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Mark

The Shed:
A discourse on narratives
and temporal architecture


ESSAY



The Shed is a temporary performing arts venue for the Cottesloe Theatre at the National Theatre (NT) on London’s South Bank, while the theatre undergoes renovation. Through its bold, raw geometry and distinct coloration, The Shed is a tribute to the existing brutalist complex that stands behind it. Such a calculated move can be seen as a form of “dialogue” with the rest of the complex, which acts as the backdrop to facilitate this “dialogue”. Through the lens of the locus, this essay will discuss the temporality of architecture through the following: subtlety (or the lack thereof), the idea of permanence in architecture and the collective of individual narratives.


The Shed by Haworth Tompkins. Photograph by Hélène Binet.

The NT was built in response to the site by the River Thames to exploit views of iconic buildings across the river. The riverside forecourt of the theatre is used for regular open-air performances in the summer months. The terraces and foyers of the theatre complex are used for ad hoc experimental performances. Envisioned as a “temple to culture”, the NT was blurring the line between theatre and city. The NT, along with other great national centers for art and culture, is located in the South Bank, an entertainment and commercial district of Central London. Originally isolated and defined by the Thames, South Bank is now an area of incredible history, architecture, and culture, peppered with narratives and identities of communities and individuals. Mainly to improve the South Bank’s relationship with the other adjacent cultural and tourist nodes, it has evolved in many ways and has undergone many phases of regeneration and rejuvenation. The NT was no exception. 

The renovation of the NT comes at a time of need. The NT’s own operation has increased over time with more shows and it is running out of space for production. The area around NT has started to change with recently refurbished buildings, public amenities and increased connectivity. Hence, the NT was in need of an update. In the larger context, The Shed is a temporary intervention in the refurbishment of the NT. Although small, The Shed boldly announces its arrival against the concrete bulk of the NT, giving it a startling yet enigmatic presence.



Located along River Thames (left), The Shed provides sharp contrast against the brutalist National Theatre. Photograph by Philip Vile.


The Shed is meant to look raw and temporary. As it stands stoically along the Thames, its presence can seem dramatic. The Shed’s red stain, chosen for its luminosity, contrasts the greys of the brutalist theatre. Putting The Shed into perspective, its distinct look seems eager to distinguish itself from the NT–a detachment from the context. Yet at the same time, there seems to be an intention to engage with the passerby, mostly through the shock of seeing this red box but also curiosity because there seems to be almost no way to look inside The Shed. Meant for natural ventilation, the four geometric corner towers was a gesture to reduce the openings on the sides of The Shed. This way, it could help retain the solidity of the form. This simple form houses a raw steel frame skeleton braces with rough sawn timber cladding. The cladding is designed in such a way that it continues to reference the subtle lines of National Theatre’s iconic board-marked concrete. The vertical planks of timber exactly align with the original exterior design of the NT. The doors have the same cladding and color as the structure. In its attempt to achieve subtlety, it also became an irony of entrances. The only obvious way to get into The Shed was via the National Theatre, through the existing Lyttelton Foyer. And, yet entering The Shed from the inside, there is zero visual indication and impact of the unique color and form. Instead of offering the visual impact of The Shed to the theatergoers, it served mostly as a spectacle for the passersby. Why create such a spectacle for people passing by instead of the people who are entering the building?

The various interventions of The Shed with respect to the NT redirects our attention to the relationship between the two buildings. The Shed, despite its playfulness, is still respectful of the NT. On one hand, The Shed is agile and seems to be taunting its neighbor, traveling lightly and playing ‘catch me if you can’. The NT, on the other hand, slowly and surely, calmly perseveres and finally “triumphs”. In all other respects, but not in a forced way, The Shed is seen to be continually integrated with the NT, responding through its bold geometric towers and board-marked concrete with similar modules, not only in its vertical setting out but also in its division into five bays, the same number as on the NT. This co-existence of subtlety and its lack thereof seems intentional. The contradictory and complementary characteristics of The Shed seems to build upon it. Such a unique interaction generates the push and pull of this “dialogue” between The Shed and NT. It seems like this generates a unique sense of individuality in The Shed’s narrative. In that respect, it is almost as if the lack of the NT would result in the demise of the spirit of the creation of this “open playground”. The Shed would be nothing without the backdrop. The striking color could seem at first hand as a rebellious act but rather it points us in the direction of noticing the NT through the lens of The Shed.


Four red chimneys poke out above Waterloo Bridge.


Rough sawn timber cladding with its bright red stain, giving The Shed its iconic look. Photograph by Philip Vile.
The notion of permanence in temporal architecture is an irony and yet this irony is crucial in the construction of narratives. In architecture, we have always seen the conception of narratives as an explicit storyline grafted onto a site, as if it were a blank slate. However, the narrative of The Shed is implicit, which may be difficult to read when looking for conventional “stories” with clear beginnings, middles, and ends. However, one can enter at different points of the narrative, is free to pause, take in the whole image or inspect in parts. Then, the narrative is more about showing, relinquishing control of the viewer who must put together sequences, fill in the gaps and decipher meaning.

