Denys Lasdun was born in September 1914, to Nathan, a businessman and engineer, and Julie (née Abrahams), a gifted painter. Lasdun trained at the Architectural Association (AA) School of Architecture in London from 1932-37, then joined the London architecture practice, Tecton, in 1938. After Second World War service in the Royal Engineers he rejoined Tecton as a partner.
Since his days at the AA School, Lasdun had embraced Modernism and was deeply influenced by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier (1887–1965), described by the historian Dominic Sandbrook as “the prophet of a better society, who would sweep away the old city… and replace it with an ordered landscape of towers, avenues and walkways.” Lasdun came to believe an architect’s only role was to design buildings in which people could lead a decent life.
In 1960, married with three young children, he set up Denys Lasdun & Partners (DL&P) in London, with Alexander Redhouse and Peter Softley. The firm won major commissions for Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, and then, from 1962, the University of East Anglia, outside Norwich, where Lasdun designed a campus of stepped concrete ziggurats (pictured below).
In 1963, when Lasdun applied for the National Theatre/Opera House commission, his new headquarters for the Royal College of Physicians, in Regent’s Park, London, was nearing completion; as a modernist, he had been surprised to win this commission from so traditional an organization (founded by royal charter in 1518).
By now, in the words of architectural historian Dr Barnabas Calder, “the remarkable fertility of [Lasdun’s] architectural imagination, his careful consideration of client needs and his competence in dealing with large projects were all evident.”
In October 1963, the following architectural brief was circulated by the South Bank Theatre and Opera House Board:
National Theatre: A main or large theatre, seating about 1,000, and adaptable so as to offer two features: an amphitheatre with an apron or peninsular stage (not a theatre ‘in the round’); and a proscenium arch or stage. A small theatre, seating about 400, mainly for experimental purposes.
Opera House: A new opera house, seating about 1,600, and comprising one auditorium only. Some form of adaptability would not be ruled out, account being taken of the traditional features, namely, stage, orchestra and audience.
On 17, 24 and 25 October, the shortlisted architects, representing 20 firms, were interviewed in the Council Room at 4 St. James’s Square, London. The candidates faced a panel (seating plan pictured left) which included Laurence Olivier (NT Director), William Gaskill (NT Associate Director) and another distinguished stage director, Peter Brook; this trio were all members of the highly influential NT Building Committee, which had helped draw up the architectural brief.
As well as Lasdun, those competing for the job included Peter Moro, who had designed the new Nottingham Playhouse (1963), and Elidir Davies, who had built three theatres, including The Mermaid (1959), beside the Thames at Blackfriars.
In his memoirs, Olivier recalled how the interviewing panel “diligently questioned every candidate…; they all seemed to find some extra security by bringing with them a largish entourage. Denys Lasdun made an immediate impression by coming in unaccompanied… He seemed to carry with him a quiet conviction.”
The panel had planned one more round of selection, in which eight firms would submit preliminary NT/Opera House designs, but the sheet recording their final deliberations was headed: “Very Confidential. Unanimously Lasdun.”
At 4 St. James’s Square, on Friday 22 November 1963, Lasdun was officially announced as the NT/Opera House architect at a press conference in the Great Drawing Room. The architect had a handwritten prompt for explaining his design ethos to journalists:
SCALE SPACE MOVEMENT ANATOMY
COHERENCE / UNITY NOT UNIFORMITY + AUTONOMY
On 9 January 1964, when Lasdun sat down with the Building Committee for the first of their 30 meetings, he was embarking on what he termed two years of “fairly good hell with the greatest intelligences the British theatre can offer.”
As directors, Olivier, Gaskill, Brook and Peter Hall, then artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, were accustomed to getting their way on the casting and design of their own productions. As Barnabas Calder notes, asking as many as ten of them to serve on the committee and “agree on the largely artistic question of auditorium design” was a recipe for disagreement and intransigence.” It would take them two years to agree on the shape of the open-stage auditorium that eventually became the Olivier Theatre.
Lasdun recalled the evolution of the open-stage auditorium design as follows:
I told the committee we were going to work from the centre outwards. That meant asking and trying to answer – ‘What is the relationship between actor and audience, between actor and actor, and between audience and audience?’ We searched for an open relationship that looked back to the Greeks and Elizabethans and… looked forward to a contemporary view of society in which all could have a fair chance to see, hear and share the collective experience of exploring human truths… Everyone was terribly relieved that they weren’t talking to an expert who would say – 'This is what the National Theatre is going to be – this is the architect speaking.'
In June 1964, the South Bank Theatre and Opera House Board, apparently to increase overall capacity in the theatre, reverted to the original idea of a twin-auditorium National. They asked Lasdun to incorporate a proscenium theatre; he did so reluctantly, informing the committee that October: “With many reservations, we can tell you that a proscenium is available if you want it.”
