The Matcham Journal Interview with the Architects: Austin-Smith:Lord

Cover of the Matcham Journal Edition 10 2024 featuring an interview with Graham Ross of Austin-Smith:Lord

The Matcham Journal Interview with the Architects: Austin-Smith:Lord

This piece was first published in the Matcham Society Journal (Edition 10), 2024. It was written by Giles Woodford of the Frank Matcham Society, following an interview between Giles and Graham Ross, Chief Executive at Austin-Smith:Lord. Giles has kindly given permission for us to re-publish it. Our thanks also go to Rhiannon Davies and Peter McCurdy for their contributions to the piece. 

“By Jove missus!” It’s surely one of the most famous phrases of faux- horror ever uttered across the footlights of a British theatre, and it came, of course, from the lips of our late Patron Sir Ken Dodd.

Along with several other trademark Dodd catchphrases like “Tatty bye”, it’s inscribed on the stepped seating of the Sir Ken Dodd Performance Garden, which is part of the Shakespeare North Playhouse in Prescot, Merseyside. Interleaved with the Dodd-isms on alternate steps are quotes from Shakespeare himself – a combination which must sure tickle Sir Ken as he watches down on audiences courtesy of a giant mural on a side wall. It’s all most appropriate too, as the theatre is only four miles from Sir Ken’s Knotty Ash home, and Lady Dodd was a major donor to the Shakespeare North project.

Sir Ken Dodd Performance Garden at Shakespeare North Playhouse (photo: Andrew Brookes)

Executive architects on the project were Austin-Smith:Lord (A-S:L), working in tandem with HELM Architecture.  A-S:L has recently joined the Frank Matcham Society as a Corporate member, so it was good to find out more about the firm with the unusually-punctuated name.

“The practice was founded by the husband and wife team Michael and Inette Austin-Smith in London,” CEO Graham Ross tells me on a Zoom call from his Glasgow office.  “It grew and expanded into the North-West of England, initially in Warrington. They were joined in partnership by Peter Lord in the early to mid 1950s, hence the somewhat dramatic colon, to separate him from Mike and Inette.

The unusual punctuation has caused a bit of confusion over the years, but it does distinguish us, I suppose!

“It’s now a multi-disciplinary practice. We have studios across the UK, in Cardiff, Bristol, Liverpool, and Glasgow. We are a design-led practice with building, conservation and landscape architects, interior designers and urban planners. We were established in 1949, so this year is our 75th anniversary. We’ve grown and developed as a practice, with expertise across a range of sectors – not least in arts and culture, of which we are very proud.”

Graham has been with the practice for 25 years. He was the first employee in the Glasgow studio, and became Chief Executive in 2020. At what stage in life, I ask him, did he decide to become an architect?

“I do a lot of work with school-age kids and students at universities, advising them about potential careers. I try to inspire them to engage in the design professions. I was fortunate that somehow or other instinctively I just had an attraction towards architecture in my early to mid teens. There had never been an architect or anyone in the design professions in my family before. I’ve always championed architecture as a profession because it connects a great many things: you can engage in culture, society, design, history, mathematics and the sciences. You can develop your own personal interests within the profession, it’s a very broad church, from conservation architecture through to pioneering design.

“All of that comes back to design that has a potential to be a powerful tool for good, not only for how things comes together but also the positive impact that buildings, spaces, and human settlement can have on society more widely. I was fortunate that I latched onto something that was not only a passion but could also become a profession.”

Graham Ross is not only CEO of A-S:L, he also heads up the arts and culture sector of the practice. A wide variety of projects have been undertaken, including both new-build and restoration work. Examples include Liverpool Central Library (extending over several floors, its free-flowing, curvaceous lines remind me of a modern cruise ship atrium), the new V&A Collection and Research Centre in East London, the restoration of the Grade I-listed Great Pagoda in Kew Gardens, and – in 2016 – the refurbishment of the Gaiety Theatre, Ayr.

The Gaiety first opened in 1902, with a 580-seat replacement auditorium designed by Alec Cullen built in 1904 following an early fire. It was reinstated in 1955 following a second fire.

“It’s a B-listed building, somewhat isolated in central Ayr,” Graham Ross comments. “The interior was intact, but the quality of audience experience and accessibility issues were not meeting contemporary standards. Equally there were technical challenges with the staging of performances. Moreover, the fabric itself was deteriorating and required attention. This is an example of a venue that is fondly held in high regard by local people in Ayr. It was host to a wide range of performances, from panto to local groups to touring companies including household names.”

A-S:L was engaged to carry out a £2.4 million project, with the refurbishment work being carried out in two phases. The first focussed on front-of-house audience facilities, and the second restored and rejuvenated the auditorium back to its Edwardian splendour.  Out went the “garish pink and gold paintwork” noted in the Theatres Trust Guide to British Theatres.

