Pandemic Predicament

Last week the Scottish Design Awards 2020 was a successful evening for Page\Park with recognition for several of our projects across different categories.

I was very proud that two of our cultural projects received accolades at the Scottish Design Awards; our project for Edinburgh Printmakers picked up an award in the Building Re-use category and Leeds Playhouse the Public Building Award and the architectural Grand Prix Award 2020.

Whilst thrilled with this success, the ‘online’ format of the evening did nothing but emphasis the predicament of our cultural sector – in the business of bringing people together at a time when this brings great risks. We valiantly attempted to reproduce an online ‘table’ of our client and design team collaborators for the Leeds Playhouse project so we could watch together on Zoom – the closest thing to being in the room – with wi-fi giving us the opportunity to interact. However, the brevity of the proceedings when compared to previous years seemed very apt in these times of rapid acceleration.

The performing arts sector continues to struggle. Not least for the fact that huge swathes of the sector have not been supported by the various emergency funds. I am acutely aware that whilst many building-based organisations are receiving some support this is not true for every theatre. And for the many freelancers on which the cultural sector rely so heavily this has been a devastating period. I fear that the wonderful buildings we as architects help create, may become future white elephants if no work is been created to ultimately present in these buildings. Theatre is not bricks and mortar – our cultural spaces facilitate – and without the work there is no theatre.

The judge’s citation for Leeds Playhouse – whilst inevitably focusing on the architectural design of the extension – honed in on the desire to be ‘welcoming and not too stuffy’ to encourage diverse audiences, with the colourful ceramic façade bringing ‘something creative and innovative back to the street’. This emphasises the link with the wider city and local communities which is so critical – perhaps more so than ever before.

Whilst theatre buildings have been dark, most organisations have not been closed, running fulsome participation programmes on line with skeleton staff. Many are reinforcing the link with their communities, and in some instances repositioning themselves as more community focused, acknowledging that local support will be vital and that for the foreseeable future theatres will be dependent on local audiences.

This all ties in with the wider discussions around 20-minute neighbourhoods in our larger towns and cities, in which facilities are located within easy reach of the communities they serve. Would it not be a fantastic positive outcome for our local theatres to enjoy a renaissance?

For our larger conurbations, performing arts venues are critical to enticing people back into our urban centres and it is great that the financial value of the arts and the interconnectedness with wider urban economies is being more widely acknowledged.

As theatres look ahead to re-opening there is much deliberation and testing around the physical requirements of social distancing, and exciting artistic experimentation to produce work that can be presented as safely as possible. This is leading to a consequential broadening of the definition of a theatre in the physical sense.

After 6 long months of no live performances, in early September it was marvellous to attend a performance of Scottish Opera’s La Boheme, wonderfully reinterpreted for the age of Covid and staged in the service yard of their production studio in Glasgow. The expectation before ‘curtain up’, the sheer joy of being able to sit (suitably socially distanced) with strangers and enjoy a shared experience, the sound of applause – all things I had really missed. Meticulously planned, this production showed it is possible to not only put on a great show but use our current predicament to amplify the power of the stories we share.

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