Congress Theatre

Richard Stocking
As modernist buildings begin to join the ranks of our built heritage, I'll be discussing our restoration of the Congress Theatre, Eastbourne.

The Grade II* listed Congress Theatre, Eastbourne, is one of only a limited number of UK post-war listed theatres. Its architectural merit puts it on the same level as the National Theatre, Royal Festival Hall, Nottingham Playhouse and Chichester Theatres – most certainly of national importance.

The 1963 Congress Theatre is an example of a modernist building becoming a heritage project. As more and more 20th century buildings become protected, joining the ranks of our built environment heritage, we need to develop a new set of approaches not typically associated with conservation work. This is a hotly discussed area, and, for a conservation specialist like me, it’s an exciting prospect!

As always, this conservation project began with identifying what is significant and important about the building. English Heritage, the government's statutory adviser on the historic environment, outlines a robust assessment process, and we used this to determine the significance. We concluded that the value of the building is strongly linked to its aesthetics. Respecting the appearance, restoring the materials and preserving the unique details have therefore been the drivers for our conservation approach.

This project highlights the dilemmas posed by conservation of 20th century structures. Unlike a typical heritage project, the best solution here was to remove sections of the building’s fabric, replacing it with new materials. This could be regarded as intrusive and destructive, but we have been able to justify our approach and this has been strongly supported by English Heritage. The new materials offer a robust solution in the hostile conditions of the local marine environment.

The decayed concrete façade of the theatre was removed, leaving the main structural columns exposed and ready for repair. A weather-proof internal wall was built in the foyer to act as a temporary wall. Further work includes:

  • installing double glazing to replace the existing single glazing, to improve the comfort of the building
  • replacing all concrete panelling at first and upper floor level
  • re-instating slate cladding on the main supporting columns to restore them to the original design
  • protecting the concrete in supporting columns and roof
  • cleaning the concrete features on the upper and side elevations
  • repairing cladding and glazing on the east elevation

Concrete is more interesting than you might think – and this project is at the forefront of concrete conservation, something the industry will become more familiar with as 20th century buildings continue to age. At the Congress, we’re repairing the eight supporting concrete columns, using the latest technologies, such as impressed cathodic protection, where an electrical current is pumped through the structure to prevent corrosion. This is a relatively less invasive process, minimising physical impact on the structure.

At the Congress, we’re repairing the eight supporting concrete columns, using the latest technologies, such as impressed cathodic protection...

We want to avoid a patchwork of finishes as this would be detrimental to the building’s appearance. We decided to remove all the original concrete panels. Some had been repaired previously, not particularly well, and the repairs had caused further damage. We have accurately matched the new concrete finishes to the original, creating finishes that may not have been used since 1963.

This involved lots of sampling, trialling and petrographic testing. Moulds were trialled to match some of the concrete finishes, but this method was eventually discounted during our rigorous sample selection process. So it’s about using modern techniques to match the original features. Stainless steel reinforcement has given them the best chance of survival. The slate cladding also needed enormous attention to detail. We tracked down the original quarries, enabling accurate replication.

Sensitive installation of specialist glazing and replacement of window frames has contributed to both the aesthetics and the performance of the building. The existing glazing is distinctive and it’s vital that we retain its appearance. Pigment testing was carried out before a careful selection of materials and techniques was made. The new glazing, however, was heavier than the original, requiring a new supporting framework of steel and aluminium. As well as tackling the urgent facade repairs and retaining the building's original aesthetics, we’re also improving the internal environment of the foyer so that it is warmer in winter and cooler in summer.

Liaising with the project’s many stakeholders, and balancing their needs, has been interesting and challenging in equal measure.

Close collaboration with English Heritage has been vital. I was delighted when English Heritage South East visited the Congress Theatre site as part of a training exercise, and I was given the opportunity to present our work to the EH Building Inspectors. I was joined by consulting engineer and concrete specialist John Broomfield, who also presented his work on the Congress project. The delegates were interested in the issues we’d encountered on the project, and strongly supportive of the approaches we’re adopting.

Liaising with the project’s many stakeholders, and balancing their needs, has been interesting and challenging in equal measure. A lot of different groups and communities care passionately about this project, which makes it very satisfying work. English Heritage, The Twentieth Century Society, The Theatres Trust, Eastbourne Borough Council’s tourism and leisure team, local residents, the neighbouring hotels and businesses, the theatre’s patrons, performers and production team – all have a part to play in making this restoration a success.

After I visited a National Trust site, I realised that a model of the Congress would help to articulate the scheme to the public, and also enable us to try out our system before the installation. A scale model is now on display in the scaffolding area opposite the theatre entrance, showing how part of the restored facade will look once the project is complete. This has helped enormously with enabling people to visualise the end result.

The theatre has remained open during the repairs, which are due to complete in spring 2015. And this is just the start - the theatre is part of the broader Devonshire Park development plans, which will continue the area’s transformation into a thriving cultural destination. Faithful+Gould is providing lead consultant, project management, cost management and heritage consultancy for the restoration of the theatre’s facade.

Watch Richard Stocking’s broadcast from the Congress Theatre, where he discusses the project with the Eastbourne Herald.

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