In 2012 Sound Space Vision beat all competition to become the theatre design and acoustics consultant for David Chipperfield Architects’ master plan to unite the Royal Academy of Arts’ (UK) 18th century Burlington House with its neighbour, Burlington Gardens, and transform the interiors throughout.
SSV’s brief was to modernise and equip Burlington Gardens’ 19th-century lecture theatre for 21st century presentation and performance, and this was later expanded to include acoustics advice on the new gallery spaces and the learning centre, as well as mechanical systems.
In collaboration with the architectural teams, SSV facilitated a design with minimal impact on the heritage features of the building, yet provides a future-proofed technical design for the Academy’s planned lectures, debates, panel discussions, conferences, recitals, and hires.
The form of the new lecture theatre went through several iterations; common to all being the reduction in height from three to two storeys.
The form settled on a tight, almost semi-circular, bowl with a steep rake for a total capacity of over 250, bringing audience and presenter into close communication.
“Most exciting of all is a new double-height lecture theatre. A horseshoe of 250 steeply raked seats, elegantly fashioned from darkened oak, this auditorium is magnificent: intimate yet, I suspect, capable of generating the electric atmosphere of a bullring…,” said Alastair Sooke of the Daily Telegraph.
The combination of windows on all sides and a listed historic interior at first floor level presented SSV with two specific challenges: to find projectors and a screen that would be usable in daylight, and to provide sufficient acoustic dampening to overcome the natural reverberance of the volume of space which hinders good speech intelligibility. Associated with this was the choice and location of loudspeaker to serve the bowl-like audience.
SSV devised a full package which overcame this and more. Lighting bars hang discreetly on three sides of the room to light speakers’ faces without shadows. An infrastructure of lighting and AV connectivity is available at three levels around the room – in the ceiling, the balcony floor and the stage floor. Edge-blended projectors support large format, high-quality art presentations with excellent colour rendering – imperative for the Academy – and facilitate in-house broadcasts and web casts. A digital audio system provides amplification and pick-up for recording, streaming, hearing assistance and interpretation. Digital column array loudspeakers provide clarity in a challenging reverberant acoustic.
Crucially, SSV continuously reviewed the technical specifications through the long design and build process to ensure the infrastructure serves a wide range of capabilities with state-of-the-art technology, whilst continuing to meld with the historic fabric of the listed building and the architect’s design of the refurbishment.
Sound absorbing solutions to control reverberation time involve sheer, sound-absorbing curtains that pass daylight and perforated leather for the bench seating accounting for some of the considerable mitigation of noise.
Isolation from external noise and internal building services was also required, alongside MEP and AV systems that would not disturb nearby residents. This was achieved with heavy, acoustically-treated secondary glazing to the windows and the roof light, and a specification that the mechanical plant adjacent to the theatre should rest on a floating concrete slab to limit noise and vibration.
The proximity of the neighbours and risk of intrusive breakout noise (plant and events) was mitigated by way of low velocity, high attenuation ventilation paths, including an under-seat plenum.
In addition to this, SSV delivered several detailed environmental acoustics assessments of the rooftop plant for submission to the local authority, and associated MEP services noise and vibration control design advice.
SSV’s long experience in working on listed buildings enabled an efficient and sensitive approach, including non-invasive interventions and fixings to historic finishes, and designing and integrating infrastructure and equipment to meld with the building’s fabric.
The RA’s long design and build process culminated with grand opening celebrations in May 2018, coinciding with the RA’s 250 birthday celebrations. The transformation – and the lecture theatre in particular – has garnered considerable public and critical acclaim. The Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright termed it “the masterful highlight” of the project, and “a rare delight compared to most black-box auditoria.”
Sooke at the Daily Telegraph agreed, stating “The most exciting new element is still that lecture theatre, in part because it has one eye on the RA’s history, as well as its future.”
SSV is proud that its contribution has provided the Royal Academy with a unique venue capable of hosting an outstanding new programme of events and upholding its reputation for aesthetic and academic excellence and growth. The Benjamin West Theatre has recently been shortlisted for the AJ Architecture Awards, the winner of which will be announced on 4 December 2018.