“It was a very interesting proposition,” Graham continues. “Jeremy Wyatt, a very energetic and passionate chief executive, was adept at securing funding, first of all for appointing consultant teams to assess the fabric, and the heritage and historical significance aspects of the building. Latterly we have been exploring with the theatre the opportunity to further improve and enhance the quality of their venue, and perhaps provide a secondary studio theatre stage. It’s heartening to see that the project in the first instance managed to save what could otherwise have been a very sorry tale about the decline of a heritage building through neglect, then rejuvenated and brought new life to it.”

Ayr Gaiety Theatre
Gaiety Theatre, Ayr (photo: Guy Hinks)
But the stand-out theatre project in the A-S:L arts portfolio is surely the £25 million Shakespeare North Playhouse in Prescot, completed in 2022.

Looking at the thoroughly modern exterior of the building, you would never guess that it contains a 470-seat theatre auditorium that Shakespeare himself might have recognised.

Shakespeare North Playhouse, Prescot (photo: Infinite 3D)

There is a historical precedent for siting the theatre in Prescot. In the 1590s the town boasted what is thought to be Britain’s only indoor theatre outside London at the time.  It hosted touring companies, funded by the Earl of Derby, resident of nearby Knowsley Hall, who presented the new shows of the day – including Shakespeare’s latest works.

“The design of the Shakespeare North project was done in collaboration with Dr Nick Helm, whose expertise on Shakespearean theatre was key,” Graham Ross explains. “Austin-Smith:Lord was involved right from the start, helping the local authority and relevant local partners to conceive of the idea of a cultural venue in Prescot to regenerate the Knowsley area: we’ve been part of that journey to make the business case, secure the funding and bring in experts, including other design experts. It’s been a great privilege to see the project come to life.”

The main auditorium is named the Cockpit Theatre, after the cockpit theatre in Whitehall, London, built by Henry VIII in 1533: its remains sit directly below No.10 Downing Street. But much has changed since the sixteenth century, and the Prescot auditorium is designed to offer flexible staging formats.

Shakespeare North Playhouse, Prescot (photo: Infinite 3D)

“One of the most critical considerations when recreating the historic theatre for modern-day usage was compliance with current fire regulations,” explains Rhiannon Davies, A-S:L’s project architect during the contract phase of the building. “This affected every design decision. Building on this, was extensive exploration of options for smoke ventilation that could be visually hidden, and technically perform alongside the acoustic requirements. At detailed design stage every material was thoroughly examined to ensure compliance, and careful consideration was given to the type of detection systems that could best be integrated into a historic environment. We worked very closely with our local authority building control officer throughout design development and during construction.”

We can all think of examples where hideous modern stage lighting installations have teeth-clenchingly impinged on a historic theatre auditorium design and atmosphere. This was another major consideration at Prescot, Rhiannon tells me.

“Part of the concept design was for the theatre to perform in a series of different ‘modes’, and so when in ‘historic mode’ it is crucial that theatre equipment such as lighting bars and facilities panels are not visible to the audience.  The facilities panels, for example, are recessed into floor and ceiling voids or recessed into benches, often behind removable panels, so that different equipment is available in different locations around the theatre: this is also coordinated to cater for each of the layouts – theatre-in-the-round or end stage.

“The ceiling is central to the fire, acoustic and technical performance of the theatre in all modes.  The ceiling incorporates a series of trap doors for lowering props and lighting bars over the stage, alongside almost 100 small openings for individual lines to be discretely lowered.  It is finished with angled panelling designed by our acoustic engineers to optimise reflections over the stage. Heavy wool curtains were added on the diagonal walls to provide variable acoustics: they can be drawn to soften the exposed concrete walls behind as required.

“Creating a theatre that is equally accessible for all was also a key part of our brief,” Rhiannon continues. “This was factored into every design decision, from the physical setting out of the theatre – creating wide accessible routes and wheelchair-accessible viewing spaces – to the selection of finishes that provide appropriate contrasts for different visual needs.”

Construction of the oak-framed Cockpit Theatre was in the hands of specialist designer-craftsmen firm McCurdy & Co.  Project director was master- craftsman Peter McCurdy, who performed the same role for the Globe and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London.

Spacious foyer space, Shakespeare North Playhouse, Prescot (photo: Infinite 3D)
Auditorium, Shakespeare North Playhouse, Prescot (photo: Infinite 3D)

“All the oak in the Cockpit comes from sustainable sources,” Peter tells me. “The timber for the sixteen large shaped main posts, as well as some of the other larger timbers were sourced from English oak trees. The remainder of the smaller timbers and the floor joists were sourced from European oak. There are also a few oak timbers that have been reused in the Cockpit that were originally used in the theatre in the Shakespeare in Love film set.”

