Royal Academy of Music Theatre and new Recital Hall


Two exceptional performance spaces, designed by Ian Ritchie Architects, have been seamlessly integrated into the Royal Academy of Music. Founded in 1822, the academy is Britain’s oldest conservatoire and is housed on the edge of Regents Park in a Grade II listed historic building which has long been extended and adapted.

The larger of the two spaces, the Susie Sainsbury Theatre, is designed for both opera and musical theatre productions. Now set at the heart of the academy, it has been completely transformed within the gutted shell of a 1970s fan-shaped auditorium and stage. It now provides 309 seats, a new balcony and larger orchestra pit, a stage wing and a fly tower. All seats have unimpeded views of the stage, while the larger orchestra pit allows for an expanded repertoire choice, from early to modern opera and musical theatre. In its scale and proportions, the theatre has a tranquil yet intimate character, ideal for the training of young voices.

Above the theatre and acoustically isolated from it and the rest of the building is the new Angela Burgess Recital Hall, providing a 100 seat space for student rehearsals, public performance and recording. The hall is designed as a tranquil, visually cool space and is lined throughout in pale, lime-washed European oak and lit from a central oculus.

The project has also improved the circulation of the building, with a new glazed lift giving step-free access to the stalls and balcony of the new theatre and to the recital room. A new glass-roofed foyer has been slotted between the original rear façade and the outer walls of the new auditorium. There are also five new percussion studios, a jazz room and an audio-visual control room. All this is contained within the existing site and was constructed while the academy was in full occupation, so considerable ingenuity was required.

Timber, especially its use in music, was a key part of the design concept. As the architect explains: ‘In designing the new spaces, we took inspiration from the shape and construction of string instruments, their tuning mechanisms and the physical relationships between artist and instrument. Our earliest research into the materiality of wood, how it is transformed and tuned, along with an awareness of the role of varnish in Stradivarius’s instruments, led us to exploit the haptic qualities that finished wood would give as a reflector of sound, warmth and light’.

Timber and acoustic quality

Timber was vital to the creation of the two performance spaces which are both distinct yet harmonious. Both are lined with timber, the theatre with cherry, the recital room creating a cool contrast with limed oak. Timber provides colour, texture and warmth, but most importantly it has the ability to regulate acoustic quality.

From early stages in the design of the theatre, the architect worked with Arup Acoustics to create the best possible sound quality for both artists and audience. The theatre’s acoustic had to accommodate two very different types of performance: opera, where voices have no amplification, and musical theatre, which has significant musical amplification, without having to add variable acoustic devices that would have to be adjusted for each performance type.

For opera, the surfaces of the theatre had to provide a series of sympathetic reflections that support the voice and balance it, while for musical theatre too much reverberation had to be avoided. The balance was achieved by using timber to develop different types of acoustic treatment in the walls, ceiling, balcony front and soffit.

The theatre is lined with PEFC-certified North American cherry hardwood, chosen for its warm tones, density and its ability to be easily profiled to meet the fine tuning of acoustic reflections. The walls are entirely lined with cherry, detailed to produce an even vocal and instrumental tone, balancing the sound of musicians in the pit and singers on the stage. Graded articulation of the timber surfaces also creates a high quality of amplified sound, as used for musical theatre.

The balcony, which projects significantly into the auditorium, has a gently double-curved front to provide a rich sound-reflection sequence. It is lined with 25 x15mm thick solid cherry slats, with one millimetre beveled edges to increase the textural surfaces, which scatters the sound to modulate the acoustic. Due to their slenderness, the slats could be gently bent in curves of variable lengths, carefully following the geometry of the curved MDF frame, before being pinned and glued in position.

The wall linings consist of three-metre high panels of 18mm thick cherry-veneered MDF to which are fixed a series of horizontal and vertical solid cherry battens. On the side walls, five rows of 25 x 30mm horizontal battens are set 300, 400 and 500mm apart like a set of bookshelves, with the larger 45 x 30mm vertical battens spaced at varying intervals between them. On the rear wall the horizontal battens are deeper. The MDF wall panels are in turn fixed back to a 15mm wet plaster layer (perfectly smooth to avoid any air gaps) on high-density blockwork walls.

The final spacing of the battens, though seemingly random, was the result of extensive testing by the architect and acoustic engineer of many arrangements to create the ideal quality of acoustic.

The main theatre lighting deconstructs the traditional chandelier into an exploding theatre-wide galaxy of light through 600 fibre-optic crystals. Complementing this, crystals from the ‘exploded’ chandelier are recessed within the wall linings, gently illuminated from below with miniature LED light fittings in a reference to the early days of theatre where lighting was by candlelight.

The recital hall

Although it was not part of the brief, Ian Ritchie Architects explored the potential of creating a new rooftop space above the theatre. This led to the development of a new 100-seat hall, the Angela Burgess Recital Hall, which has been skillfully slotted into the space above the theatre while still managing to remain imperceptible from surrounding streets. Acoustically isolated from the theatre and all other buildings, the new recital hall also incorporates a recording room making it suitable for professional recording.

The new hall is lined entirely with pale, lime-washed European oak planted with vertical oak battens at varying spaces apart to break up sound. The upper walls incline inwards, creating a high ceiling supported by an exposed structure of oak-clad steel beams which radiate to a central glazed oculus. The tie-bars of the beams are exposed and reminiscent of a delicate stringed instrument.

The inclined ceiling creates reverberance and the oak-clad beams act as reflective breaks to create a richer sound. Other larger-scale elements in the design, the recesses and splayed lower wall, provide a complexity of reflections to achieve a rich tone. The variation in articulation, scale and mass, from the radial timber-clad beams to the lighter vertical battens of the oak wall linings, temper the reflected sound from each surface and enable the layout to be flexible enough for performance, rehearsal or recording.

To maintain the acoustic quality when used without an audience (typically for professional recordings), a series of heavy sound-absorbing wool drapes are concealed within pockets at the rear of the recital hall, to be pulled across the walls when needed.

The complex curved oak lining of the oculus was undertaken by the joinery company James Johnson & Co. The FSC-certified oak cladding elements were prefabricated in the workshop by cutting thin, tapering strips of oak and bending, gluing and pinning each one into place on a framework. They were then fitted together on site and raised into place. As with the theatre, prototypes of the recital hall wall linings were produced and tested in an acoustics laboratory with the results fed back into the design to ensure that the finished installation achieved the desired acoustic performance.

Completion Date:

January 2018


Marylebone Road, London


Ian Ritchie Architects

Acoustic Consultant:

Arup Acoustics

Structural Engineer:

WSP Structures

Main Contractor:

Geoffrey Osborne Ltd


James Johnson & Co. Ltd

Timber Supplier:

Hardwood Sales Ltd, Brooks Bros Ltd, James White

Timber Elements:

internal wall and ceiling linings, balcony front and soffit, flooring

Timber Species:

North American cherry, European oak

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