Architect and committee spent very little time discussing its design. “To the general lack of enthusiasm for proscenium design in the 1960s,” writes Barnabas Calder, “was added a specific sense of mildly hostile indifference to the second auditorium.” Lasdun seems to have accepted “the prevailing view that the proscenium theatre was simply a matter of people facing a stage, where they could both see the action and hear clearly.”
In May 1965, Lasdun unveiled the model of his NT/Opera House scheme (pictured left). He told journalists:
[My design is] deeply concerned with the creation of a cityscape on a metropolitan riverside site which can be enjoyed day and night… by everyone whether they are going to the Theatre or Opera or not… A series of terraces… cascade into a central valley which, in turn, steps gently down to the riverside.
The overhanging planes of these terraces provide shelter and shade and form [in Theatre Square, between the two buildings] a natural setting for open-air pageantry. The night scene will take on the quality of fairyland.
An unbylined column in Country Life magazine (pictured right) hoped Lasdun’s scheme would at last bring “visual cohesion” to the South Bank “waste-land”.
The Treasury and the London County Council – which became the Greater London Council (GLC) in 1965 – had originally conceived the combined theatre and opera scheme to reduce their financial obligations in subsidizing the NT and Sadler’s Wells Opera. However, by the end of 1965 the estimated construction costs had climbed from £3m (when Lasdun was appointed) to as much as £12m; in the eyes of the GLC and, especially, Jennie Lee, arts minister in Harold Wilson’s Labour government, this was far too high a price for the public purse. To Lasdun’s great dismay, Lee shelved the opera house; the architect’s “fairyland” of cascading terraces would never rise. Sadler’s Wells Opera eventually relocated to the London Coliseum, in the heart of the West End.
On 9 March 1966, newspapers reported that the NT would be built between County Hall and Hungerford Bridge and boast three theatres (1,100-seat open-stage, 750-seat proscenium and 200-seat experimental), with backstage accommodation for repertory working. Construction was to take three-and-a-half-years and performances were to begin by 1972.
In March 1967, the Tory-led GLC decided that it did not like the idea of a standalone theatre, “marooned” in the space previously allocated to the joint scheme, with no plans, as yet, to fill the area that would have been covered by the Opera House and Theatre Square.
The NT was instead assigned a site immediately downstream of Waterloo Bridge, on land previously earmarked for a hotel. Lasdun felt this new location was “architecturally” better, not least, as Barnabas Calder notes, “because the theatre would no longer be vulnerable to an inappropriate development appearing immediately next to its most open side.” Lasdun substantially altered the lay-out of the foyers and workshops, “and the left-right inversion of the building, to allow Waterloo Bridge to take over the counterbalancing role originally performed by the Opera House.”
In November 1967, Lasdun and Laurence Olivier unveiled the model of the theatre in its new location beside Waterloo Bridge. Interviewed on television by ITN, Olivier promised that the National would be “the finest-looking theatre, the finest-working theatre in the world.”
In his book Concrete Reality: Denys Lasdun and the National Theatre, architect Patrick Dillon praises the “masterful” scheme devised by Lasdun and his team:
The two main theatres would be set on different levels so their auditoriums and foyers could overlap. The thousand-seat arena… would be the upper theatre; the lower would be the more conventional proscenium-arch stage. Foyers and outside spaces would frame these around the north-west corner facing Waterloo Bridge. Each theatre would have a flytower and… massive holding areas for unused sets.
Meanwhile, the workshops would occupy the southern half of the site, away from the river… That left a doughnut-like hole in the middle…, which provided rehearsal rooms at ground level, and above them, four tiers of dressing rooms disposed around a lightwell… Offices would encircle the upper flytower. The space for the studio theatre… was squeezed beneath the upper theatre’s rear stage.
In its 6 December 1967 issue, “The Architects’ Journal” devoted seven pages (reproduced right) to the NT. Construction work would finally begin on 3 November 1969.
Construction of the NT, led by the building firm McAlpine, was supposed to take four years and cost £7.5m; it eventually took seven years and cost £16m. The project fell victim to rampant inflation and widespread industrial action, as Patrick Dillon writes:
1972 saw more days of strike than any year since the General Strike of 1926. A national building workers’ strike in the summer targeted large, high-profile projects. The National Theatre was one of them…
McAlpine’s set up cameras on each corner of the site to record progress. The dated photos make painful viewing. Cars were often parked outside the hoardings, and their changes in style track the passing years: Morris Minors fade away; Ford Anglias appear and vanish again. And the National Theatre’s pain could be witnessed by everyone in London… Gaunt concrete flytowers and windowless concrete foyers were there for everyone to see.
