When the curtain first rose at Russia’s Mariinsky II theatre in 2013, tenor Plácido Domingo and conductor Valery Gergiev were among world-famous musicians who applauded the country’s new ballet and opera house as “fantastic” and “dazzling”. The scale of the St Petersburg theatre, which seats 2,000, was reflected in its reported cost of £450m.
Now, its world-renowned Canadian architect, Jack Diamond, has been lured by one of Britain’s most famous boarding schools to transform a shabby hall into a state-of-the-art performing arts centre, one that its boarders might write home about. Its scale is modest, seating just 500 and costing £6.5m, but every detail, from the acoustics to the finishes, is now worthy of a world-class venue.
Diamond has risen to a challenge posed by Marlborough College, the 175-year-old Wiltshire public (private) school, whose famous former pupils include the Duchess of Cambridge, the poet Siegfried Sassoon and the actor James Mason.
The Memorial Concert Hall was officially opened on the school’s 286-acre site in 1925. It was built to commemorate 749 old Marlburians who had lost their lives during the first world war. Their engraved names, along with those killed in the second world war, are displayed in a building that is architecturally special, with a classical colonnaded façade.
That the names of the school’s fallen heroes had long been obscured by chairs plonked up against them was symbolic of a building that was beyond shabby. It was literally falling apart, with a leaking roof and a basement that had flooded. There was also no air circulation or cooling system and, on hot summer days, members of the audience even fainted.
Apart from poor sightlines and uncomfortable seating, the hall had serious acoustical problems. Its semi-circular shape was visually lovely, but it created excessive reverberation. Performers battled with an echo caused by sound bouncing off the back wall, while a full orchestra could be so deafening that some members of the audience simply walked out. A narrow and steep staircase from the stage level to the only useable dressing-room space on the upper floor was deemed too dangerous — particularly for anyone in costume.
When the school initially contacted Diamond, it was only seeking his advice. The artistic director, Philip Dukes, had not expected that a leading architect of halls worldwide would be inspired by the challenge. But Diamond was immediately fascinated by its parallels with the now-demolished Fogg Art Museum lecture hall at Harvard University, whose renovations had led to the founding of the science of architectural acoustics, a subject about which he is passionate.
Diamond has built cultural cathedrals, of which Mariinsky II is the most ambitious, becoming one of the world’s top cultural institutions. But he faced some damning criticisms until the scaffolding came down. He jokes that it was likened to a shopping-mall and then a bus station, “which is a big improvement”: “Then a ‘boring museum’ . . . Finally, the head of the Hermitage stated it’s a fantastic and wonderful place.”
Diamond, 85 — born in Piet Retief, South Africa and now also a Canadian citizen — is the son of a Lithuanian immigrant who built up a business that included hotels. His mother used to treasure a plan of a house that he drew when he was four years old. “Buildings fascinated me,” he says. “It’s an abstract form of playing house.”
After studying at the University of Cape Town, he moved to Britain and then America, reading politics, philosophy and economics at the University of Oxford, where he met his wife Gillian, and architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1964, he moved to Canada, heading the University of Toronto’s Master of Architecture programme and, in 1975, he established his own architectural firm, today called Diamond Schmitt Architects Incorporated, designing buildings worldwide.
His passion for architecture is matched by his love of music, but his award-winning designs extend beyond performing arts palaces to civic, residential and academic projects. He says that there is no recognisable style to his buildings, which each respond to their location, with great sight lines and acoustics among key principles for performing arts halls.
“If you can see well, you can begin to hear well,” he says.
Diamond built the 2,070-seat Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto for the Canadian Opera Company in 2006. Its general director, Alexander Neef, says that, despite its size, “the extraordinary thing is . . . that the sound goes into every corner, to whichever seat you occupy”. He adds that the house that Jack built has “put us in the first league of companies”.
Diamond is dismissive of “a kind of populist view that you’ve got to do in architecture today something that is novel, outstandingly strange, some kind of twisted architecture, which we term ‘crash architecture’ — that, when you’re driving by, you turn around and bump into a lamp-post”.
While the St Petersburg building was built from scratch, Memorial Hall was a reworking of a Grade II listed building. He says: “From a creativity point of view, starting from scratch is quite different from starting with something that has a series of impediments. To overcome those impediments, to have as good [a design] as starting from scratch, is very gratifying.”
Marlborough College is set on the edge of a beautiful historic market town. Founded by Church of England clergymen, backed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, it admitted its first boys in 1843. Today, it is a co-educational independent school for more than 900 pupils aged 13 to 18, with fees at about £37,815 per annum.
Explaining Memorial Hall’s problems, Diamond drew parallels with the excessive reverberation first detected in 1895 in America, in the lecture-hall of the Fogg Art Museum, which led to Wallace Sabine, an American physicist at Harvard University, founding the science of architectural acoustics. Sabine conducted tests that worked out precisely how sound behaved in a room, which explained why talks in the Fogg had been so unintelligible.
Diamond says: “The plan of that theatre was a semi-circular exactly like Memorial Hall . . . With a semi-circular hall, all the sound bounces back and is focused in the middle of the room.”
He adds: “In order to have speech intelligibility, you have to have a short reverberation time — that means the amount of time sound is in the air before it decays . . . What Sabine found was that materials have a certain absorbency.”
Another problem with the Memorial Hall was that, as a listed building, there were limits on altering it. But, as Diamond puts it, “the secret of success in architecture is to make a virtue of a necessity”. To get the sound reflected throughout, his team made convex panels for the back of the room. Each one reflects sound differently into a different part of the room.
Marlborough College now has the facilities with which to woo leading artists
“We made them hinged so there’s a certain flexibility. One side is hard, the other side soft and absorbent. So people can actually tune the hall in order to get a short or a medium reverberation sound . . . For example, drama speech or chamber music need a very short reverberation time, and you would have the soft side out. But when you’re dealing with symphonic music, you want a longer reverberation time, so you may very well have the hard surface.”
His team widened the proscenium and extended the thrust stage, so that the performers are in the midst of the audience. They also created an adjustable reflecting ceiling above it. Normally such reflecting ceilings are plain, he says: “In this one we’ve got a mathematical pattern that is highly articulated and used to diffuse the sound at all frequencies.”
He adds that the Memorial Hall “was essentially an assembly hall with very bad speech intelligibility. Now it can have drama, music and ballet”.
Recalling the hall’s former “holistic shabbiness”, Dukes, who is also a world-renowned viola player, says that it has now been restored to its former glory with the most advanced technology: “The building was tired. We took the opportunity to make it not only sparkle again, but really go for the top end.”
Although Marlborough College has long staged professional performances alongside school events that have been open to the public, they now have the facilities with which to woo leading artists. Classical pianist John Lill and jazz musician Courtney Pine are among professionals who have previously performed in the hall and performers are now being lined up for public performances next year. The violinist Jennifer Pike, a soloist with major orchestras worldwide, will perform there in January.
The family of the original architect, W G Newton, is among private benefactors who have helped to fund the project. The hall formally opened in November, commemorating the centenary of the Armistice. The fallen hero names can now be seen clearly on a stone frieze at the back of the hall.
Performers are always told that they should perform to the back of the room. Here, that is particularly fitting.