In recent times, architects embrace the need for more transparency: at the Royal Opera House’s base in Thurrock and at the National Theatre there are now purpose-built viewing areas for people to see the staff at work – and pretty much every building automatically has a Learning Centre attached to ensure onsite public engagement.

A large part of the animosity towards cultural buildings is around the public financial support that goes into them. Massively well-attended commercial enterprises never face the same criticism. Consumers can be faced with an inflated ticket price for an O2 arena concert or a long drive to the remote Thorpe Park or an overnight queue to buy a new piece of technology, but these hugely inaccessible activities never attract the kind of hostility that might be levelled at a subsidised, free-admission museum.

People do still seem to want to visit these large buildings and, really importantly, doing so offers a collective experience in increasingly isolated times; but, no matter the scale, capacity is finite, and attendance is geographically limited and requires financial investment. These factors open up very basic questions about access. I’m not sure that the buildings are the only part of the problem. In the light of the Warwick Report, the questions are about who is coming, and if the same people come time and again. If our buildings are to prove themselves still valid, we need to be clear that they are only one part of a complex equation and that they play a key role in nurturing the broader cultural ecology, while recognising that they hold a distinctive positon in our cultural identity.

For a long time, my work at the National Theatre focused on audience engagement, which was largely about unearthing that cultural Holy Grail, the ‘new audience’. I used to find this a challenging brief, as a ‘new audience’ is such a fluid quantity, lending itself to so many definitions – as soon as you’ve got them, they’re no longer new. For someone who was very happy working within a building, it is somewhat ironic that for ten years I was programming the free work that went on outside. But that is where I found I was engaging with that elusive ‘new audience’, and without a doorway to enter or a ticket to buy, I was constantly thrilled by their endless diversity. My personal mantra was that if we were offering free work we demanded nothing in return; if they happened to buy a coffee or a beer or even a ticket, this was a bonus, but not a requirement. I wanted to make sure I stayed true to that early principle that the ‘National Theatre is Yours’… whoever you are. In lean economic times, I watched people working out how to have very cheap, very full summers, sitting outside the National watching a show before packing the kids up and dashing off to the next free event somewhere else – and often looking exhausted from taking in too much free culture.

Having work that literally burst out through the doors and onto the street felt like a perfect illustration of the outward-looking intention of a building that might be perceived as formidable: if we are coming out to you, hopefully you’ll feel you can come in to us. One of the things I used to enjoy as programmer was being gently subversive with the famous brutalist architecture, finding shows and installations that played with the building itself. I worked with artists who covered the concrete in wet laundry or draped endless knitting from the top of the building or appeared to set the whole place alight with thousands of candles. I worked with video artists to project rave music mixes on the walls, showed a 12-hour Warhol film in its entirety on the side of the building and placed 20 jugglers over the terraces, sending a cascade of balls from the topmost point of the building down to the riverside.

These were playful ways of redefining a well-known building and giving it a different, unexpected identity – a form of temporary architectural realignment. But it was my love of the building that allowed me to play with it so freely, and I wanted to be sure that it was sending out the signal that this was not an unapproachable cultural megalith. If we are to keep them, this has to be the message we all send out in order to justify our buildings, to open up and develop the work they do, and to secure the diversity of our cultural future.

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