Named after Christopher Marlowe, the city’s famous Tudor playwright, this iconic modern theatre in the heart of the historic city of Canterbury has been designed by the award-winning London-based architects Keith Williams Architects.
Standing on the banks of the River Stour, nearby Canterbury Cathedral’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Marlowe Theatre makes a bold statement on the Canterbury skyline. The project is being constructed on the site and adjoining lands of the old Marlowe Theatre, a converted 1930s cinema, which was demolished to make way for the new project.
The 4,850m2 building is, in formal terms, a complex pavilion. At street level, its architecture is ordered by an 8m high colonnaded loggia in white cast Dolomite stone, which forms a portal to the multi-level glazed foyer, and sets up a civic address to the Friars, an important historic street within the city. The foyer connects all the major internal spaces to the riverside terraces and pathways, and is seen as a crystal ribbon by day transforming into a blade of light by night. New views of the roof tops of the historic city and its cathedral open up from the main stairs and upper levels.
The colonnaded loggia mediates between the broad street scale of the Friars and the necessarily larger forms of the two theatres and the flytower. The colonnaded overhang also provides shelter to the south-facing foyer from high angle solar gain.
The flytower of the old theatre, widely regarded as an eyesore, was the second tallest structure in the city after Bell Harry, the medieval Cathedral‘s principal tower.
The new Marlowe’s flytower is 9m taller than its predecessor, allowing it to be sculpted to create a pinnacle form facing toward the Cathedral, adding accent and silhouette to the city’s skyline. Its form can be seen as a prominent pinnacle of secular architecture within the historic city whilst ensuring that Bell Harry, the tower of the mediaeval Cathedral‘s spiritual architecture (nearly twice as high) retains its pre-dominance.
The flytower is clad in a stainless steel mesh skin held 600mm off a weatheringskin of silver anodised aluminium panels, causing its form to dematerialise and its surfaces to shimmer and sheen whilst subtly reflecting the changing hues of the daytime sky and sunset.
Internally, the double height foyer and feature staircase will lead to a stunning main auditorium set over three levels with seating for an audience of 1,200 and an orchestra pit that can accommodate up to 80 musicians. A second smaller performance space, The Marlowe Studio, a flexible format studio theatre seating 150 will, for the first time, accommodate alternative, community and educational projects and produce and present new work, in partnership with local and regional arts organisations.
Echoing a move from Williams’ Unicorn Theatre 2005, the second theatre is placed 6m above the foyer allowing its spaces to flow uninterrupted toward the riversides terraces and bankside, whilst also giving views toward the Cathedral. The public areas including bars and cafes, a new riverside walk and piazza will be open throughout the day where visitors can enjoy a year round programme of daytime activities and exhibitions.
The main public spaces, both external and internal, are united through a surface of black flame textured granite.
Keith Williams commented: “The Marlowe is that very rare thing – a major new contemporary theatre building within a magnificent historic cathedral city. Its architecture is clearly contemporary yet it has been conceived to fit comfortably within its historic surroundings and I am confident that it will have a transformative effect on arts and culture in the south east and beyond.”
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