The Sultan Nazrin Shah Centre is a new building housing a large lecture theatre, a student learning space, seminar rooms and a dance studio. The project is not simply the provision of new facilities, but also the development and enhancement of the setting of this significant part of the College site. Whilst the relationship between the new buildings and the listed parkland is important, it is only one part of a complex arrangement.
When we were asked to design a new theatre on this site, we used the precedent of the three-sided arrival court to reintegrate the neighbouring MacCormac designed Sainsbury Building and to create a new setting on the edge of the park. We extended the lake so that it was filled from a weir under our new building, and we made an open square, approached through the existing gatehouse. It was a way of bringing surviving fragments together to form a semblance of order. We imagined the parkland as having multiple centres, arranged around open courts, linked by the meandering lake.
We built a stone amphitheatre under a pleated ceiling. Around it, timber pergolas open out towards gardens all around. Some of the pergolas are roofed over and some are open beneath the sky. The foyer is raised up on a stone platform that allows floodwater from the canals and rivers to flow completely under the building. From this vantage you can look over the park and the cricket pitch. Stepped terraces create a place for viewing sport, and parkland spreads away beyond them. A dance studio looks back along the lake, above the flowing weir. A small garden frames an entrance court.
The foyer is an open area under an oak ceiling with brighter spaces all around it. The theatre is full of daylight from a hidden clerestory. We sought a delicate balance of light from multiple sources, so that everything opens from the centre towards brightness. The amphitheatre has its own hidden formality. It is a quadrant taken out of the square of the foyer with its axis of symmetry concealed on a diagonal alignment. When the theatre doors are open, you can experience the whole square. When they shut down, there are two completely separate spaces.
The use of concealed symmetries is a nod to MacCormac’s compositions, but there are two other architectural memories at work in the design. One is KF Schinkel’s Gardener’s House in the park at Potsdam. We had a memory of a masonry building wreathed in pergolas, trailing vines. The other is plans by Alvar Aalto, especially his building at Wolfsburg. We remembered how Aalto’s theatres flare out at an angle against an otherwise linear arrangement. We inverted the axis of our theatre, so that you enter from the foyer high up at the back; therefore, when you stand on the stage, you are looking out over parkland. The performer stands, as if under a tree, circled by an audience in the shade, speaking into openness and light.