Wexford Opera House
THE NEW WEXFORD OPERA HOUSE, WEXFORD, CO WEXFORD, IRELAND Office of Public Works in Ireland with Keith Williams Architects Client’s Brief Wexford Festival Opera (WFO) was founded in 1951, playing a central role in the cultural life of Ireland, and in the world of Opera internationally. It is to Ireland what Glyndebourne is to England. In 2003 the WFO Board approved the demolition of the Theatre Royal, its dilapidated former home, acquired the adjacent Wexford People printing works, to increase the size of the site, and planned the redevelopment. The brief included the following accommodation: • a 780 seat state of the art auditorium specifically designed for opera • a 175 seat second space for drama, music, and rehearsal • Main stage, orchestra pit, flytower and back stage • Foyers/box office/cloaks/bars and café /wcs, Hospitality Areas • Backstage facilities for directors, conductors, designers and singers • Dressing rooms, Chorus Rehearsal Rooms, Prop Making Planning Constraints Wexford Opera has always been centred in Wexford town and the principal issues were scale and fit, (how to insert a huge flytower into a Medieval street scale), retain the street scene, as well considering the effect upon the historic silhouette of Wexford’s skyline when seen from across the river. Design & Architecture The new 7,235sqm purpose-designed opera house contains two theatres the principal auditorium 780 seats, and an adaptable auditorium of 175 seats provides for performance in a variety of formats. The complex problem for the architectural team was how best to insert a very large and highly complex spatial programme into a steeply sloping backland site barely large enough to accommodate it. The orientation of the main elements of stage and auditorium was self-determining in that large scale vehicular access could only be achieved from one point within Wexford’s dense Medieval street pattern, thereby fixing the stage position, get-in, and hence the auditorium location In architectural terms, the new opera house may be seen as a series of formal set-pieces centred around the main auditorium, fly-tower and the smaller second theatre forming a nucleus at the heart of the organisation. The nucleus was then enveloped by an architectural collar containing the supporting spaces which locks it into the irregular edges of the backland plots of urban block in which it is situated. The O’Reilly Theatre, (the main auditorium), has been inspired both by the form of a cello and the curves of a traditional horseshoe-form operatic space. Its surfaces are lined in black American walnut whilst the seating has been finished in pale purple leather giving the room a rich sense of material quality. The curvaceous qualities of the room and its balconies, and its unbroken timber materiality are intended to be analogous to a stringed instrument, perhaps the cello. The technical elements of the theatre such as the lighting bridges are floated free and set against the timber lined ceiling, comparable aesthetically to the cello’s technical elements, its finger board, bridge and strings. The walnut covering every surface is imbues the room with a sense of consistency and rigour, resulting in a space of great visual weight. Close up, the new complex has retained the extraordinary element of surprise and secrecy so characteristic of the old Theatre Royal, by re-integrating itself into the historic fabric of Wexford's medieval centre, behind reinstated terraced buildings. The scale of the building and its contribution to Wexford’s silhouette only becomes truly apparent when the project is viewed from the banks of the River Slaney. From there the new flytower, auditorium and the upper parts of the building, appear as a captured pavilion in the skyline alongside the spires of Wexford’s two Pugin inspired churches and the Italianate tower of the Franciscan Friary, announcing the presence of an exceptional new cultural building in the historic townscape. Materials External Materials • The flytower cladding is ply backed pre-oxidised copper strip, large span aluminium panels and rendered surfaces clad the balance of the exterior for speed and economy. Glazed systems are aluminium framed double glazed argon filled units. Internal Materials • The auditorium is lined in 3,500 sqm of American Black Walnut sourced from managed forests in Canada. The form of the auditorium balcony fronts is complex and in places triple curved requiring exceptional standards of workmanship for its effective realisation. The black walnut lining was integrally bonded to the substrate to prevent acoustic flutter. Method of Construction Access to the site was extremely limited and all vehicle traffic, including 40 tonne articulated vehicles, had to negotiate Wexford’s tight Medieval street pattern. The sloping site was founded on bedrock which was excavated to allow formation of the stage undercroft, orchestra pit and lower ground levels. Long span structures such as trusses above the auditorium and the flytower could only be designed and delivered in small sections and site assembled to achieve the required component size. The highly complex steel frame, including curved fronted auditorium balconies, was assembled in 6 phases working out from the most landlocked corner of the site (Phase1) to the most accessible sector (Phase 6). The reinforced concrete sub-structure and undercroft, was a combined mass foundation and raft construction. The superstructure was steel framed for speed of erection with mass masonry infill. Floors and roofs are of composite steel deck and concrete pour with dense blockwork infill to walls for acoustic reasons. Despite the enormous complexity of the task, the design team and the contractors delivered the project on schedule for the opening of the 2008 Wexford Opera Festival on October 16th with its production of Snegurochka by Rimsky Korsakov.


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