The playing field

In July 2012, BD Online published an article on the Chichester pop up theatre; a purpose built temporary performance space, whose typology and appropriate material choice created a valued addition to the theatre community.

Three years on, I find myself reviewing a piece on Assemble’s latest 17-day theatrical programme in Southampton’s Guildhall Square, which articulates the relationship between the architecture of The Playing Field and its resulting human-centred impact.

The history of theatre space and its interaction with the public often evokes ideas of social hierarchy. It traditionally allows for the division between players and even between members of the public. It is an organisation which is both spatial and social. The placement of stalls, rising to the finely tuned vantage points of the inner and upper circles, the galleries often negotiating a view with the soffit and perhaps more historically now, a separate entrance for the lower classes.

It appears that Assemble, in the development of their playhouse, have considered at depth the true nature of the space in order to incorporate all aspects of division and unity necessary for a successful performance. Their solution was to hone the idea of the ancient coliseum; or a modern day football stadium. The resulting scheme envisioned a non-raised stage allowing for public participation at ground level, whilst permitting participants to pass through the theatre’s timber frame peristyle and converging passages to the stands beyond.

(Photo: F. Scott)

(Photo: F. Scott)

This typology allows for wider public engagement, disregarding the idea of social boundaries. Performances could be experienced by the public as part of the theatre itself or as a pedestrian of the surrounding urban landscape.

However, one can look beyond the theatre’s architectural framework towards its connection with the land it inhabits. In fact, the structure of The Playing Field was not physically bound to its earthworks. A deliberate choice. The rigid, cross-braced gravity structure was an essential design feature, solving the temporary nature of the space and avoiding any permanent impact on the existing site. The Playing Field sat as a detached object yet incorporated the humane qualities sufficient to integrate it with its context.

The timber columns and bracing created a dramatic rhythm for the bystander to explore. These lexical and spatial interactions, familiar now in many public spaces across the world, helped ground this temporary structure to its environment, drawing in the public.

(Photo: J. Stephenson)

(Photo: J. Stephenson)

Ultimately, I find The Playing Field most interesting in its unique way of thinking. What should a theatre be, and to whom? Assemble have considered how architecture can influence a public space in order to immerse the audience with the art and the environment. A central concern was “to widen participation and attract new audiences to the theatre” and I believe they accomplished this through a highly personal and all-inclusive space.


Author: J. Browne