by Jerry ElengicalNov 26, 2022
Malmö Stadsteater (the city theatre) occupies a handsome civic building of brick architecture and granite stone dressings. Initially built as the MalmÖ Stadsteater Hippodromen (Malmö Hippodrome) by Theodor Wahlin in 1898, the original fitting with support spaces for the circus, its performers and animals. The original building’s Swedish architecture is located in an urban block with the circus amphitheatre at its heart, enclosed by a vaulted timber grid shell roof with clerestory and topped by a cupola. An external courtyard and circulation passageway are entered from the surrounding streets via ceremonial archways to reflect the flow of circus processions. In the 1920s the circus auditorium was converted to a theatre space, which following WW2, was used as a church. The auditorium and foyer were completely renovated in 1994 to create an open-format theatre space, with a proscenium stage added in 2008.
Whilst this project was technically successful, the auditorium design masked many of the original Hippodrome features and did not give theatre artists much flexibility to vary the seating or staging configurations. Haworth Tompkins, an award-winning firm from the UK, in conjunction with White Arkitekter was called upon to offer a solution. Named UK Practice of the Year at the AJ100 awards in both 2020 and 2022, Haworth Tompkins has spent the last thirty years remodelling old theatres and making new ones. They aim to provide directors and designers with cultural centres that empower their work emotionally and technically and fully embrace the audience as participants in the event of theatre.
Roger Watts, their director summarizes the issue, “The hippodrome is much loved by the people of Malmo. Having been through several different transformations since its original 1900 construction as a circus, our renovation architecture project was about engaging and drawing from this rich cultural memory as well as the physical heritage fabric. Most of the remaining original fabric in the hippodrome space was up in the roof structure, a beautiful scalloped vaulted timber structure with a band of wall murals within the cupola, all hidden away behind layers of technical equipment and acoustic baffles. We cleared away these obstructions to reveal the timber structure and the murals, using the warm texture of the rafters and the soft pastel mural colours as our pallet for the new installations.”
The brief supplied to the firm, at the heart of the renovation project, was the need to open the theatre to the life of the city and to welcome communities into the building. A refurbished flexible format auditorium was the most optimal solution, merging the raw energy of new architectural elements with the historic shell of the original circus and cultural architecture. A connecting link between the auditorium and the street was also required. To achieve this, a new structure that part-covers the existing courtyard was designed, to enable it to function as an informal events space. An inviting new route into the building was also established, bringing the people in from the street entrance made available, through the café & workshop and into the refurbished theatre foyers. The entire theatre is now more porous, accessible and artistically flexible. For the first time, the structure has a dedicated foyer opening out towards the main street, and welcomes everyone throughout the day, hosting a huge range of community events in its freshly minted spaces.
Before the refurbishment, the theatre had no public entrance directly from the street thoroughfare of Kalendegatan Street. By converting one of the street-facing salon spaces, into an all-day café and opening up an underused passageway, a porous and transparent connection between the theatre and street was devised. The former box office is transformed, housing the reception, as well as a new public-facing Ateljé studio as a performing arts venue for young people. Both café and Ateljé retain their plate glass ‘shopfront vitrines’, giving the theatre for the first time, a vibrant street frontage to announce its civic role in Malmö’s social fabric.
Historic windows, floor surfaces, cornices and balustrades have been conserved within the cafe, enhanced with an updated palette of plywood joinery, patinated copper countertops and playful light fittings. A suite of intimate, low-ceiling rooms on the first floor provides public space for small group gatherings. The newly introduced courtyard pavilion connects the entrance passageway, café and Ateljé, with the theatre foyer. This pavilion acts as the town square for the theatre: a mingling space during the day, part of the foyers during shows, an extension of the streetscape, and a place for workshops or performances. Fold back doors in the glazed façade open out to the external courtyard during fair weather.
The courtyard connects with the foyer through a historic ‘Cirkusstall’ archway. The foyer forms a horseshoe shape in plan, flowing around the auditorium volume. Oxblood red brick walls, radial timber ceiling beams and copper lamp shades energise the audience and conduct theatrical energy outward from the auditorium.
The theatre design retains the historic shell, creating a new seating, that is geometry arranged in a horseshoe shape and references the original dodecagon circus plan form. The updated geometry makes the original circus space legible once more and grounds the theatre in its historic context whilst offering radical possibilities for creating powerful theatrical work in a unique and inclusive space enriched with cultural memory. This shape also improves audience intimacy, sightlines and acoustics as well as generously enhances the energy of the room. A variable size and fully demountable proscenium frame allows for greater artistic flexibility for flat-floor promenade performances. A pair of entrance passageways through the seating rake connect directly to the foyer, permitting further possibilities for audience or performer access. A new upper balcony level increases audience capacity as well as provides additional technical capability for rigging show lighting and sound systems. Seated audience capacity has been increased by over 100 seats to a maximum of 520, in a variety of formats using a combination of repositionable seats and retractable rostra. “For many, it has been clear that Malmö Stadsteater needed to solve very fundamental challenges in this historic hippodrome, over 120 years old. Yet none of us saw the way forward until we met the architects of Haworth Tompkins. They have a deep understanding of our heritage and the need to preserve it while moving the theatre into the future. Despite the pandemic and the physical distance, they never felt far away. With White, they worked consistently to bring redemption to a fantastic theatre, to give back to the people of Malmö a house that’s open, warm, democratic and without barriers, a place we can all visit and feel welcome”, states Kitte Wagner, Artistic Director, Malmö Stadsteater.
Architectural detailing and interior design throughout the project is robust and direct, preserving the patina and quality of existing found surfaces and introducing a new palette of red oxide structural steel, plywood joinery, and timber architecture. Reclaimed cotton from denim clothing is repurposed as acoustic felt alongside refurbished ‘as found’ concrete floor surfaces, recycled rubber sheet flooring and restored brickwork.
“The project was a mix of bold new large moves needed to connect the theatre to the city streets and small-scale details to stitch the new elements into the rich context. Decisions at both large and small scales were made with the same question: are these changes in the spirit of the building? It was remarkable, and a testament to the brilliance of the original design, how ‘welcoming’ the building was to adaption, as long as the moves respected the spirit of the building - a joyful welcoming ‘host’ to the people of the city.”, concludes Roger Watts.
Client: Malmö Stadsteater & Malmö Stad
Project Manager: Malmö Stadsfastigheter (Peter Hingström)
Architect (Design Lead): Haworth Tompkins
Haworth Tompkins Design Team: Toby Johnson, Martin Lydon, Andreea Pirvan, Pierre Shaw, Harry Tate, Steve Tompkins, Roger Watts, Gabrielle Wellon
Architect (Technical Lead): White Arkitekter
White Design Team: Per-Anders Andersson, Ulrika Essner, Ylva Melin Furst, Felix Hanson, Karin Höök, David Johansson, Karin Lantz, Nina Minjevic, Mirja Wande
Contractor Team: Skåne
Theatre Consultant: AIX Arkitekter AB
Structural Engineer: Structor
Services Engineer: Sweco
Acoustic Engineer: Norconsult
Fire Engineer: FSD
Catering Consultant: Köksprojekt Öresund
Heritage Consultant: Anders Reisnert
Graphic Designer: Urgent
Signage & Wayfinding Design: Urgent & Haworth Tompkins
Furniture & Furnishings: Mai Jørgensen & Malene Holst