A Favourite Building in Canterbury, Christopher Palmer architect and designer

By Christopher Joslin Palmer, architect and designer

If you were asked to pick your favourite historic building here in Canterbury, there are numerous to choose from. Many are worthy of praise but not so easy perhaps to propose a contemporary building. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that ……. and I do think human nature, when it comes to our built environment is wary of change of any kind, especially within a setting of one of England’s finest historic cities.

Throwing caution to the wind my choice is the Marlowe Theatre.

Named after Christopher Marlowe, without any doubt the city’s very own Tudor playwright this building with its modern aesthetic sitting so close to the heart of the city’s historic centre is intent nestling new with old. A commendable design by Keith Williams Architects, I believe it to be exquisite for many reasons.

The building was opened on the 4th October 2011 after rigorous public consultation and has very quickly become one of the UK’s best regional theatre venues. It replaced the previous theatre which in turn was repurposed from the shell of a dilapidated 1930’s cinema complete with a frontage not too dissimilar from a seaside jazzy architecture ‘last picture show’ venue.

That said the old Marlowe Theatre had always been central to the city’s entertainment life for decades but the earlier auditorium was insufficient in size, had mediocre sight-lines and lamentable acoustics. Now, with orange leather seats and walnut panelling the new main auditorium may not be everyone’s aesthetic choice but no-one can deny that the whole theatre experience is improved beyond recognition.

When approaching the building via characteristic narrow and winding lanes of old Canterbury there is both anticipation and then an immediate sense of arrival. The principal elevation is set slightly elevated over a shallow sloping piazza and, to The Friars street side, a tapering stepped approach. All in all the design has a considerable classical reference. This context is emphasised by the long and gently curving double height stone colonnade, lining both principal elevations, and the sheer scale of this architectural feature bizarrely helps to visually ’shrink’ the apparent size of the overall theatre complex.

On entering the building, it is not a traditional theatre foyer cramped of space and claustrophobic of low ceilings. It is light, airy and spacious providing an expectant buzz pre-performance. Fantastic views over rooftops of historical Canterbury from the uppermost foyer levels are a special treat, this vista not previously on offer to the public. Of course, due to the substantially larger size of the main auditorium, seating 1,200, the theatre now also attracts more significant performances such as visiting popular West End shows to the high culture of Glyndebourne Touring Opera.

The urban planning outcome of the development is for the local community as a whole. By extending the eastern boundary there is now a tranquil new pedestrian pathway easily linking the theatre to Solley’s Orchard and Abbots Mill Garden open spaces. This meander provides an unobstructed view of part of the historic Dominican Priory of Blackfriars and extended public access to the River Stour, now also a place to rest to enjoy public art sculpture.

Most importantly the new Marlowe Theatre building has been proved not to compromise the setting of Canterbury Cathedral, one of the principal concerns of the public consultation.

Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous and long respected American architect, once said “A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his client to plant vines”.

Make no mistake, the Marlowe Theatre makes no mistakes.

It needs no remedial covering of vine or ivy. Our new theatre, modern in a historic setting, is a fine piece of contemporary architecture and worthy of its civic status. As a ‘secular cathedral’ for our community, it is an excellent performance venue, fit for purpose, staging a multitude of performances from light entertainment through to classical repertoire.

A nighttime beacon with soporific coloured lighting.

In decades to come I am convinced the new Marlowe Theatre building will be elected to join the great diversity of our current list of worthy historic buildings here in Canterbury.

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