As the opening date of Lasdun’s theatre kept receding, it became increasingly difficult – impossible, even – for the NT Company to plan its move from the Old Vic to the South Bank. Late in 1972, the frustration of the Company’s Board, chaired by Sir Max Rayne, and Executive, led by Olivier (now entering his final year as Director), is evident in this letter (below) to Rayne from NT general manager Anthony Easterbrook, who copied in Olivier and Richard Lynex, secretary of the South Bank Theatre Board.
“I 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 outside which matters most… Your theatre looks good from so many angles… It has that inevitable and finished look great work does.”
– Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman writes to Lasdun on 1 November 1973, after viewing the part-built National Theatre from Waterloo Bridge.
Peter Hall, who succeeded Olivier as NT Director from November 1973, doubled from 1975 as presenter of the ITV arts magazine Aquarius. For an episode broadcast in October 1975, Hall travelled to Epidaurus in Greece with Lasdun, to visit the theatre, built in the 4th century BC, which had been a major influence on Lasdun’s design for the Olivier theatre. In the programme, Hall and Lasdun both marvelled at the intimacy of Epidaurus’ open-air theatre, despite its seating 14,000 spectators.
As the construction delays continued, Hall took a bold decision: the NT Company would begin performances in the Lyttelton Theatre from March 1976, even though neither the Olivier Theatre nor the studio theatre – named the Cottesloe after Lord Cottesloe, Chairman of the South Bank Theatre Board – were finished. In the run-up to the opening, a poster campaign, designed by Tom Phillips, promised the public: “The New National Is Yours”.
Peter Hall interviewed Lasdun for a second time on Aquarius, for a programme broadcast a few weeks before the Lyttelton opened. Lasdun told Hall the NT building was “not a temple with a door. It’s already open… [It contains] thoroughfares in exactly the same way as the city offers them. There are streets, squares, gardens, cul-de-sacs, where I hope life – just as it crosses Waterloo bridge – will cross the building…
I want the feeling that the audience – like the tides of the river – flow into the auditoria and become a community within them. Then the tide ebbs and they come out into the creeks of the small spaces that are made by all these terraces…”
“It feels not like a white elephant or cultural mausoleum: more like a superb piece of sculpture… above all, there is space to move and breathe.”
- Michael Billington, The Guardian, 12 March 1976.
“Perhaps I shall learn to love the exterior by the time my beard has grown to my ankles.”
– Jack Tinker, Daily Mail, 12 March 1976.
“Shakespeare might call it the brooch and gem of all the nation. Certainly the new National Theatre looks like becoming an incomparable place to see a play.”
– John Barber, Daily Telegraph, 12 March 1976.
On 5 March 1976, The Economist’s anonymous Architectural Correspondent wrote of the NT’s “embattled silhouette. With its drab battledress of grey – very grey – concrete, its array of lift-shafts and fly-towers punching upwards through heavily stratified “decks”, the NT certainly gives off a strongly militaristic flavour – rather like an aircraft carrier in collision with a Norman keep.”
Comments such as this “wounded” Lasdun, writes Patrick Dillon in Concrete Reality: “He had spent 13 years labouring over a work of infinite difficulty. He knew how good the National Theatre was. But architecture had changed since he began work. His long years of labour might have honed the design to a pitch of excellence, but the same delay was ruinous to the NT’s immediate reputation. By the time it was unveiled, the audience for heroic concrete architecture was voting with its feet.”
In 1966, Lasdun had struggled to understand why Laurence Olivier felt “overburdened” by finalizing the designs of the NT auditoriums, because, “any criticism of the [finished] building would tend to fall on the architect.” Why was Olivier so preoccupied with what people would be thinking in 50 years’ time, when, Lasdun thought, “the building might well be ready to be pulled down by then.”
Lasdun’s relationship with the National’s Board and Executive would become severely strained during the partial redevelopment of the building in 1996–97. When Lasdun died in January 2001, aged 86, the National’s then chairman, Sir Christopher Hogg, immediately wrote to the architect’s widow, Susan: “Denys was a great man… very much respected here, notwithstanding our differences. We love his building and will continue to do all we can to make it a fitting memorial.”
Today, the NT’s 50th birthday is little more than a decade away, and the thought of its being “pulled down” as Lasdun envisaged is utterly inconceivable.
In this National Theatre Platform, held in the Olivier Theatre on 11 September 2015, a panel featuring Barnabas Calder and Patrick Dillon reflects on Lasdun’s Legacy, and actors read extracts from two of the Building Committee’s earliest meetings.
Curator — Daniel Rosenthal, author of The National Theatre Story
Senior Digital Producer — Maya Gabrielle
Assistant Producer — Emma Reidy
Filmmaker — Chloe White
Special thanks to — Dr. Elain Harwood, Robert Hill (KPMB Architects, Toronto), John Hodgson (John Rylands Library, University of Manchester), Richard Pilbrow, Margaret Richardson, Crispin Worthington