Transforming the Royal Academy of Music

Visionary thinking and a slew of innovative engineering techniques has allowed us to provide the Royal Academy of Music in London with two new world-class venues to replace its 1970s opera hall.


Not only did we deliver a completely refreshed theatre, along with the architect and wider team, but in a nice twist given that it is traditional to dress up for the opera, the venue now sports a jaunty top hat of a recital hall.

The recital space sits above the opera theatre connected by renovated public areas but the two are entirely acoustically separated. Cleverly, both performance facilities are slotted into the area available within the Grade II listed academy without breaking the sight line restrictions from the street and close-by Regents Park.

The job has been described by our engineers as “structural gymnastics” and a “complex jigsaw”.

The remodelled 309-seat opera theatre is now a warm, modern auditorium with 40% more seating, an enlarged orchestra pit, a novel acoustic ceiling and enhanced back-of-house facilities including an 11m taller fly tower. The 100-seat recital hall above includes an oculus in the roof which floods the room with natural light and it can double as one of the best quality small recording studios in London. The new facilities will enhance enjoyment for future students, performers and the general public.

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Two into one will go
Achieving this has involved demolishing most but not all of the original Sir Jack Lyons Theatre including retaining six main reinforced-concrete columns and two levels of the stage-right balcony. We found that three of the columns could be reused unaltered, the other three required strengthening by inserting mini piles to reinforce their foundations. The columns could then support the recital hall above formed of combined steel trusses and plate girders. We designed separate substantial plate girders to form the roof of the opera house and support the 11m fly tower extension. The girders also support the floor of the recital room, the feature circulation space and plant rooms above.

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“The spaces are stunningly beautiful and inspiring. They will raise the bar and challenge the students and staff in every possible form of music to reach higher and search further”

Jonathan Freeman-Attwood
client & principal of the Royal
Academy of Music

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Mind mapping
Two substantial steel box frames have provided the basics for the new opera theatre structure. The ceiling of the new auditorium in the now renamed Susie Sainsbury Theatre was the result of some over-the-weekend brainstorming by our structural director Ron Slade and architect Ian Ritchie. They needed something with reduced structural depth to allow for the extra height of the recital hall above but all the acoustic properties required for an opera theatre. The result is what we now call a “Mercator” ceiling, a flattened version of cylindrical maps that distort and enlarge the size of landmasses further away from the equator. Made of downstand secondary, tertiary and quaternary beams clad in curved timber, it fits the space while maximising sound volumes.

In contrast, the enlarged orchestra pit has reduced what were harmful noise levels for musicians in the 1970’s original. The curved front wall acts also as a transfer beam.

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A jewel box
The new facilities at the Royal Academy of Music have been warmly received by the critics. Stephen Pritchard of the Observer said: “The old place had given 40 years’ good service, but with a cramped pit, no fly tower and hardly any wings it was just not equipping tomorrow’s musicians for a career in modern opera. Now they have not only a tremendous stage with enlarged orchestra pit, but 14 dressing rooms, more rehearsal facilities and a beautiful 100-seat recital room and studio, perched like a jewel box on the theatre’s roof.”

As a project, this job has also allowed our engineers to “reach higher and search further”. As our director Bill Price says: “This uniquely challenging project relied on our engineers being allowed to give free rein to their creativity and work with the wider team to create a visually and acoustically stunning new performance environment for the Academy.”

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40%

Increase in the capacity of the opera theatre which now seats 309

100

Number of seats in the new recital hall perched above the opera house

06

Number of retained reinforced columns, three of which had to be strengthened