Using interviews, drawings, letters, and plans from the NT archive, this exhibit tells the story of the architects who tried to build the National Theatre, before Denys Lasdun’s landmark three-auditorium complex was finally opened, beside Waterloo Bridge, in 1976.
Visitors to the National Theatre may arrive knowing it was designed by Denys Lasdun, but few people will know that before Lasdun secured the commission, in 1963, four other architects all attempted to design Britain’s National Theatre.
The first part of this exhibit, curated by Dr Daniel Rosenthal, is dedicated to the four men who might have built the National Theatre: William Somerville, Edwin Lutyens, Hubert Worthington and Brian O’Rorke.
In 1904, critic and translator William Archer (1856–1924) and actor, playwright and director Harley Granville Barker (1877–1946) published a Scheme & Estimates for a National Theatre. It was the first comprehensive plan for a national, repertory playhouse in London.
“[The National Theatre must] break away, completely and unequivocally, from the ideals… of the profit-making stage… It must bulk large in the social and intellectual life of London… be visibly and unmistakably a popular institution.”
– William Archer & Harley Granville Barker, 1904.
The Scheme called for the construction of a “thoroughly dignified and delightful playhouse”, in which “architectural dignity… would of course be essential… The Theatre should not be… a palace of art, but neither should it be a gaunt and depressing barrack.”
This plan was linked with a call to build a Shakespeare Memorial in the London. The two campaigns merged in 1908, giving rise to the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre General Committee (SMNTC). They began a fund-raising campaign, launched with a £70,000 donation from the financier and mining magnate Carl Meyer.
The SMNTC’s Handbook (1909) called for a National Theatre “more spacious” and “wholly different in character… from any existing theatre… the staircases, corridors and foyers must be ample and dignified.” It estimated the cost of acquiring a site and building the theatre at £250,000.
In 1914, the SMNTC used £50,000 of its capital to buy a site: an acre on Keppel Street in Bloomsbury, behind the British Museum.
The outbreak of the First World War a few months later forced them to suspend their activities.
During the First World War, the Keppel Street site was home to the mock-Tudor Shakespeare Hut, built by the YMCA. In 1916, the Hut began hosting stage entertainments for uniformed servicemen on leave. After the 1918 Armistice, harsh post-war economics convinced the SMNTC that it could not build a National Theatre on the Bloomsbury site. The Shakespeare Hut was demolished and in 1922 the SMNTC sold their land at a small profit. The site would become home to London University’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
In 1918, the British Drama League - an organisation for amateur dramatics groups and theatre lovers - was founded by publisher Geoffrey Whitworth. The League fostered grassroots support for the National Theatre campaign and, in 1924, in association with Country Life magazine, organized the first architectural contest for a building design.
Granville Barker devised the architectural brief, which called for the theatre to contain two auditoriums.
“With but one stage to work on, useful actors [in the permanent company] would often be left idle. This is artistic waste and financial extravagance.”
(National Theatre Number - Drama magazine)
The larger stage was to be 100 feet wide and 75 deep, the smaller 60 feet wide and 40 deep. “Comfort, vision and hearing” for the audience were to be paramount. The building would have to fit within Park Square, Marylebone Road, just south of Regent’s Park – although this location was ‘for the purposes of competition only'.
Granville Barker and Alfred Gotch, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, were among the competition’s judges.
On 27 June 1924, during the British Drama League’s annual meeting in London, Canadian architect William Lyon Somerville was announced as winner of the £250 first prize in the League’s competition to design a National Theatre.
The cover of the July 1924 issue of Drama magazine showed Somerville’s vision of a performance in the larger of his two auditoriums.
Granville Barker wrote that Somerville had “faced boldly” the myriad challenges and “rather difficult conditions” of the brief.
Britain’s W. J. H. Gregory received the £100 runner-up prize, for a scheme the judges considered more architecturally appealing, but less practical, than Somerville’s.
William Somerville was based in Toronto, and the judges declared themselves “extremely pleased that an architect from England’s Overseas Dominions… one of our children States” had triumphed.
