Principal of firm Pringle Brandon Drew Perkins+Will, John Drew, and architect, Therese Bak, are the calm, composed and cool figures behind the project that the East End arts and culture scene is proudly and loudly making a noise about – The Stage.
Known in the 16th century as the Curtain Theatre, this relic of English heritage is purportedly where The Bard’s Romeo and Juliet and Henry V were first performed. Archaeologists unearthed the historic find in 2011; discovering London’s second oldest Shakespearean playhouse under Shoreditch turf and proving this pulsating quarter of the capital is thriving below ground level too, having held it’s where-the-party’s-at status for at least 500 years.
Fast forward to 2014 – and plans to preserve the skeleton of the excavated circle in a museum, construct an appended 164-seat indoor auditorium with an additional 200-seat outdoor performance space, and develop a square of shops, offices, residences, bars and restaurants are in the pipeline – with permission to build granted by the council, though it’ll be a long time till completion.
For now, the Elizabethan site is an unfinished dig with more Shakespearean vestiges expected to be located, so the architects wonder ‘Wherefore art thou?’ and tell us what’s going on behind the scenes…
Can you tell me a bit about your individual backgrounds?
John (J): I studied architecture in the UK and at Yale University, after which I worked for Foster and Partners for fifteen years and ran the London office for Rafael Viñoly for five years.
Therese (T): I studied architecture at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. I worked at Rafael Viñoly New York and London office for over seven years on a number of projects in the UK, Europe, America and the Middle East – that is where I met John nine years ago. We collaborated on 20 Fenchurch Street nicknamed The Walkie-Talkie, Battersea Power Station and Manchester City Football Club Masterplan.
What is it about designing and developing buildings that’s so appealing to you both?
T: Well-designed buildings set positive physical conditions which enable people to focus on their jobs, goals or whatever it is they want to do – they can promote a sense of wellbeing, inspire and even help people be more productive. Providing the kind of environment that makes people healthier and happier is rewarding.
J: What could be more interesting than shaping and hopefully improving the environment where we all live and work? We are lucky be in London, the most exciting City in the world and Shoreditch, is arguably the most exciting bit of it!
What building are you particularly proud of, and which do you wish was under your belt?
T: I love the one I’m working on now – The Stage, Shoreditch. It is a mixed-use development with a large public open space with a Shakespearean theatre at the heart of it, defined by a cluster of buildings animating the space in between. My favourite building by someone else is Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright.
J: My favourite building of my own was Bishops Square at Spitalfields, it has a wonderful public realm and people really love the space, and of course The Stage which I am working on now. Outside of my work, I really love the Great Court at the British Museum – it is such an ethereal space.
What are you favourite world cities in terms of general architecture?
T: London, for understated elegance of terraced buildings and grand Victorian building. New York, for interesting juxtaposition of varying styles, towering heights and character. Rome, Florence, Venice for the sculptural, elegant historic buildings, piazzas and fountains. Berlin for union of intricate historic buildings and daring modern architecture. Los Angeles for private houses with outside-in inside-out approach and Shanghai for grand public spaces!
J: And, Moscow!
John, why did you set up Pringle Brandon Drew Perkins+Will HQ in Shoreditch particularly?
J: Because it is a great place to live and work. Shoreditch is my favourite part of London, but I think that is quite a wide definition covering Spitalfields and Brick Lane (I love curry).
T: It is a great creative community hub with technology and the artist community flourishing here.
How has the firm affected the skyline and blueprint of the capital?
J: Pringle Brandon Perkins + Will is a relatively new company. The Stage, Shoreditch will be the first project that we have worked on that will have a major impact on the skyline of London. But aside from the ones Therese mentioned, we have between us worked on Swiss Re, The Hong Kong Bank at Canary Wharf, The Willis Building and many other lower rise developments which have had a major impact on the City.
The company recently won two awards from the British Council of Offices, what about its style of architecture is special?
