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2011 – Lyric Theatre, Belfast, Co. Antrim

Architect: O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects

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In 2003, the Lyric held an international architectural competition and selected O’Donnell + Tuomey from 56 entries as the architects to design a new theatre facility. Work began on the £18.1m theatre in March 2009 and the new Lyric re-opened in May 2011.

The project team was led by Richard Wakely (formerly Managing Director of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin and General Manager of Hampstead Theatre, London) and in addition to O’Donnell + Tuomey includes specialist designers such as Theatreplan (theatre, stage and technical designs) and Sound Space Design (acoustics).

Almost three times the size of the old theatre, the new building is 5026 m2 or 54,164 sq ft and has three distinct areas. The 389 seat auditorium is the main performance area, providing an extra 90 seats in a single steep rake. The intimacy of the old theatre remains as the body of the audience is not broken by balconies or barriers ensuring actors and audience share the same space. A second performance studio accommodates between 110 and 150 people, can be adapted to suit any performance style and will explore experimental work as well as reimagining classic plays and developing the skills of local artists. The third space is a rehearsal room the same size as the main auditorium stage. Other facilities include an Education Suite, Green Room, Dressing Rooms, Board Room, Back Stage facilities, Box Office, Café/Bar and River Terrace.

The Lyric is sited between the characteristic grid pattern of the surrounding Belfast brick streetscape and the serpentine parkland setting of the river Lagan. Seen from the river, the new theatre is expressed as object crystalline forms in a parkland, with a strongly defined skyline and distinctive volumetric form. On Ridgeway Street, the Lyric is designed to take advantage of the sloping site, to step down the hill, graduating in scale away from the neighbouring terrace houses. Built in ‘Belfast’ brick, the new building holds one corner of the continuous system of brick streets, the last building on the grid marking the corner of Ridgeway Street and addressing the River Lagan.

The skyline of the building displays the constituent ingredients of the conceptual design. The solid sculpted brick volumes linked by transparent permeable public spaces are intended to visually connect the street through the Lyric woods to the continuous flowing line of the river through the city.

The irregular outline of the boundaries of the site and the constraints of the sloping ground have given rise to a site specific design solution. Each of the three principal functional elements of the building is housed within its own distinctive brick box, with the public circulation spaces and staircases wrapping around the fixed forms of the theatre, studio and rehearsal, standing on the sloping ground of the site like rocks in a stream.

The large auditorium with its backstage fly tower has been sited back from the street line to minimise intrusion on the scale of the surrounding urban context. The studio has been sited along the street frontage with a picture window to provide visual communication between street and theatre activities. The rehearsal room has been raised above the foyer bar area with its window overlooking the river through the trees to provide concentrated focus for the rigorous process of actors preparation for performance. Each of these three key spaces has been provided with individual roof forms to break down the scale of the building and to give individual expression to the constituent elements of the programme.

The public approach up a gently rising sandstone stair from the street and enter a dynamic foyer space leading from the box office to the bar, with a flowing stairway to the upper foyer which overlooks the River and from which both performance spaces are entered. The spiralling circulation pattern emphasises the generating force of the performance spaces at the centre of the plan.

At the project’s core is a 389 seat theatre in a single steep rake, the body of the audience not broken by balconies, the actors in the same room as the audience. The furthest seat from the stage is 16 rows/15metres, and a 3 metre forestage can be adapted by extending a platform over the first two rows. Externally the theatre is expressed as a brick crystalline form, internally the room is faceted in acoustic linings. The stage arrangement provides wide wings and flying facilities with minimum intrusion of proscenium between stage and seating. The parabolic section of the raked seating has been developed with the assistance of a computer analysis to ensure optimum sightlines from every seat. The seating layout is creased along one line, folding slightly, like an open hand to hold the audience, focused on the stage but within sight of each other. The space has been designed to encourage and intensify the intimacy that was the most successful characteristic of the previous Lyric building.

The faceted acoustic lining is in the shape of 3 timber arches, enclosing the seating space with direction towards the stage area. Each arch is made up of a number of triangulated solid Iroko timber panels that tilt and turn to hide from the audience the mechanical and lighting equipment behind and create a sense of enclose. The sound is enhanced by these arches to maximum effect.

The floor of the auditorium is in the same Iroko timber as the arches, thus creating the feeling of being in a timber box. A solid floor increases the acoustic performance of the space. However the treads of the steps in the auditorium are carpeted to relieve the noise of audience movement during a performance.

The public foyer is the space between the three volumes of the Auditorium, Studio and Rehearsal Rooms. The external materials of brick and timber are wrapped around these volumes internally. The main circulation floor is differentiated by the introduction of another material, sandstone, which acts like the bed of a river, running between the three volumes and taking the audience through the public areas of the building. In areas where the audience can meet and assemble the floor is brick, as in the bar and bar foyer. Views out from the building through the trees to Stranmillis are taken advantage of through high timber windows.

The Lyric Theatre is a brick building within the context of a traditionally brick built city. The original ‘Belfast Brick’ is a deep orange/red textured clay brick and the chosen brick for the Lyric is an excellent match, making the Lyric feel as if it has grown out of old Belfast. Special bricks were hand-made to respond to the geometry of the building.