Playhouse in RIBA exhibition

Saturday 21st August 2010

It’s not often we use our home page to point you towards other cultural institutions. But if you’re in Nottingham during the weekend of 21/22 August, you must pop across town to Nottingham Contemporary, where the Royal Institute of British Architecture is previewing its new touring exhibition Fifty/50. Nottingham Playhouse features prominently in its choice of the 50 best buildings throughout the East Midlands from the past 50 years. As well as featuring on the display boards alongside all the other winners, the Playhouse is also presented in model form – indeed, RIBA has borrowed the architectural model that is normally on public view in our Upper Foyer!

Interestingly, the judges have not only singled out the original building, designed by Sir Peter Moro and Partners and opened in 1963. The display certainly praises the elegant simplicity of Moro’s “egg-in-a-box” design, with its airy public spaces nestling the cast-concrete cylinder of the auditorium – “this festive yet intimate space”. Moro’s Playhouse was revolutionary at the time and is now a Grade II* listed building. But the RIBA judges have also included the addition of the Playroom, our rehearsal space created above CAST bar and restaurant in 1995, and the radically redesigned forecourt created when Sky Mirror was unveiled in 2001. Both were the work of the local architectural practice Marsh Grochowski and the growth of a strong regional identity in the built environment is something RIBA has clearly been keen to encourage.

Marsh Grochowski has another building in the top 50, too: the DH Lawrence Pavilion which forms the centrepiece of Lakeside Arts Centre along the road at the University of Nottingham’s main campus. Other arts buildings get their share of the limelight too: Curve in Leicester, Derby Quad, the redesigned Royal & Derngate Theatres in Northampton, and both of Nottingham’s new gallery spaces: the New Art Exchange as well as Nottingham Contemporary itself. Other Nottingham landmarks which make the cut, meanwhile, are: the Fox Road Stand at Trent Bridge cricket ground; Attenborough Nature Centre; the Inland Revenue complex; Pork Farms’ Riverside Bakery; St George’s Access Centre in Netherfield; the University of Nottingham’s Hallward Library and Jubilee Campus; and several buildings at Boots’ HQ in Beeston.

Fascinating stuff – and if you can’t catch it during this brief airing at Nottingham Contemporary, you’ll have another chance when the exhibition returns to the city at Nottingham Trent University’s Newton building from 31 January to 11 February 2011 – or on tour in Wirksworth, Sleaford, Northampton, Leicester and Derby. It’s not the first accolade for our building, of course. As well as English Heritage placing us in the top 6% of British buildings with its Grade II* listing, we’ve recently been a Building of the Month for the Twentieth Century Society, the cover star of the local Pevsner guide, and the focus of a feature in the prestigious Building Design magazine.

For all that, it seems especially fitting for the Playhouse to be part of an architectural exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary, whose story so far is strikingly similar to the story of this building back in the early 1960s. Both were controversial right from the planning stage: first people questioned the dedication of significant wodges of public cash to the project, then the design itself aroused brisk debate. In both cases the building continued to divide opinions once it was actually unveiled, but immediately brought a new flowering of world-class artistic activity in the city – and got it noticed around the world. That’s a mission we continue here at the Playhouse, but as our building comes close to its 50th anniversary, our building has largely lost the shock of the new and in its place gained… well, the affection of the much-loved. Nottingham people have long since taken the Playhouse to their hearts: we’re the home of thousands of happy memories. Like us, Nottingham Contemporary has already enjoyed great success, and our experience suggests that its building too will duly become a universally cherished part of the city’s fabric.