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Public Platform: The Lift
Lift’s demountable theatre brings the world to a local community. Ellis Woodman celebrates the AOC-designed space’s engagement with the public.

AOC’s Geoff Shearcroft and I meet on terrace of the restaurant at the back of the Royal Festival Hall, one of a dozen commercial operations that have been introduced to the South Bank Centre in recent years. We order coffee, but he explains that he is giving the place his custom begrudgingly.

“You used to be able to stand here and gob off,” he says of the square in which we are sitting. “Now you can hardly do anything because the restaurant complains about it.” He is speaking from experience. Alongside us stands the Lift, a demountable structure which AOC has designed for the London International Festival of Theatre. Putting it up has proved a frustratingly long drawn-out process. “The restaurant’s trading hours meant we couldn’t do any noisy work between noon and half two,” he says “and then we couldn’t do anything before eight in the morning or after six in the evening because of all the lawyers who live opposite.”

That conflict is far from localised. The café culture that the urban renaissance agenda has propagated over the past decade may have filled Britain’s metropolitan centres with new life, but it has also diminished the capacity of our public spaces to serve as forums for dialogue and protest. As our cities have expanded over the past century, many communities have also found themselves isolated from any sort of public space at all. A wish to address both concerns has been a key motivation behind the development of the Lift.

The London International Festival of Theatre (Lift) was established in 1981 with the remit of staging productions by foreign companies in found spaces across the capital. In the following 20 years, it introduced Londoners to work from over 60 countries. However, as an increasing number of the companies that it had championed were invited to present their work in established venues such as the Barbican and Sadler’s Wells, the organisation began to fear it had become a victim of its own success. Finally, after the 2001 festival the board reached the view that there should be a hiatus while Lift’s role was reassessed.

The resulting inquiry led to the appointment in 2005 of a new director, Angharad Wynne-Jones, who was mandated to overturn the festival’s structure. The first sign of the change in direction came a year later, when Lift staged Royal de Luxe’s production, The Sultan’s Elephant. For three days this extraordinary public event populated the streets of central London with a group of gigantic mechanical figures, among them the 38-tonne pachyderm in the starring role. Here was a production that went out into the world in search of an audience which might not otherwise encounter a work of theatre, an ambition also central to the conception of the organisation’s new mobile venue.

“The Lift has the potential to be a mobile village hall where community voices can be heard”

AOC won the commission for the project in an open competition organised by the Architecture Foundation in 2006. Back then, the building was set to be called the Lift New Parliament — a grandiose name perhaps, but one that suggested the structure was conceived as much as a setting for public meetings and debate as for performances. The competition brief placed particular emphasis on the idea that the building should seek to promote a culture of public participation. This desire also informed both the competition process itself — with the four shortlisted schemes subjected to a public vote online — and the development of the design after AOC had been appointed.

Over the course of six months, the practice took part in 30 workshops with east London community groups and arts organisations. This ultimately led to a day-long event in Stratford, east London, for which AOC mocked up a version of the kind of environment it had in mind. With a budget of only £1,000, this was essentially a stage set assembled with “found” items such as a tent from Argos and a B&Q shower curtain. Cheap and cheerful as it was, as a setting for a day of public conversation, it proved both popular and provocative. The lessons were duly set down in a drawing that the practice terms “a spatial constitution” — essentially a graphic wish list of project goals. On this basis, a project was developed in subsequent months.

However, when at the end of last year the Arts Council slashed funding to 194 organisations, Lift was one of the casualties, and the viability of the project was suddenly thrown into doubt. Thankfully, the Thames Gateway Development Corporation stepped into the breach. This transition further focused the project’s mission, giving it a strong geographic connection.

Having already put in an appearance in Stratford, the Lift is due to visit Canning Town, Barking and Rainham later this year — all communities within the Gateway development zone. Given the top-down nature of the change under way, there is a clear risk that the population in these areas feels cut out of the process of decision-making. In this context, The Lift has the potential to play a particularly valuable role, effectively as a mobile village hall where community voices can be heard.

Very few contractors were capable of taking on a project of this nature. Unusual Rigging, the successful bidder, is a specialist in the fabrication of demountable structures for events such as music festivals and trade fairs. The company made the structure, using its standard steel-truss kit of parts, and has been retained to manage its erection and dismantling. When the building is not in public use, it is stored at Unusual’s Northamptonshire headquarters — in large part in a pair of shipping containers that double as the box office and back-of-house space.

