DSDHA completes major transformation of the National Youth Theatre’s north London home

Architecture practice DSDHA has completed a major redevelopment of the National Youth Theatre’s (NYT) in north London home, transforming the building’s visibility and accessibility from the street and doubling its capacity for professional studio space.

Conceived as a national ‘Creative Production House’ for young people, the work will allow the NYT to deliver on its ‘open door’ policy and vastly expand its existing track record of enriching the local community and beyond by providing cultural and social value, as well as enabling the charity’s long-term sustainability. The work also introduces a 250- seat Workshop Theatre to the building for the first time, enabling the NYT to welcome audiences from the local community and beyond. Early test performances by the NYT REP Company of Animal Farm and Othello in the Workshop Theatre have received national critical acclaim.

Central to DSDHA’s design concept is the introduction of a new pavilion for the building’s main entrance, housing a reception area, members’ hub and community studio space. Hosting a new accessible reception and ‘N7’ community studio, the pavilion extends across the existing building’s forecourt, replacing the car park in line with the NYT’s environmental strategy, opening up civic engagement with the street and providing a welcoming new entrance. Extensive glazing invites visitors in, while revealing backstage and teaching activities. The pavilion is clad in distinctive glazed bricks, a robust and low-impact material which is both sympathetic to the historic building’s façade, and captures the character of local pubs and public buildings which also act as community hubs.

DSDHA’s proposals for the NYT were designed with young people, for young people. The team embarked on a process of co-design and engagement with the company’s members to create an environment that is fully accessible, welcoming and inclusive. Design responses to the input from the young people include creating a building with fewer boundaries, which increases the opportunity for chance encounters between young people and professional creatives, retaining the spirit and heritage of the old building, and encouraging spontaneous collaboration through the introduction of a series of informal social and workshop spaces throughout the building.

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On the ground floor, the relocation of staff offices and structural alterations to the existing workshops have enabled the creation of new naturally-lit, flexible performance spaces, while new rehearsal studios and workshops for members and commercial hire will bring income to the charity and a diversity of users to the building. The adaptation of the building has vastly increased the provision of professional studio space, allowing it to provide much-needed high quality rehearsal space close to central London and giving the NYT capacity to build on its strong links with West End theatres, and large productions touring the UK and internationally.

DSDHA’s redesign involved making acoustic enhancements which separate the different spaces and enable a fully integrated digital strategy, the need for which was accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. These interventions mean that performances can now be recorded at high quality, bringing the work of the theatre to a vast new audience via online platforms, as well as opening access up to young people who may be harder to reach.

In the spirit of the NYT’s mission to be as accessible as possible to all users, integrated disabled accessible gender-neutral toilets and officially designated, fully equipped Changing Places have been created for public use on the ground floor. The upper floors of the existing building have been transformed with a new rehearsal space which opens up the first floor façade, as well as a redeveloped administrative space at the top of the building which allows views down Holloway Road from a dramatic new window. This will be further consolidated in the subsequent phase of work, which will add a further backstage space including an interactive archive for the NYT, hot desks for early career creatives and new digital recording suites. The first and second floors house further studio space, as well as offices, a green room, and design and production facilities.

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Deborah Saunt, Director at DSDHA comments: “We were thrilled to win the competition to design a radical redevelopment of the National Youth Theatre’s London building, and to see it now delivered. We share this brilliant organisation’s commitment to making a positive impact at grassroots level, and we’re proud that our design will enable it to deliver its important work as a national creative incubator for young people in the performing arts on an even wider, more inclusive scale.”

Established in 1956 as the world’s first youth theatre company, the NYT’s past membership includes internationally acclaimed actors including Dame Helen Mirren, Chiwitel Ejiofor, Zawe Ashton and Daniel Craig. The organisation has evolved into a vital part of the cultural infrastructure of the London Borough of Islington, the capital city, and the nation as a whole. The redeveloped building will provide an important new civic presence within Holloway Road’s largely commercial streetscape, and its completion represents a step forward in the widely held aspiration to bring improvements that will benefit all those who use the area. Along with the neighbouring Billiard Factory, the NYT forms part of a new ‘cultural campus’ in the area, with the historic Odeon cinema and Peabody Estate in close proximity.

The project is the recipient of the largest funding commitment made so far by the Mayor of London’s Good Growth Fund, a £70 million regeneration programme supporting growth and community development in London. The £2 million grant was match-funded with a generous donation by the Kirby Laing Foundation. Additional funding was provided by Arts Council England, London Marathon Charitable Trust, the Christina Smith Foundation and The City of London Corporation’s charitable funder, City Bridge Trust.

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NYT Artistic Director and CEO Paul Roseby OBE said: “Over the past year we’ve all felt a ‘culture of can’t’ but our building’s resurgence signals a renewed creative culture of can. This epic and accessible redevelopment enables us to double the number of opportunities we deliver with our talented freelance associate artists and young people in the building and further expand our work around the UK and beyond. We hope it will be a national and local beacon of accessibility and excellence, that inspires thousands of young people to engage with the arts for the first time and provides a much- needed injection of optimism for our community.”

NYT member Shakira Newton said: “The new spaces will be brilliant in terms of allowing more young people to stage their own work in the building for local audiences. Taking part in activity in the NYT building has been really important to my own career development and personal growth. Making the building bigger, more welcoming and accessible is a brilliant idea and will allow lots more people to engage with NYT which can only be a good thing.”

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