Born in 1886, Somerville’s largest commission prior to 1924 had been the General Hospital in Niagara Falls. He had also been responsible for municipal and private residential projects elsewhere in Ontario.
Sadly, Somerville never had the chance to see his National Theatre design realized. Granville Barker and the other campaigners could not convince private benefactors or central government to fund it.
Somerville continued to practice in Canada, securing a wide range of commissions, including a Masonic Temple in Oshawa, Ontario; the Douglas Memorial Hospital in Fort Erie, Ontario and St. Joseph’s Hospital, Hamilton, Ontario.
He died in 1965.
In 1938, Sir Edwin Lutyens, then President of the Royal Academy, was commissioned to build a National Theatre in Cromwell Gardens, South Kensington, on land formerly occupied by the French Institute. Like the other five architects interviewed by the SMNTC for the job, Lutyens had yet to design a theatre.
The SMNTC bought the Cromwell Gardens site for £75,000, after the French Institute moved to a new location. The site was more than two miles from the West End, the heart of London’s theatre scene, and allowed no room for a second NT auditorium. This infuriated Harley Granville Barker, who wanted the NT built on the South Bank of the Thames, “between County Hall and… the new Charing Cross Bridge”; by comparison, Cromwell Gardens was a “ridiculous” address for the National: “Excellent for a pillar-box… but no use for a factory of drama.”
In 1938, to compensate for Lutyens’ lack of theatre experience, the SMNTC arranged for him to work alongside a technical architect, Cecil Masey (1880–1960), who had previously designed theatres and cinemas (and, like Lutyens himself, helped judge the League’s 1924 architectural competition).
In March 1939, Lutyens watched as the first drill was sunk at Cromwell Gardens. But when war was declared that September, the SMNTC sorrowfully disbanded its staff.
In 1940, the NT site was converted into one of the many fire-fighting reservoirs that were dug in anticipation of German bombing raids.
In 1942, the London County Council (LCC) viewed the devastation wrought by the Blitz as an opportunity to redevelop the South Bank. The stretch from Westminster to Blackfriars bridges would become “a showpiece of civic development” with “a cultural complex including a theatre”.
The LCC and SMNTC agreed a swap: the Cromwell Gardens site was exchanged for a one-acre plot just upstream of Waterloo Bridge (close to where the Festival Hall stands today).
Lutyens now had more space at his disposal, and was instructed to add a second NT auditorium. In 1943, suffering from cancer, he persevered with his National commission, but he died on 1 January 1944, aged 74, shortly before his NT designs were displayed at the Royal Academy.
In 1944, soon after the death of Edwin Lutyens, Hubert Worthington was appointed to succeed him as NT architect.
Born in 1886, Worthington had been Professor of Architecture at the Royal College of Art (RCA), London, from 1923–28, and helped judge the 1924 NT architectural contest.
Worthington left the RCA to return to Thomas Worthington & Son, the Manchester-based architectural practice established by his father.
In 1929, Hubert Worthington took up a lectureship at Oxford University; there, his many commissions included the Radcliffe Science Library (1934) and the Library at New College (both 1940).
Worthington’s NT design (pictured right) was in the same style, imperial classicism, favoured by Lutyens. As the architect Patrick Dillon wrote in 2015: Lutyens and Worthington both responded to their NT commission by planning “palaces of drama – Worthington’s fronted the river with a massive portico and pediment.”
Worthington presented his plan to the SMNT Executive on 21 November 1944; the Minutes of the meeting records the committee’s warm approval.
On 23 November 1944, Worthington enclosed his preliminary NT plans with a confidential letter to J. H. Forshaw, Architect to the LCC.
Worthington’s letter reflects the Council’s plan to flank the National with office buildings. More detail on Worthington’s plan was provided by the Clerk of the LCC, in a note to the Council in January 1945.
Two symmetrical office blocks are shown on either side of Worthington’s rectangular National Theatre in the site plan, submitted to the LCC Valuer’s office in September 1945. It shows the theatre’s position in relation to Waterloo Bridge and Hungerford Bridge.