J: I think we think about buildings from the inside out, and we really care about how people live and work in buildings so we tend to do buildings which function really well, and our interest in public space is really an extension of that philosophy.
One example is Siemans the Crystal. It was the only building in the world at that time that had achieved BREEAM Outstanding and LEED Platimum. The challenge then was how to build an all-glass building that was very low energy – we used the shape of the material to influence the shape of the building so that is was faceted and therefore shelf-shading – hence the name ‘Crystal’. The other challenging part was the extraordinarily short programme – we only had eighteen months to do it from the inception of the feasibility study to the planning, construction and operational phase, so we designed the outside of the building independently from the inside.
The other interesting project we did was for Astellas Pharma, who bought Electronic Arts (EA) Games’ HQ. So originally the bespoke design was for a fully open-plan environment but we adapted it to a flexible working environment – large atria spaces and the streets – so that it was both open-plan and cellular, creating an alternative work setting that fully integrated the new brand with the interior architecture.
Can you give me an example of how science and technology play a part in your works?
J: In order to function well, the systems that run buildings have had to become increasingly complex. If we are to do more sustainable buildings we must design them more intelligently to meet the challenges of global warming and reduce the amount of carbon being pushed into the atmosphere. With The Stage, Shoreditch we are using an energy centre to generate power on site and technology to spread it between the various uses on the site. As a result we are producing a scheme which runs on a fraction of the energy and costs which would have been required a few years ago.
How were the ruins of the theatre first discovered?
T: The Museum of London Archaeology assessed the archaeological potential on the site and found that the remains of The Curtain may have been there. They identified locations to dig trial trenches and found it on the first hit!
Can you tell me how the project for The Stage arose?
T: We started with a feasibility study looking at development potential, and the site owner who was already our client, was excited by the idea of creating a new cluster of buildings around the theatre – a community connected by an open public plaza and marked by a tall, iconic building at the edge of where the City meets Shoreditch. We won planning permission to build a new forty storey residential tower and theatre, as well as two buildings providing around 25,000 square metres of office space and approximately 4,500 square metres of shops and restaurants on a two and a half acre site.
Will you be involved in the interior design? How will the Elizabethan elements be reinstated?
T: Because the site is largely occupied, archaeological remains of part of the theatre circle were uncovered where the site is reasonably accessible. We won’t be able to know the full extent of the remains until the existing buildings are vacated and demolished – once we do it will inform the interior design, and we hope to be continuing being involved with that.
J: Yes, we hope to be involved in the design for the museum to accompany the remains of the theatre, the practice is experienced in these types of developments as we were involved with the design of the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth which has recently opened to great acclaim. It’s interesting, the Mary Rose sank about thirty years before the Curtain Theatre was built – we are starting to have an affinity with Tudor timber structures!
What’s your opinion on theatre in Shoreditch in general?
J: With Shoreditch located outside the City Walls of London – it was always a place which was a little lawless and a place where things were happening. There were two Shakespearean Theatres in Shoreditch, and the tradition of entertainment continued through the Victorian Music Hall and onto the modern nightclubs. So it has always been a place where people went to enjoy themselves and where they could find escape from their everyday lives.
Shoreditch 1595 or Shoreditch 2014?
J: Shoreditch 2020 – always look forward.
So how do you think the project will affect the local area and its social initiatives in the future?
T: Publicly accessible space is something that is shortage of in this area of London – having a large public open space with Shakespeare at the heart of it is real gold! There is an existing network of open spaces this can connect to – from Liverpool Street Station, Broadgate Circle and Spitalfields through to Principal Place, St. Mark Square and Silicon Roundabout, it will be really exciting to connect this all together with The Stage.
J: The area around the southern end of Curtain Road is currently the least animated in the area. New shops, restaurants and bars together with public open space and a major public attraction of world significance will have a catalytic effect on the area and result in a ripple effect which will energise the area.
Written by Amrita Riat
Photography by Teresa Geer