The various interventions of The Shed with respect to the NT redirects our attention to the relationship between the two buildings. The Shed, despite its playfulness, is still respectful of the NT. On one hand, The Shed is agile and seems to be taunting its neighbor, traveling lightly and playing ‘catch me if you can’. The NT, on the other hand, slowly and surely, calmly perseveres and finally “triumphs”. In all other respects, but not in a forced way, The Shed is seen to be continually integrated with the NT, responding through its bold geometric towers and board-marked concrete with similar modules, not only in its vertical setting out but also in its division into five bays, the same number as on the NT. This co-existence of subtlety and its lack thereof seems intentional. The contradictory and complementary characteristics of The Shed seems to build upon it. Such a unique interaction generates the push and pull of this “dialogue” between The Shed and NT. It seems like this generates a unique sense of individuality in The Shed’s narrative. In that respect, it is almost as if the lack of the NT would result in the demise of the spirit of the creation of this “open playground”. The Shed would be nothing without the backdrop. The striking color could seem at first hand as a rebellious act but rather it points us in the direction of noticing the NT through the lens of The Shed.

The notion of permanence in temporal architecture is an irony and yet this irony is crucial in the construction of narratives. In architecture, we have always seen the conception of narratives as an explicit storyline grafted onto a site, as if it were a blank slate. However, the narrative of The Shed is implicit, which may be difficult to read when looking for conventional “stories” with clear beginnings, middles, and ends. However, one can enter at different points of the narrative, is free to pause, take in the whole image or inspect in parts. Then, the narrative is more about showing, relinquishing control of the viewer who must put together sequences, fill in the gaps and decipher meaning.





The lack of permanence is a critical part of this narrative. Through the transformation of the site, The Shed need not be fixed in time. Such a nimble and light-footed intervention is the manifestation of a collective view that architecture can be seen as an event. Its temporary quality - the antithesis to the NT’s brutalist monolithic concrete form, is The Shed’s defining characteristic. Such qualities offers more potential to experiment, without agonizing about how it will weather and what future generations will think. In this particular narrative, there is an emphasis on the interplay and mutual relationship between narrative and context. It generated a unique “tension” between The Shed and the NT – a tug of war between of subtlety (and the lack thereof) and temporality (and permanence). From the perspective of permanence, the NT would have to extend itself beyond its comfort zone to address the space where The Shed was situated. Instead of focusing on the rich narrative developed over the years by the people and the architect, the permanence of the Shed, the oddity, would have drastically changed the original narrative. With permanence, narratives are lost in the fixation of the locus. On the other hand, with temporality, we see space once occupied by The Shed constantly evolving and changing with different objects taking over space, claiming it as its own.

A juxtaposition of two ideals.















‘The Shed’s not something you’d want to keep. It’s too “in your face.” ’

– Steve Tompkins, architect of The Shed


The quiet power of this particular narrative lies in the underlying removal of a pretense that assumes cultural buildings like The Shed must last forever. We begin to see the temporal object taking over and the narrative changing with the object of the space. To architects, the enduring attraction of developing a narrative is that it offers a way of engaging with the way a city feels and works. Rather than reducing architecture to a mere style or an overt emphasis on technology, narrative focuses on the experiential dimension of architecture. Narratives intersect with sites, accumulate as layers of history, organize sequences and exist in the very materials and processes of the landscape. In various ways, stories “take place”. The built environment serves as a context that frames our sense of reality and privileges of certain forms and omits others. It also defines our expectations of normal in buildings and cities as our personal baseline scenario of reality.

In conclusion, entertaining the idea of permanence (versus temporality) and the collective of individual narratives have helped one generate a unique understanding of built space. It foretells a new era of monumentality not in terms of scale but of perspective based on narratives and context. We begin to understand the paths of the individual narratives interconnect in space. The triviality of permanence in the nature of temporal architecture has resulted in the idea of time to change with respect to architecture causing a different approach and perception towards built space. As much as architecture continues to remain mostly permanent, the ever-growing influence of temporality is redefining what we know of architecture. In the discourse of temporal architecture, its fleeting presence brings a permanence of narratives.

A bright red auditorium amongst the brutalist concrete of London's National Theatre. Photograph by Philip Vile.  



References: 


  1. Felix Mara. “The Tortoise & the Hare: The Shed by Haworth Tompkins.” Architects Journal. June 20, 2013. Accessed April 17, 2016. http://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/buildings/the-tortoise-and-the-hare-the-shed-by-haworth-tompkins/8649497.fullarticle

  2. Peter Popp. “”All the World’s a Stage”: Temporary Theatre by Haworth Tompkins.” Detail.de. October 15, 2013. Accessed April 17, 2016. http://www.detail-online.com/article/all-the-worlds-a-stage-temporary-theatre-by-haworth-tompkins-16617/

  3. “The Shed at the National Theatre by Haworth Tompkins.” Dezeen The Shed at the National Theatre by Haworth Tompkins Comments. April 06, 2013. Accessed April 17, 2016. http://www.dezeen.com/2013/04/06/the-shed-at-the-national-theatre-by-haworth-tompkins/

  4. “Haworth Tompkins: The Shed at The London’s National Theatre.” Designboom Architecture Design Magazine Haworth Tompkins the Shed at London's National Theatre Comments. March 27, 2013. Accessed April 17, 2016. http://www.designboom.com/architecture/haworth-tompkins-the-shed-at-the-national-theater-london/

  5. Swaffield, Simon R. “Landscape Narratives.” In Theory in Landscape Architecture: A Reader. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

  6. Wueller, Cynthia Frewen. Towards a Rhetoric of Architecture: A Framework for Understanding Cities. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Dissertation Services, 2008.

  7. Little, Georgia Alice. “Talk of the Thames.” Uncube Magazine. May 13, 2013. Accessed April 17, 2016. http://www.uncubemagazine.com/blog/9199341.

  8. Wainwright, Oliver. “The National Theatre’s Pop-up Shed Is a Model for the South Bank’s Future.” The Guardian. April 16, 2013. Accessed April 18, 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/architecture-design-blog/2013/apr/16/national-theatre-shed-south-bank.