My favourite modernist building … The National Theatre

Friday, August 26th, 2016

As a relatively recent Londoner, there are several modernist buildings that really stand out for me as examples of thoughtful city-making – to name but a few: The Barbican Estate and Arts Centre, Centrepoint, 2 Willow Road (by Erno Goldfinger) and the focus for this piece, The Royal National Theatre (also known as just ‘the National’ or the National Theatre).

NT_Fig01 Exterior

Designed by the late Denys Lasdun in 1970, the ‘beton brut’ form of the building sits by the River Thames adjacent to Waterloo bridge. Conceived as a series of terraces as part of an urban landscape, the building’s ground plane is both inviting and welcoming to the public.

Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London: model showing the theatre in relation to surrounding buildings, Waterloo Bridge and the River Thames

Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London: model showing the theatre in relation to surrounding buildings, Waterloo Bridge and the River Thames

The identity of the building seems to constantly shift between day and night – toing and froing as both a backdrop for the public to enjoy and a space for theatre. The bare, solid forms themselves allow the building to become both a canvas for social life and an extension of theatrical space simultaneously. Theatre and everyday life wrapped in concrete.

NT_Fig03 Night

Despite the controversy surrounding the design of the building (most notably Prince Charles commenting in 1988 that it is “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting”), the building has been Grade II* listed since 1994.

NT_Fig04 Interior

Most recently, Haworth Tompkins architects designed a temporary theatre called The Shed, which sat in the National’s forecourt. The Shed’s primary focus was to celebrate original, ambitious and experimental theatre in a black box environment. The structure itself – formally a mini homage to the rectilinear nature of the National, was clad in playfully coloured timber – an excellent example of how public space can be used and reused in an amalgam of different ways. Just another chapter in the constantly shifting and evolving life of the National.

NT_Fig05 The Shed

Dale Fincham

The “My favourite modernist building …” series is in support of Gordon Wilson Flats which is facing threat of demolition.


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