| This house is your house – what will you do with it? |
An investment of £37m has regenerated the iconic 1930s building, it now has an 800-seat auditorium, a 200-seat studio theatre, a restaurant and two bars and a 100-seat boutique cinema.
The welcoming ground floor restaurant is accompanied by a separate upstairs bar with panoramic views of the historic city. Chester Library has moved in and the book shelves can be found throughout the building, with a dedicated reading room and children’s den providing spaces for storytelling and imagination. The Storyhouse has been designed by the architects Bennetts Associates, who have taken on the challenge of bringing together public libraries, giant old cinemas and regional theatres to create a new communal space. The site is at the heart of the city: close to the cathedral and the elaborate Victorian town hall.
The project, says its energetic artistic director Alex Clifton, is “nobody’s good idea” but the product of “opportunism” and “evolution”. It started as a feeling by the local authority that it might be nice to create a prestigious cultural centre, but without a clear idea of who might fill the venues. This could have been disastrous, but a theatre company came into being, putting on successful summer seasons of outdoor performances, which helped inform the shaping of the new place.
The project’s makers emphasise it’s about community and diversity, and about reaching young audiences who wouldn’t otherwise dream of going to the theatre. Librarians are now called the “engagement team”.
There has been an innovative approach to ticketing policy at the theatre: whereby prices depend on how early you buy and not where you sit. There is no box office, tickets are bought online, from machines or from the bar
The emphasis is on accessibility for all. Barriers are removed there is no security for the library, you are trusted not to steal books. The library, for example, will be open from 8am, when the restaurant opens for breakfast, to the end of the performances at about 11pm. As libraries generally are also now encouraged to hold events, this one will benefit from having ample performance spaces attached. At its centre is the hybrid zone formed by the meeting of the old Odeon and the new work.
The local authority, Cheshire West and Chester Council, has put up £33m of the £37m budget, yet there are few of the cries that usually accompany cultural buildings, that the money would be better spent on more urgent needs. “I’ve got all my arguments lined up about its benefits, but I haven’t had to use them,” says Clifton. In the past decade Chester lost its last cinema and its last theatre, and most of the city can see, he believes, how badly it needs to get some culture back.
Bennetts Associates have worked the theatre consultants Charcoalblue to take on the challenge of making an auditorium that can be configured two ways, as either end-stage or thrust. The outcome is classical modernism: glass and steel, timber and patinated copper, bricks that match those of the cinema. The main auditorium is steeply proportioned, with a lot of dark-stained wood, has both
intimacy and dramatic potential. On the exterior, Bennetts reinterpret in new materials the old cinema’s balance of verticals and horizontals. Layers of opacity and translucency intimate the life inside. Clifton has added some flourishes of his own, however: statues of peacocks, mirrors laminated with historic views of Chester.
“Being theatre-makers,” he says, “we’re never knowingly understated.”
The aspiration is for the Storyhouse to be a communal space that enables multiple forms of cultural activity. The tag line says it all: This house is your house – what will you do with it?