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Frank Matcham: Brunel off the podium

Just over 100 years after his death, the engineer and architect’s influence on the theater continues.

No one has had such an impact on British theater design as Frank Matcham.

In the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, the engineer and architect built more than 100 theaters and designed and renovated an additional 80 theaters, including the London Hippodrome, Liverpool Olympia and the Ballroom in Blackpool Tower.

His remarkable success – both commercially and artistically – was the result of the technical innovations he introduced to theater construction. Matcham was the Brunel of the podium.

Hard work, efficiency and a passion for innovation were the driving force behind Francis Matcham (1854-1920), the son of a Devon brewery manager.

As a teenager, he was apprenticed to civil engineer George Soudon Bridgman, known as the ‘Father of Paignton’ for his contribution to the development of the city, before moving to London and joining JT Robinson’s architectural practice specializing in theater .

Here, young Matcham made a wise early career switch by marrying the boss’s daughter. Under Robinson, with no real education, Matcham completed his first solo design in the 1880s, the Elephant and Castle Theater in South London.

It led to him opening his own practice, Matcham & Co. Theatrical company Moss Empires commissioned 21 theaters, including the London Palladium, Grand Blackpool, Hackney Empire, Victoria Palace and its masterpiece – the London Coliseum, now home to English National Opera.

It was in the Colosseum that he introduced his most famous and far-reaching design element. Moss Empires wanted to house the largest and most luxurious theater in the capital at the location in central London.

Matcham was looking for a technical solution that would increase the seating capacity. Together with his engineer RA Briggs, he replaced the wooden pillars that supported the balcony with cantilevered steel, which not only increased the number of seats, but also greatly improved the experience of the audience.

“Matcham was a master of sight lines – a technical challenge for theater designers to this day,” said Claire Appleby, architecture consultant at Theaters Trust.

Mark Fox, president of the Frank Matcham Society, says, “He built a steel frame that you could fill. It made everything more flexible and faster. It set the whole industry in motion.

“’Matchless Matcham’, as he was soon called for its miraculous output, continued to introduce experimental engineering designs.

” He paid particular attention to ventilation systems to drive the fumes from the gas lamps and hot and uncomfortable air out of crowded halls to help the audience “, explains Appleby.

Adaptability was also important to him. The London Hippodrome could be home to a music hall and water performances, as well as the circus. It had a ring that could be quickly removed to create a huge steel tank with 100,000 liters of water for water spectacles.

It also had a steel cage that could be lifted on hydraulic rams to enclose the animal activity arena. Each wonder of Matcham was different, but they shared the same innovative approach.

The Colosseum had a huge triple revolving stage with concentric tables spinning at 20 mph, the first of its kind. and the stage made spectacular productions possible.

The Derby Day celebration at the theater included guest jockeys riding real horses galloping against a moving revolve. The emphasis on comfort and opulence extended to box-to-box telephones, as well as changing rooms, so evening wear could be donned on the spot.

In the Blackpool Tower Ballroom and the London Palladium, Matcham installed sliding roofs – an early form of air conditioning.

His interior style was far from understated – a potpourri of Tudor belt work, Louis XIV flourishes, mermaid stained-glass windows, molded elephant heads, mirror panels, military insignia and classical sculptures.

While unconventional, it had a reputation for solid efficiency. He was able to quickly create a schedule for a theater, often in a very limited location, that met his client’s functional requirements and also looked spectacular.

The foundation stone of the Metropolitan Music Hall, in London’s Edgware Road, was laid on August 7, 1897. The theater opened for the Christmas pantomime that year. “It would be a matter of months between an announcement in the paper that Matcham was hired and a review of the first night,” said Fox.

“These timetables would be unheard of for a technical project today.” This was especially notable because Matcham often had six major projects at the same time, many of which faced the challenge of rebuilding within the partial shell of an earlier theater.

“He had that ingenuity to take whatever place he was served and make it work,” says Fox. Matcham’s many accomplishments may have been popular with audiences and leading theater impressions, but not with the architectural establishment.

Ironically, it was his commercial success that thwarted him. He listed assignments because he had an eye for using a small space, using as many seats as possible without sacrificing comfort.

He was as concerned about acoustics and sightlines as the gold paint on the rococo panels. More than 50 small towns had magical Matcham theaters, impressive but largely invisible to London critics. Matcham “did not design for the elite of the architecture press or the academy:

he designed for a commercial industrialized leisure industry that wanted opulence, grandeur and excess,” said Sheffield University Professor Toulmin, an expert in the history of popular entertainment.

Yet his designs were called “illiterate” because they did not conform to the strict rules of architectural composition. In his 1896 book Modern Opera House and Theater, Edwin O Sachs wrote:

“There is no doubt that his plans have a certain individuality and that his plans generally satisfactorily serve the utilitarian purpose of the occupiers.