The steel frame provides the skeleton for a tensile fabric roof, a technology that implies a now all-too-familiar language of swooping, sail-like forms. AOC was keen to steer clear of that vocabulary. As Shearcroft says: “We wanted to build a tent that didn’t look like a tent.” The building’s shape is the product of the difference between the geometry of the floor plan and the roof. The former is an oval, truncated at either end; the top surface is rectangular and pitched. The enjoyably gawky morphology that results brings to mind the way the bulbous roof of OMA’s 2006 Serpentine pavilion developed from a square base. As a project conceived as a forum for conversation, it is a suggestive precedent for the Lift, and one Shearcroft acknowledges AOC spent time studying.

“The project is like a suitcase taken into the world that will gather stickers as it travels.”

It was originally intended for the roof to spring from a solid lower stage that could be opened on all sides. While that idea fell victim to a cost-cutting exercise after the Arts Council funding fell through, the completed structure still has qualities one associates more with a permanent structure than with a marquee. It is, for example, elevated on a massive platform, with steps and a ramp at the front. Given that in many places where the Lift is to be erected, it will prove impossible to dig into the ground, the weight of this base is critical to the structure’s stability. More important still in establishing a building-like reading is the verticality and height of the principal elevation. In urban locations, these qualities allow the structure to relate to the facades of the surrounding buildings. In the expansive terrains of the Thames Gateway, they allow it to read as a landmark.

The other key consideration relating to the building’s external expression was the treatment of the fabric surface. At the competition stage, it was proposed that a colour-by-numbers pattern would be printed across its full extent, a choice intended to symbolise ideas of heterogeneity and participation. The pattern was subsequently changed for a more subtle treatment, but one still very much informed by those values. It is based on a standard quilt pattern which the practice handed out to everyone involved in the project to colour in. The results were sampled together to form an evenly tessellated whole. The graphic was then adjusted in response to an overlaid pattern of diamonds that increase in size up the building’s height; the effect is that the image appears to dissolve from the bottom to the top. In its domestic character, the pattern offers a compelling counterpoint to the monumentality of the building’s form — a collision of the intimate and the epic that AOC’s work frequently cultivates.

The events the Lift will host include public debates, children’s workshops, lectures, plays, concerts and dance performances. In the course of a day, this diverse programme may require the space to be reconfigured up to half-a-dozen times. AOC has responded to this challenge with an arsenal of moving elements. Three inflatable “deployables” can be raised or lowered on hoists. Their upper surface is in fireproof silver foil while their translucent lower face conceals the acoustic insulation and programmable lights housed inside. The deployables vary in size but all are circular in plan and incorporate a rail mounted around the perimeter so that curtains can be fixed to it. This allows the space to be transformed into an ensemble of three fabric “rooms”. The smaller two are formed by voiles, the larger by serge, and all three are coloured an appropriately theatrical red. Floating like jellyfish in the space, they suggest a crazy mish-mash of sources — the lush theatricality of Frank Matcham, the exhibition designs of Lilly Reich, Andy Warhol’s pillows, and perhaps most of all the touch-of-a-button mutability of Archigram. This hybridity pervades the whole project: the building invites multiple associations but is careful to ensure no single one dominates. The perimeter of the space can be closed off either by a black-out curtain or a gold voile. However, the most startling transformation is brought about by lowering the high-level sign which dominates the principal elevation to reveal a glassless “window” spanning the building’s entire width. The moving parts can also be easily customised by individual productions. The sign on the front will be repeatedly changed, and one would like to think that in its next iteration it will employ a rather less corporate graphic than the one that has advertised the 2008 festival. It can also be exchanged for a screen that accommodates back projection or that can be removed entirely, enabling sound equipment or even a car to be mounted on its support structure. The deployables can be taken out and objects of up to half a tonne installed in their place — a double-braking system on the hoists ensures that visitors are not endangered.

Over its 15 year life, the structure itself may also undergo changes, a possibility Shearcroft welcomes. He likens the project to a suitcase being taken out into the world which will gather stickers as it travels. The budget was far from generous — Shearcroft says that they would ideally have had another 20% to play with — and in places, it shows. The shipping containers aren’t the designed items the practice wanted, and the arrangement of ramp and stairs at the front feels fussier than it might have been. Hopefully with time and a little more money, these niggles can be resolved.

Even as it stands, however, this is a hugely engaging project which embodies the client’s agenda to a T. The fact the building has opened in the same month as West Bromwich’s benighted Public is not without irony. The two projects are united in a commitment to the idea that architecture can facilitate a culture of public participation. Alsop’s building may have cost 135 times more than AOC’s but I have little doubt which will meet its ambitions more successfully.
   
Published by Ellis Woodman
Building Design
18 July, 2008

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