Early in 1946, the SMNTC merged with the Old Vic Company, giving rise to the Joint Council of the National Theatre and the Old Vic.
For reasons that cannot be documented from all the relevant files held at the NT or LCC Archives, the Joint Council and Worthington parted company, and a new general architect was sought.
Worthington was knighted in 1949, and continued to receive major commissions. He designed the Imperial Forestry Institute at Oxford (1950), and several more university buildings, including the School of Botany (1951). “He was known as someone who designed within the traditional non-industrial style,” Peder Anker, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at New York University, wrote in 2014. “Worthington sought to build spiritual places for research activities that were sensitive to the beauty of nature and knowledge.”
Worthington died in July 1963 in Manchester, the city where he had designed many buildings, including the Royal Eye Hospital (1936) and Manchester University’s School of Architecture (1952)
In July 1946, the Joint Council of the National Theatre and the Old Vic convened a seven-man Architectural Advisory Sub-Committee to find a new general architect for the National: they chose Brian O’Rorke.
In January 1949, MPs voted to pass the National Theatre Act. The Act committed the government to investing one million pounds towards the total cost of building an NT on the South Bank – but it gave no timetable for when construction should start.
That March, with planning approval from the LCC pending, O’Rorke had numerous questions for the Joint Council.
O’Rorke’s Scheme B for the National, from 1950, shows how the theatre – no longer to be flanked by office blocks – would instead face the Royal Festival Hall, which was then under construction, ahead of the 1951 Festival of Britain. The Elevation to River shows theatre and concert hall side by side.
On 19 February 1952, the LCC Town Planning Committee refused planning permission for the NT, because the theatre’s “massive bulk” would overwhelm the space beside the Festival Hall, and turn this spacious stretch of riverfront “into a street flanked by buildings”.
Two weeks later, the LCC proposed a solution: the NT should move away from the Festival Hall, to a site upstream of Hungerford Bridge. This could only happen if the Ministry of Works agreed to abandon its proposed lease for new offices that were to be built beside County Hall (level with where the London Eye revolves today). The Ministry obliged and the LCC officially approved the NT’s new location in March 1953.
In 1959, still without a realistic date for the start of building work, O’Rorke presented the Joint Council with an update on the likely costs of the project.
In April 1961, the London County Council pledged to pay up to half the capital cost of the National Theatre, provided that the government contributed the balance. The Council subsequently agreed to give the Joint Council a second, adjacent site on the South Bank, to be occupied by a new, purpose-built home for the Sadler’s Wells Opera company, then based in Islington, north London.
By November 1961, O’Rorke had drawn up floor plans – pictured right – for both buildings.
O’Rorke’s sketch for the combined National Theatre / Opera House scheme shows the theatre close to Hungerford Bridge (with the Festival Hall behind) and the opera house adjacent to County Hall.
The Joint Council was superseded in 1962 by the National Theatre Board. This Board, chaired by Lord Chandos, retained O’Rorke’s services as architect. However, the government handed responsibility for building the NT and Opera House to the new South Bank Theatre and Opera House Board, which first met in August 1962. It decided to recruit an architect from scratch, rather than adopt O’Rorke’s existing plans.
As a result, on 7 March 1963, Lord Chandos sent O’Rorke the letter pictured right – and his final payment as NT architect.
In October 1963, O’Rorke sought the post of National Theatre / Opera House architect – re-applying for a job he'd held since 1946.
Writing to a senior member of the Joint Council, he admitted that his chances of success were slim: “I am now 62, and with no partners and a small office I could not really see the South Bank Board recommending me, after all the delay… I would have liked to have had a go at the theatre… and I think I could have designed a good building… I am lucky to have the new [Berkeley] hotel to occupy my thoughts and must now forget the National Theatre and get on with life.”
That November, the South Bank Board appointed Denys Lasdun as architect.
O’Rorke’s luxurious Berkeley Hotel, in Knightsbridge, London, opened in 1972. He died in 1974 – just as Lasdun’s National Theatre was finally nearing completion.
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