However, it would be just as abnormal to fully illustrate such theaters in a book dealing with theater architecture in the best sense of the word, as to include the ordinary Jerrybuilder’s cottages in a book on domestic architecture. ”

“When you ask someone what their mental image of a theater is, they come up with a Matcham. The plush chairs, the boxes, the beautiful plaster … that’s still the case. That is the strength of what he has achieved.

Mark Fox Chairman, Frank Matcham Society

However, its theaters survived the cold shoulder of the establishment. The technological and technical advances in the decades after Matcham were not nearly as dramatic.

With no new ideas to replace them, his flamboyant design taste stuck. Matcham’s buildings – a combination of functionality and opulence – are for many the essence of what a theater should be.

“When you ask someone what their mental image of a theater is, they come up with a Matcham,” says Fox. “The plush seats, the boxes, the pretty plaster… that’s still the case.

That’s the strength of what he’s accomplished.” Appleby believes they can still meet the needs of a 21st-century audience. “That’s not to say that any improvement is unnecessary,” she says.

“But Matcham theaters have a great relationship and connectivity between actor and audience, which is vital.” And while they are often huge auditoriums, there is “remarkable intimacy,” she says.

Not only his design appreciated his customers, but also his value for money. His interiors may have been extravagant, but his pricing wasn’t.

Although the construction bill for the Colosseum was a quarter of a million pounds, Matcham had a reputation for keeping an eye on not only engineering but costs as well, and he was known for not going over budget.

Such financial considerations are just as important today, if not more so. Arup, who has worked on the Grand Canal Theater, Dublin and the iconic Sydney Opera House, says multi-purpose use is important to maximize revenue.

“We do this with flexible staging, seating and technology infrastructure so the venue can quickly adapt to maximize revenue potential. For Kings Place, London, our theater consultants helped the architect to fully integrate hidden technological conference systems so that the visual impact of the concert hall was not compromised. “

Appleby cites flexibility and adaptability as key to modern theater design. “The commercial picture is different,” she says. “Many theaters need a broader revenue stream, for example to adapt an auditorium for different events, have the ability to change seating and stage setups, etc.

” Matcham’s own premises are being adapted to today’s needs, whether it be more front-of-house amenities, additional studio theater space or rehearsal space. Appleby points to the new Center for Creativity built next to the Theater Royal in Wakefield to enhance the facilities of Matcham’s smallest surviving theater.

Tateo Nakajira is a former conductor and now director at Arup. He believes that the functionality of a theater today also relies on predictive maintenance using software protocols that can anticipate problems before they occur.

But Alex Wardle of theater consultancy Charcoalblue, who is also a board member of the Matcham-designed New Theater Royal, Plymouth, relies more on the latest high-tech.

“Good engineering is better than complex technology,” he says. He cites the example of powered flying to replace the counterweight systems that would have been used in Matcham’s time.

Rather than automatically updating theater equipment, Wardle believes the tried-and-true older systems are sometimes even more efficient. “With powered flight systems, people didn’t quite realize how much it would cost to maintain,” he says.

LED lamps are another example, which, due to the electronics and the speed of color fading, have a life of no more than five years. “Chichester Festival Theater had new tungsten spotlights installed in 1962. They are still in use today. We’re not going to see that with LED,” he says.

It is fitting that ways to tackle theaters’ greatest technical challenges – to make them Covid-19 safe for cast, crew and audience – were at the forefront of the London Palladium, which is often regarded as one of Matcham’s finest works.

Last summer, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, owner of the LW Theater group, held a Beverley Knight concert to an invited audience, to see if a socially distant show was possible and safe.

The technology he introduced included thermal imaging cameras to measure temperatures, air filtration systems and self-cleaning antibacterial door handle covers. Technological solutions are sought everywhere in the theater world.

Architect Steve Tompkins, who was responsible for the renovated Roundhouse in Camden, North London, and was named the most influential person in British theater last year, works at the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University. Tompkins focuses on positive displacement ventilation.

Conventional ventilation systems supply air at a high speed at ceiling level. Displacement ventilation delivers air at a low velocity close to the floor, creating a pool of cool, fresh air where most people are.

As this air heats up, it rises and creates a thermal plume that pushes stale air to the top where it is extracted and exhausted through the roof, rather than letting it float over the audience and spread the virus.

How would Matcham have handled the pandemic? Fox believes he would have taken up the challenge. “One of his most important things was adjustments. He would see Covid’s demands as an opportunity to redesign front-of-house spaces and movement. He would have jumped on it, ”he says.

When Covid-19 hit, only 26 of Matcham’s engineering wonders were still open as theaters; many had been demolished in the rush to restore in the 1960s and 1970s, or converted into cinemas, nightclubs and bingo halls.

Now the threat to the living legacy of his work, which brings technical innovation to theaters, is closure due to Covid measures and an uncertain future. #SaveOurTheaters has been launched.

Alan Short, professor of architecture at the University of Cambridge, says Matcham’s work is still crucial: “We must look to the past to design theater buildings of the future.”

Wardle agrees. “He’s got so many things right,” he says. “There are few theatrical architects that you can say that about today.”