Peter Hall Performing Arts Centre, Cambridge


The Peter Hall Performing Arts Centre is a new teaching and live entertainment space at The Perse School, an independent co-educational school in Cambridge. It is named after the former director of the National Theatre, who was a pupil there in the 1940s. The school, which offers an extensive programme of music and drama activities, had outgrown its previous facilities and this new building houses a 400-seat auditorium, an adaptable foyer and an exhibition gallery, a rehearsal and teaching studio, together with back of house dressing rooms, a workshop, ancillary spaces and a suite of classrooms.

The architect, Haworth Tompkins, has long been associated with theatre architecture and has been involved in projects for many iconic British theatres including the National Theatre, the Young Vic, and the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool for which it won the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2007.

The building forms the southern end of a new landscaped courtyard at the heart of the school campus. The entrance façade is glazed at first floor level to reveal the foyer roof, a dramatic timber diagrid which appears to float over the triple-height foyer space, creating a warm yet distinctive enclosure. The main entrance doors open onto the foyer, which runs the width of the building and opens onto the exhibition gallery. A staircase rises to an upper foyer which leads into the large, daylit gallery studio, used for rehearsals and teaching. The upper foyer also gives access to the auditorium gallery. During the day, the foyer is an informal sitting space and café for pupils and staff; at night, it becomes a meeting and circulation space for audiences who attend events in the auditorium.

Daylight floods through the glazed walls of the foyer and, to complement it, light-coloured materials were chosen for the interior. FSC-certified European oak was used for the staircase and its handrails, and for the balustrades of vertical boards which line the staircase and landings. Along the glazed north wall, the vertical oak boards of the landing balustrade are set with gaps to enhance daylight and reflect the open nature of the foyer. The tables and benches on the ground floor were designed by Haworth Tompkins and are all of solid oak.

In contrast to the foyer, the auditorium is lined with dark-stained oak boards to create a warm and intimate space. The performance spaces offer a professional standard of facilities where the technical aspects of theatre production, such as lighting and acoustics, are all exposed to act as a dynamic teaching tool for theatre students.

The diagrid structure

The triple-height glazed foyer space with its timber diagrid roof was a key element of the design and it was visually important to ensure that the structure was not dominant in any one direction. The structural engineer, Price & Myers, developed a concept which would avoid either a hierarchy of larger primary beams and small secondary beams, or a row of similar sized beams spanning in one primary direction. The roof is a fully two-way spanning diagrid laid out at a 45 degree angle over a 10 x 24 metre grid.

The diagrid roof is constructed of laminated veneer lumber (LVL), a structural composite in which multiple layers of very thin timber veneers are bonded together. The BauBuche LVL specified is manufactured by Pollmeier and made from PEFC-accredited sustainably-sourced beech from German forests, veneered in 3mm peeled layers. As a hardwood composite, BauBuche LVL can withstand very high stresses and the build-up of layers gives it a finely crafted and textured appearance.

The diagrid was fabricated by Constructional Timber of Barnsley and consists of 126 identically sized BauBuche LVL members connected at 75 node points to create an elegant and efficient structure. The beech LVL beams are 120mm wide by 600mm deep and approximately 1750mm long. The dimensions of the beams were governed by the lever arm to limit the resultant push/pull forces from the moment transfer at the nodal connections within allowable loads.

The beams are connected together at their ends by concealed internal steel nodes. Each node is formed of a short section of CHS tube externally machined into an octagon on plan, and drilled with holes to make connections to the four ends of four LVL beams. Each LVL beam has a pair of steel rods resin-bonded in at the ends which are bolted through the node holes with steel couplers. Tests on the pull-out capacity of the threaded steel rods surpassed expectations as the steel failed before the timber in all instances, with a few millimetres of creep at full test load. Three-point bend tests to prove the shear capacity of the resin-bonded rods to the LVL also surpassed theoretical design values.

At the entrance elevation the diagrid is supported by a series of double-height beech LVL columns at first floor level which in turn rest on concrete columns at ground floor level.

The beech LVL columns are connected to the diagrid with concealed Y-shaped flitched steel fin plates, secured with exposed bolts. Above the diagrid is an acoustic ceiling lined with oak slats.

Before assembly, the beech LVL beams and columns were laid out and finished with a light stain to achieve a tone similar to the European oak balustrades. The diagrid roof was built in situ and had to be supported and fully completed before it could provide its own stability. A birdcage scaffold below and above it was used as temporary propping.

The auditorium

During the day, the auditorium is used as a classroom for theatre studies; at night, it becomes a more conventional venue for performance and audience. Complex modeling was used to study the reflection of sound, including speech, music and amplified speech and music. To assist attenuation, the auditorium walls are lined with storey-height oak planks set vertically at an angle and backlit, creating a warm and intimate space when the house lights are on before a performance. The 150 x 38mm oak boards were stained to match the dark-painted brickwork walls.

The auditorium balconies are lined both sides with smaller vertical oak boards which match the foyer balustrades in size and colour.


It was important to the client to create a sustainable building beyond the minimum requirements of current legislation. The use of timber construction was encouraged for environmental reasons and all timber was either FSC- or PEFC-certified. All timber has been left exposed, including the bespoke oak balustrades, the diagrid roof in the foyer, and throughout the auditorium. This reduced the need for finishing trades and helped to eliminate waste and embodied carbon. The building achieved an A EPC rating.

Ample daylight and natural ventilation are used throughout the building, with a large ground source heat pump for heating and cooling. The auditorium and gallery studio exhaust air through a plenum and out through acoustically attenuated chimneys on the roof. High level windows in the foyer, gallery studio and classrooms automatically open and close depending on the weather and external temperature. The auditorium roof is also fitted with photovoltaic panels.


RIBA National Award 2019

RIBA East Award 2019

Wood Awards 2019 shortlist


Prepared by the publishing team with contributor Susan Dawson.

Completion date:

March 2018

Building Type:

Performance space


The Perse School, Cambridge


Haworth Tompkins Architects

Structural Engineer:

Price & Myers

M & E Consultant:

Skelly & Couch

Main Contractor:

R G Carter

Theatre Consultant & Acoustic Engineer:


Diagrid Roof Structure:

Constructional Timber, Barnsley

Timber Supplier:

Pollmeier, Germany

Glazed façade:


Timber Elements:

Roof, columns, staircase, floor, handrails and balustrades, internal cladding and balcony fronts to auditorium

Timber Species:

PEFC-accredited beech laminated veneer lumber, FSC-certified European oak

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