The Architecture of Denys Lasdun: the National Theatre
Denys Lasdun (1914-2001) was one of the greatest British architects of the post-war period. He designed some of the most notable examples of Brutalist architecture in Britain, including the National Theatre in London. Lasdun's style combined cubic towers, bare concrete and jutting horizontal planes. He developed a language of architecture that was tough, tectonic and highly intellectual.
Lasdun’s most famous and controversial building is the National Theatre on London's South Bank (1967–76). The building is an urban landscape of interlocking terraces that responds to the site on the River Thames. There is a careful balance between horizontal and vertical elements. As they approach the ground, the strata coalesce and lead down to the river to form an intricate social space moving through the buildings. The space is a central valley into which the strata plunge and which turns the line of movement gently down towards the river. The riverside forecourt is used for open-air performances in summer.
According to Lasdun’s book, ‘A theatre must be a place where human contact is enriched and a common experience is shared. Indeed, as communal places supporting a public ritual, the strata of this scheme recall what Martienssen had to say of terraces in ancient architecture:
The creation of a level plane of reference in a practical context has wider significance than that of its purely ‘useful’ aspect in an architectural arrangement. A horizontal plane or a series of related horizontal planes is the first essential in any system of formal arrangement intended to embrace the activities of organised or collective life.’
The building houses three separate auditoria. The Olivier Theatre was named after the theatre's first artistic director, Laurence Olivier. This is the main auditorium, and was modelled on the Ancient Greek theatre at Epidaurus. It has an open stage and a fan-shaped seating area. An ingenious 'drum revolve' (a five-storey revolving stage section) extends eight metres beneath the stage and can be operated by a single person. The drum facilitates rapid scenery changes. The Lyttelton Theatre has a proscenium arch and can accommodate an audience of 890. The Cottesloe Theatre is a small, adaptable studio space, designed by Iain Mackintosh, holding up to 400 people.
The spaces within the foyers are small so that people can stay together during intervals and not lose the atmosphere generated by the play. The surrounding cityscape is always present, framed by overhanging soffits.
Architectural opinion was split at the time of construction. Even advocates of Modernism such as Sir Nikolaus Pevsner found the Brutalist concrete overbearing. Most notoriously, Prince Charles described the building as ‘a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting.’ However, some traditionalists praised it. The poet and architecture aficionado John Betjeman wrote Lasdun a letter of praise. Betjeman wrote that he ‘gasped with delight at the cube of your theatre in the pale blue sky and a glimpse of St. Paul's to the south of it. It is a lovely work and so good from so many angles . . . it has that inevitable and finished look that great work does.’