Re-purposing

We feel like we are at the end of the beginning. As a relaxation in lockdown feels closer we are turning our sights as to how we can safely emerge from our homes. With every aspect of our lives tipped upside down we now must apply creative lateral thinking to find ways to readjust to a ‘new normal’.

In late April I was listening to ‘a radio discussion about the backlog of courtroom trials, and the dichotomy of being able to conduct jury trials whilst in compliance with social distancing. Many of our courts have spatial constraints making their use tricky unless fundamental changes are made to reduce the number of people in attendance.

Similarly there has been lots of discussion in recent days about the re-opening of schools and the challenges that this poses on class sizes, circulation and social areas. Our higher education sector faces similar issues.

As an architect, the physical implications of social distancing are of great interest to me, and over the last few weeks I have been mulling over how specifically cultural organisations may be able to safely open their doors in the coming months. This will be a challenge necessitating both physical and operational change to give people confidence to return.

However, for the cultural sector, and particularly the performing arts, this throws up significant issues. The very essence of theatre is the coming together of an audience for a shared experience, and whilst it may be possible to spread an audience out across an auditorium this is normally neither financially viable nor experientially desirable. Is it better to be patient and return to a full and rich ‘live’ experience rather than a poorer ‘socially distanced’ one?

It is therefore possible that many theatre buildings may lay empty until such a time that a vaccine becomes available. But a fallow building must still be secured, heated and maintained.

Does it therefore make sense to explore ways in which our theatre spaces can be socially re-purposed to provide much needed space for the provision of other public services?

Every theatre building is unique with its own challenges – but also opportunities.

Many theatre buildings already have the technological knowhow to support a hybrid digital and analogue experience. The clear separation between front of house and back of house could prove useful.

The 2m separation rule essentially means that approximately one seat out of every 8 can be occupied. A 13% occupancy is not sustainable or desirable for performance. However, a 240 seat venue could comfortably accommodate a socially distanced class of 30, or similarly sized groups for other purposes.

Our older theatre stock, originally designed to reflect societies class segregation with a multitude of stairs, can offer safe solutions for people flow safely up and down on separate stairs

Whilst getting people back into the auditorium may be difficult, theatres with external space and generous foyers should be thinking about how to exploit these. For those majority of theatres – and particularly our older theatre stock – could they be thinking creatively as to how they support local organisations and services.

It is highly likely that support will be reciprocated in better times by introducing the theatre building to a new audience through an interim repurpose. Also by slowly reintroducing people and activity back into our theatre buildings in a more measured and comfortable fashion this may help mitigate the psychological implications of lockdown. Who after all will feel totally comfortable about going straight back into a packed out theatre?

Architects are problem solvers– and in this challenging time where every parameter has shifted, we should apply our minds to think about how our existing buildings can be swiftly and inexpensively re-purposed to meet our interim needs.

Can our creative lateral thinking solve the issues in one sector by ‘borrowing’ the spaces of another. Is this a useful way forward until such a time when we can come properly come together again?

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