USA – Charcoalblue’s managing partner Andy Hayles and his team of theatre and acoustic consultants attended the opening of New York’s St Ann’s Warehouse last week.
The official launch of the $31.6 million development of the waterfront theatre situated under the famous Brooklyn Bridge follows a transformation of the derelict Tobacco Warehouse by Marvel Architects with theatre, acoustics and architectural lighting consultancy by Charcoalblue.
The new St Ann’s Warehouse is a 25,000 sq ft site housing two flexible performance spaces. Firstly, a 10,000 sq ft versatile theatre space, with capacity for 300-800 people, to accommodate St. Ann’s core theatre and music programming, large-scale festivals, and special community milestone events. Secondly, a 1000 sq ft multi-use studio, dedicated to local artists and community groups, to especially suit intimate, smaller scale programmes and events.
It is constructed within the historic 1860 Tobacco Warehouse in the hip neighbourhood of DUMBO. It is hoped that the project will make Brooklyn Bridge Park a home for culture for future generations.
In addition to theatre consultancy, Charcoalblue provided architectural lighting design and acoustic services to the project.
“In 2012, the Tobacco Warehouse was a ruin – converting it into a theatre has been a complete joy, and a particularly tricky thing to do!” says Charcoalblue’s Managing Partner, Andy Hayles. “When there is so little of the original building left – really just a 20′ high perimeter wall – every column, beam and wall has to be perfectly placed and carefully considered not only for its immediate impact, but also for its impact if the next production turns the auditorium through 90 degrees!”
The design celebrates contradiction, with discrete yet unexpected materials of glass bricks, black steel and plywood. The new theatre is inserted snugly into the walls on three sides, allowing the historic arched doors and windows to remain untouched. The fourth side is occupied by support spaces and community amenities. A broad circulation hall defines the theatre and community spaces, and offers flexibility either to host events or to expand.
St. Ann’s Warehouse (SAW) fills a vital niche in New York City’s cultural landscape as an artistic home and destination for the American avant-garde, international companies of distinction, and talented, emerging artists ready to work on a grand scale.
“It is a new building which past audiences will recognise. The lines between public areas, backstage and auditorium are purposefully and sensitively blurred – in fact almost non-existent in places – offering the SAW team infinite opportunities to challenge the environment and continue to surprise audiences,” says Charcoalblue’s John Owens, who runs the company’s NYC studio.
Charcoalblue’s acoustician Byron Harrison comments: “We are proud to have also provided our in-house, integrated acoustic design service for the project. SAW has made its home in a neighbourhood between two of the noisiest transport thoroughfares in the City – the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges – which presented a challenge. While the existing walls are very thick masonry they don’t provide the acoustic separation that typical contemporary cavity wall constructions provide. Therefore, new specialty acoustic windows and doors have been fitted into the existing openings, but largely without the vestibules we’d normally expect into a theatre and certainly between a performance space and the exterior.
“A much-considered design decision was putting concrete on the roof of the performance area. A minimally thick concrete slab was included to combat the helicopters on the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge traffic noise, which is almost overhead. We also installed a distributed ventilation system with cooling. Contending with continuous background noise due to air movement is not something SAW has encountered before. While low noise levels are needed for dramatic performance, we’ve opted to not go too low to help disguise low levels of intrusive noise.
“It was a particular delight that at the opening gala, founding SAW Artistic Director Susan Feldman picked out the sound of the room as being the star of the show.”
In addition to the design and planning of the performance spaces, acoustic design and the technical design of all the theatre systems – stagelighting, audiovisual and stage engineering – Charcoalblue developed a bespoke theatre seat for the new auditorium, which is comfortable, relates to the building and is capable of withstanding the flexible and robust nature of the room.
The catwalks above the space are worthy of special mention, as the rhythm they create in the space aesthetically echoes the function of the old warehouse. Despite looking like they’ve always been there, they are in fact brand new and will transform the working practices and speed of operation for SAW’s technical team.
The project was led by Susan Feldman and Executive Director Andrew D. Hamingson. In addition to Marvel Architects, Charcoalblue worked closely with BuroHappold engineers, Silman Associates structural engineers, Yorke Construction and David Belt’s team of project managers.
“Susan first found us through our work on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s temporary Courtyard Theatre, the Young Vic and Kneehigh’s Asylum,” Hayles continues. “It has been humbling to develop and advance our work in collaboration with Susan, Andy and their technical director Owen Hughes.
“We treasure Susan, not only because she sent us our first ever fan letter, but also because of the opportunities she gives to UK artists and organisations to present their work in New York; many of them Charcoalblue’s clients in the UK. The Donmar, whom we worked with on their new rehearsal complex in Covent Garden, will open the inaugural season at St Ann’s Warehouse; while Kneehigh, Shakespeare’s Globe and the Tricycle (all also Charcoalblue clients) have featured in seasons over the last couple of years, and the Young Vic will present A Streetcar Named Desire early next year.
“At a time when the London press is lauding Cameron Mackintosh for opening a new space to showcase work from these producers; Susan has been pioneering their work in New York for the last decade.”
Following Susan’s faith in appointing Charcoalblue, the London-based company opened its New York studio on West 26th Street in 2012 and has subsequently won commissions from Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Centerstage Baltimore, La Mama, TheaterSquared, Oberlin College, the Pratt Institute and the forthcoming Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center site.
Susan Feldman comments: “The Charcoalblue team are master theatre-makers whose enthusiasm and awesome skill get you through challenge after challenge. The world outside the UK is just getting to know them – luckily for us!”
Such has been the importance of St Ann’s to Charcoalblue that every founding partner has contributed significantly in the design development: Andy Hayles to the strategic setting out; Gavin Green on the auditorium design and Jon Stevens on the technical design. Byron Harrison led the acoustic team, and the project delivery featured John Owens, Charcoalblue’s New York studio principal, and Jerad Schomer, its talented team leader. Charcoalblue team members include Paul Franklin, Steve Roberts, Evelyn Way, Peter Ruthven Hall, Ben Hanson, Tanya Burns and Alex Wardle.