Curvilinear Culture

11 February 2009 (Last Updated February 11th, 2009 18:30)

Curve in Leicester, the first completed UK project by Rafael Viñoly Architects, is flying the regeneration flag. Gemma Smelt reports.

Curvilinear Culture

The major player in a £130m arts venue investment programme by the Arts Council England, the Curve theatre opened on 14 November, 2008 with Lift Off, a celebration of music, circus and dance taking place throughout the building, immersing visitors in their new surroundings.

Curve replaces Leicester's Haymarket Theatre and the Phoenix Arts Centre. The centrepiece of the regeneration of a deprived part of the city, Curve has been described as an 'inside out' theatre that seeks to involve the culturally diverse population of the area.

The flexible brief and close collaboration with the Leicester Theatre Trust and Leicester City Council allowed Anthony Stafford, Rafael Viñoly Architects' project manager on Curve, to create a landmark for the first phase of the 'Cultural Quarter' regeneration of the St George's area of the city.

Exit back stage

The £61m project makes a break from traditional building design, exposing its construction and production elements to the world, blending front and back-of-house, and drawing the public into all aspects of the performance.

From the outside, a four-storey glazed and louvred curtain wall offers an uninterrupted view of the colourful interior. From the street, passers-by will have a constant insight into the workings of the theatre, catching glimpses of all aspects of its life from rehearsals and set design to actual performances.

A 750-seat main auditorium and a 350-seat 'black box' studio sit as two islands in the public foyer. Between them is the main stage, which can be used by either or both auditoriums. This innovative layout creates numerous variations on the use of space, allowing the theatre to meet the diverse cultural needs of the community. A collection of movable walls and curtains split the open space to fulfil ambitious production and design ideas or simply to create wings for the stage. In addition an L-shaped brick section to the rear of the theatre houses other functions such as dressing and rehearsal rooms, the ticket office and a recording studio.

A natural progression

Stafford explains how some aspects of the design for Curve felt like a 'natural progression' from ideas that can be seen in Jazz at the Lincoln Center in New York (2004) and the Kimmel Center for Performing Arts in Philadelphia (2001), two earlier RVA theatre projects. "Jazz at the Lincoln Center was an intervention within a much larger complex, rather than a standalone new building, but the idea of transparency and flexibility is also manifest here," he says.

"At the Kimmel Center, the Commonwealth Plaza, a sheltered extension of the sidewalk, encourages the fabric of the city to flow into the complex. This idea of really allowing the city to be part of the building can be seen at Curve."

"Curve is a landmark building for the first phase of the 'Cultural Quarter' regeneration of Leicester."

Learning curve

Despite its simple appearance, the project was complex to realise. "The structure, acoustics, and mechanical and electrical requirements, along with the theatre equipment took a lot more coordinating and unusual construction sequencing than would be required for other building types," says Stafford.

The design team worked with French theatre planners dUCKS scéno and UK-based CharcoalBlue, who advised on specialist theatre installations. Other specialist contractors worked on areas such as the stage shutters, theatre equipment and flying systems.

Curve is a long-awaited RVA contribution to British architecture, and with more UK projects in the pipeline, including a new maths faculty at Oxford University and the master plan for the Battersea Power Station site, RVA's British adventure is going to be one to watch.