CHESTER'S CULTURAL CENTRE
Chester’s £37m Storyhouse cultural centre integrates the grade-two-listed shell of a 1936 Odeon cinema and a new brick and translucent glass extension to provide a library, restaurant/cafe, a new cinema, an 800-seat theatre, and a 150-seat flexible studio with shared backstage facilities. The former cinema, with its decorative plasterwork, forms the main public focus with the restaurant/cafe and library winding across two levels and the cinema housed in a glass-clad ‘lightbox’ suspended on the first-floor mezzanine.
By night the foyer is animated by a film projection screen within the old proscenium arch, through which theatre audiences pass on the way to the auditorium, itself housed in a brick-clad structure, encircled by open stairs and walkways which are visible from the street through translucent glass cladding.
Converting the redundant Odeon cinema presented significant challenges to architect Bennetts Associates. The Art Deco brick walls had to be retained, but the existing spaces were unsuitable for contemporary theatre and cinema spaces. Moreover, the long, narrow site meant that the 150-seat studio space had to be built on top of the main theatre, so prominent vertical circulation routes would be needed. Accommodating three types of performance space in the building, surrounded by a library, presented particular acoustic challenges.
Bennetts Associates’ key ideas were: to build the technically complex theatre, studio and support spaces on the site of the old office building as a contemporary glass ‘twin’ to the old Odeon; to remove the Odeon’s balcony and replace it with a mezzanine floor, making space for a new 100-seat cinema screen in a glass box, above a foyer, bar and café at ground level; to form a glazed gap between the brick Odeon and the new extension to contain a new main stair; to use the streamlined plasterwork of the old cinema screen to frame the opening between foyer and theatres; and to employ a simple palette of materials for new elements, including brick to match the old Odeon.
The largely blank volume of the main cinema space is articulated with a composition of horizontal and vertical brick patterning, emphasising corner towers and a rusticated base. A further brick tower and cantilevered canopy mark the entrance. The main cinema volume had been subdivided into five screens and many original features removed, and stripping out the divisions and the redundant balcony revealed a large volume that retained much of its original art deco plasterwork. These ceiling and wall features now form a series of curving planes and profiles that follow the complex geometry of the room. More than 1,800 square metres of existing brickwork were retained and repointed in the project.
Externally the new addition takes its cues from the former Odeon cinema so as to integrate with and temper the large scale of the building. The brick base and fly tower echo that of the cinema, while a band of white cast glass reiterates the horizontal emphasis while introducing a degree of transparency that the existing facade lacked. A copper-clad box that projects over the street serves to articulate the studio space and the adjacent bar, providing an eccentric highlight to the otherwise calm composition.
Chester Storyhouse was celebrated as the best Public Building at the Brick Awards 2017