The Royal Academy of Dramatic… Architecture – Phil Coffey for BD

Coffey Architects Phil CoffeyjpgThis article was originally published on BD, 24/7/2018. Read it here.

At noon on June 21, architects, actors, family and friends gathered to watch a shaft of light pass through a cleft cut into the dense architecture of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts on Gower Street. This shaft of light passes deep into the building and gently caresses a bust of George Bernard Shaw. The moment was architecturally choreographed by the late Bryan Avery.

Standing soaked in light alongside the bust, Michael Attenborough expressed how his father Richard had chosen Avery as the architect for the project. He confirmed it was based on his high intellect, his ability to connect to people and, most importantly, his wit. “Wit,” he said, “expresses humanity.”

Expressing humanity through architecture is a fine ambition, but how do we do it? Wit in architecture works when played on a convention. For the deviation to work there must be expectations and familiarity. With no understanding or play on the normal, such moves can look more like an architectural joke. These generally lose their humour pretty quickly.

Following Michael Attenborough’s gracious talk, guests were fortunate enough to get inside the Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre, a theatre that breaks convention. A practical, delightful and surprising space, for a theatre of this size, it is much admired around the world for its flexibility. It has an unusual modifiable proscenium arch with an enviable number of different performance settings.

The Jerwood Vanbrugh was also the first theatre in the UK to use a wire tension grid for access to the theatre lighting, a practical solution and an incredible experience to walk on for those lucky enough to get the opportunity. The theatre’s balconies also have open balustrades, at once making the space more intimate and “hot” for the students learning their craft on the stage and encouraging viewers to lean forward and intensify the atmosphere.

Perhaps these individual elements aren’t “witty” to lay people. Wit doesn’t necessarily have to be understood to be enjoyed, but to actors these moves are challenging and bring a sense of engagement and joy to their everyday work. They make actors think and make them smile.

In a suitably erudite conversation that took place on the stage, Edward Kemp, the director of Rada, raised the issue of a glazed ocular window that draws light in from the cleft to the rear of the auditorium. Kemp couldn’t say enough about this hidden jewel of a performance space in the heart of London. He had never worked in a theatre that had daylight before. Intriguingly, he declared that every day since he took on the directorship in 2008, he has been determined to devise a setting and a performance that used this natural light.

Perhaps that’s what wit in architecture is. The loss of perceived perfection, traded for surprise. A change of context as a contrast. An irritant in a comfortable space. A composition or element that makes you think and enriches the experience of architecture above the everyday.

In the Jerwood Vanbrugh, Avery challenged the client and users to think about the humanity of the space. He created a space that still engages them today by understanding the deep history of theatre design and offering wit to twist from the mean.

George Bernard Shaw, a renowned member of Rada and a man of acerbic wit, once said: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” Avery never grew old and Rada is a fine example of how he brought his literally “playful wit” to those who experience his buildings.


Designed for Wallpaper* Handmade 2018 under the theme “Wellness + Wonder”, the Stepwell Table is a collaboration with Spanish surfaces company Compac. Illuminated from within, it presents a “mini-architecture” inspired by an ancient Indian well dedicated to the goddess of joy.

The table was photographed for the August print issue of Wallapaper* magazine, and Coffey Architects’ associate Michael Henriksen, designer of the Stepwell Table, was sketched for the contributors page, too.




Coffey Architects Phil Coffeyjpg

This article was originally published on BD, 10/7/2018. Read it here.

In 2018 we began to accept that climate change was and is the issue of our time and urgently changed the way in which we developed our cities and our architecture for our future good.

We accelerated the greening of our city, we started to value the intangible. Spreadsheets properly valued parks, green public realm, water, rooftop terraces, balconies that have given us the ability to connect to our environment, to work and live outside, to walk to cycle, to shade and cool our public spaces and to remove pollution from our air.

The glut of tall glass towers of 2018 that we will now live with forever were the last spurts of a community that believed that technology and comfort cooling were the equal partner of solid walls, solar shading and passive design. Short-term financial solutions in a long-term existential paradigm.

Today in scorching London we build with depth in our elevations, with solid facades and – with our cleaner air and quieter electric roads – a significant majority of our buildings are naturally ventilated. Why didn’t we think ahead?

Context. Remember that ubiquitous “c” word of architecture in the early 2000s? It all changed in 2018. No longer did we fetishise brick, the then new London vernacular. We recognised that that “pesky” layer of insulation, a response to our climate had led us all to decorated buildings and that the planners knew it. Why clad a building in any other material if London was our closed myopic environment? We began to truly investigate the possibility of lighter materials, quicker to build, less embodied energy, easier to transport, and we used strong environmental arguments to build more intelligently.

Architects began to interrogate the layers of structure, waterproofing and insulation as a driving force in making buildings that respond to our macro and micro climate. Elevations became thresholds for light, air and future inhabitation not just historical narratives of material and décor. Wrapping lightweight timber frame structures with brick skin facades to keep London brown, it all seems so backward now.

In that important year we doubled down on the idea that the global context was just as important as the local and ensured buildings were orientated to the sun, not to the historical twisted and winding streets of the past. We densified London to create shade and more homes and were concerned less about overlooking and privacy. Planning departments employed Design and Environment Officers, rather than Design and Conservation Officers, whose name suggested the problem.

2018 and the following years also changed the public perception of architecture. Architects began a conversation with communities about the importance of an industry whose product consumed over 40% of the world’s energy and directly affected their daily lives in the most crucial way.

Architects truly connected with an issue that would drive design solutions and put the profession at the heart of a global discussion. Incredibly the public began to believe architects were professionals who cared about our shared futures, or at least that’s how I remember it…

…the hot, sticky summer of 2018, when architecture changed, and we all drank iced drinks as England won the World Cup. Or was it all just a dream, an opportunity lost, just more of the same? We all enjoyed the sun, packed up our picnics, went home, applied the after sun and thought nothing more of our devastating impact on the slow and seemingly inevitable warming of our planet.