Although McCurdy & Co. have considerable experience in reconstructing historic timber structures, their previous work on the Globe and Sam Wanamaker reconstructions certainly helped when it came to constructing the Cockpit, Peter continues. “In the 60-80 years that separated Henry VIII’s original Cockpit from the Globe and then the Jacobean theatres, carpentry practice and methodologies changed very little, so the historic jointing and fabrication methods used by McCurdy were similar for the timber frames of all three theatres. The historical process involved working on the timbers and pre-fabricating the timber frames off-site in our workshops, before transporting the timbers and erecting the timber frame on-site.

“It is the design and detailing for each theatre that distinguishes them apart. The Cockpit is a substantial and robust medieval timber structure but with a level of finish, detail and carving that befits a Tudor King’s building. Although larger, the Globe is a more vernacular Elizabethan building with its thatch roof and timber frame of plainer squared timbers. By comparison the Jacobean Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a more delicate oak structure with its refined turned columns and carved bases and capitals.”

Playhouse Sections

Experience with the London theatres also helped when the Cockpit timber work was installed at Prescot, Peter adds.

“The timber frame for the Cockpit had to be erected within the modern shell of concrete walls and steel framed roof that had already been constructed on site. McCurdy had encountered similar challenges when erecting the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which helped when planning the erection of the Cockpit. A ‘spider crane’ that only just fitted through one of the openings in the concrete walls, sat in the middle of what would eventual become the Cockpit and one by one the oak timbers were carefully lifted into place. Once the timbers and joints had come together the McCurdy team then drove the tapered oak pegs through the mortise and tenon joints that secure the Cockpit frame.”

A-S:L’s website features a video showing the Shakespeare North building going up at a rate of knots. Was it really like that?

“Every single construction project, big or small, always encounters unforeseen issues,” A-S:L CEO Graham Ross says as he comments about the video. “Prescot was built during the Covid pandemic. None of us had experienced anything like that during our lifetimes, but the building work progressed very well on a very tight site within the historic town centre. It was deeply sloping topography with level-changing issues. The work went remarkably well – especially when you compound the challenge with the difficulties of social distancing. The build quality achieved was remarkable, not least with the solid oak frame of the Cockpit Theatre.”

Approaching Shakespeare North from Prescot railway station on a dark and drizzly February evening, the building was not that easy to spot. Perhaps for reasons of economy, the uplighters designed to flood the concertina façade with vivid colour were all switched off, so the theatre didn’t exactly offer a seductive street presence.

However, a warm welcome is certainly forthcoming from the front-of-house staff the minute you step over the threshold.  “You don’t need to buy a programme,” you are cheerfully informed, “just point your phone at that QR code over there.”  Illuminated by bright white ceiling strip lights, the foyer spaces feel modern-functional, with their exposed concrete and brick surfaces.

The first thing that hits you is the smell of freshly cut timber.

But the atmosphere changes completely when you enter the Cockpit auditorium. The first thing that hits you is the smell of freshly cut timber. Light in colour and octagonal in shape, the space immediately wraps you in its warm embrace. With reasonably comfortable cushioning, the bench seating means that you are up close and cosy with your neighbours. Not many seats have backs.  But modern theatre seating would hardly be appropriate or practical in this space.

John Godber’s Bouncers was on stage the night we visited. Playing in-the- round to a packed house, the four first-rate actors demonstrated that the Cockpit has a reverberant acoustic.  But the gales of laughter that were forthcoming from all around as one bawdy line followed another made it clear that this historic-design, wrap-round theatre really connects the stage with the audience – a factor that was so important to Matcham some three centuries later.

“Indeed,” A-S:L’s Graham Ross agrees.  “Theatre and live performance, whether it’s spoken or music-based, is a visceral experience. Sometimes the power of that experience can overcome any shortcomings in the venue involved, but the careful crafting of Matcham’s designs – and one hopes of contemporary theatre design – removes any impediments, and makes that intimate connection between the performer and the audience. One of the joys of a Matcham theatre is that sense of intimacy with the stage which is achieved even in an auditorium that can accommodate hundreds of people. And it can  do so in a way that heightens the quality of the performance on the stage.”

Shakespeare North Playhouse First Floor Plan
Model of Shakespeare North Playhouse – auditorium layout
Model of Shakespeare North Playhouse – outside performance space

Many thanks to Giles Woodforde and the Frank Matcham Society for writing this piece. You can view a pdf of the article at this link: Matcham Journal: Interview with Graham Ross

Frank Matcham Society website: