Ian Ritchie Architects

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Royal Opera House, Tower Bridge Theatre

Commissioned by the ROH in 1995, this opera house would be occupied between 1997 and 2000 during the temporary closure of Covent Garden.
The siting, form and external appearance have been influenced by the context of the world heritage site of Tower Bridge and the Tower of London.  Informing our conceptual thinking has been the history , sense of gravitas expressed through stone, the space and light qualities of the riverspace, the spectacular views, night-time illumination of the Tower and Bridge, the public park by the river and the tourists appropriation of the riverside park.

The planning and design of the 2,350 seat auditorium satisfies the needs of opera, ballet and lyric productions. The stage and proscenium opening is large enough to enable productions to come to London (e.g The Metropolitan NY). The back stage facilities include two full size rehearsal rooms to allow ROH to have simultaneously 5 productions available to perform in repertory. Additional facilities included ballet rehearsal/warm up studio and chorus rehearsal space. The front of house facility includes public foyers and a community “periodical” café.

Tower Bridge Theatre: External perspective (night)

The height of the auditorium, and hence its width, resulted from our desire to limit its height and to contain its bulk, without compromising operatic acoustics. The external volume of the building was conceived as a separate enclosure surrounding the auditorium. The building is adaptable to suit future needs of theatre companies without affecting its architecture. Facing the spectacular views north across the Thames, is a colourless asymptotic curved double-glazed facade enclosing foyers at different levels, and an open air terrace under the roof. The crystalline quality of the low-iron glass creates a “jewel case” facing The Tower.

Tower Bridge Theatre: Flank wall, gabion, stainless steel meshThe main body of the building appears solid, composed of woven stainless steel retaining stones, cabled in a “quilted” manner, and punctuated by deep window openings formed by steel plate.

The woven stainless steel is a metaphor upon mediaeval chain mail. The stone fill reflects the colour palette of the adjacent landmark structures and gives the building its sense of gravitas. Seen tangentially, these walls are metallic, yet when seen perpendicularly appear as stone. Through tangential lighting, these walls are transformed at night into a filigree of shimmering stainless steel. Behind the stone is the main acoustic and insulation layer, and these walls are completed by a 6mm folded steel plate inner wall – a metaphor upon the way we build in London adjacent to the Thames. There will be no visible plant or equipment on either the roof or walls of the building.

The extremely low construction cost which equated to 6,000/seat), and programmed to be built in 16 months and its demountability challenged conventional construction thinking and opera house design. A public inquiry was set up as it involved a change of use on the site. The Royal Opera House, was supported by the London Borough of Southwark , and The Royal Fine Art Commission and English Heritage commended the design. It was granted planning permission.

Then, astonishingly, the ROH Board decided not to proceed with the project and their chief executive resigned.

Journal Articles
05/1996 AIT
07/1995 THE TIMES

Royal Opera House, Tower Bridge Theatre

London, UK

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