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33


BUILDING PROJECTS


ALEXANDRA PALACE LONDON


Restoring a Palace to the people


The refurbishment of a London landmark offers an alternative to traditional ‘new for old’ theatre restoration to create a major community venue, writes Steve Menary


May 1875, a new Palace opened, this time including a theatre. Six decades later, the BBC leased the eastern part of the building, which went down in history as the origin of the first high-definition television broadcast. The building was the corporation’s main transmitting centre until 1956, and was used solely for news broadcasts. In the 1980s, another fire hit the building. The area controlled by the BBC was spared by the blaze, but fell into disuse. The old theatre, which included a silent film projector and a vast decorative ceiling, had not been used since before the Second World War and has been closed to the public. Now, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBS) and contractors Willmott Dixon are collaborating on a complicated project to bring the partly-dilapidated theatre and the East Court of the Palace back to life.


A Arrested decay


“The conservation officers say that unless it’s in danger of falling off, anything we do has to be reversible,” says Tony Dowling, operations manager on the project for contractors Willmott Dixon. FCBS describe their vision for the newly restored Alexandra Palace is one of ‘arrested decay’. “The 19th century theatre, dark and unused for over 80 years, bears a highly atmos- pheric patina of age,” according to an FCBS design statement. “It is a true ‘found space’, a snapshot of a grander time.” Tony Wright, senior building manager for


Willmott Dixon at Alexandra Palace, explains: “Arrested decay is the buzzword for the architects, who want it to look ‘as is’. There are flaky walls where the render


ADF SEPTEMBER 2017


lexandra Palace opened in 1873 as the People’s Palace, only to be burnt to the ground just 16 days later. In


has gone, but as soon as we are as far back as we can be, then we are sealing the walls with a specialist sealant and leaving a mixture of paint and render.” He continues: “There are loads of theatres that have been restored with all the gold leaf put back. They don’t want it like that; they want it to look like the photos in the leaflets they distributed to raise money –to look like you have just walked in to the original building.” Willmott Dixon has its site office in part of the building above the East Court. Most of the walls there are clad with plaster- board, but one wall has been left as an example of this ‘arrested decay’ that FCBS are looking to achieve.


The ultimate objective of the commission is to directly support the transformation of the eastern end of Palace, restoring public access to the most historically significant - yet currently derelict – parts of the building, faithful to the vision of its founders in 1873. In addition, the scheme looks to make Alexandra Palace a world-class exemplar of best practice in community heritage regeneration and a key hub for the city of London’s cultural offer.


A ground-up restoration


The brief set to FCBS asks for the “restora- tion of the surviving interior finishes of the theatre and balcony with minimal interven- tion to retain its historic fabric, but conceptually fitting it out to modern standards consistent with its planned use as a community and commercial venue”. The work also included levelling the theatre auditorium floor to offer flexible use and improve accessibility, creating and enabling public viewing of the Victorian stage machinery under the theatre stage as part of a structured tour. The backstage


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FACING PAGE: DRAMATIC RESTORATION The brief asks for the “restoration of the surviving interior finishes...with minimal interventions to retain its historic fabric” Image courtesy of Willmott Dixon


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