UK system for theatre building projects is flawed – report

Natalie Woolman

Researchers studying the design and construction of new theatre buildings have claimed that the current UK system for funding major capital projects is “corrosive”.

The book, entitled Geometry and Atmosphere – Theatre Buildings from Vision to Reality, describes a “no going back” commissioning system for major projects that is too inflexible.

Based on six case studies of theatres including the Lowry in Salford, Contact Theatre in Manchester and the Curve in Leicester, the research suggests the current process is inherently flawed.

Co-author and professor of architecture at the University of Cambridge, C Alan Short, explained: “The design of buildings for the arts is never going to be straightforward or quick but the standard process punishes innovation and promotes delivery over-budget and behind schedule.”

As a result, one stakeholder interviewed said “arts buildings are seriously bad for your artistic health.”

The researchers conclude that arts buildings should be handled in a different way to other capital projects as “they tend to be functionally complex in a peculiarly nuanced way”. They say the process should be reformed, and could work in a similar way to funding for academic research.

This new system could result in a biannual call for applications, followed by applicants submitting expressions of interest to a panel of reviewers. After this, successful applicants would be asked to submit a second, longer bid for which some development funding would be provided. If applicants got through this stage, they would then be given substantial funding to develop a realistic feasibility study, including costing. There would then be interviews with the applicants, and a technical appraisal of the design that would be peer-reviewed.

The study states: “The result of this process might be that fewer projects would receive funding. This proposition may be politically contentious, but while the scattergun approach initially placates more constituencies, ultimately a more selective method might mean that more projects would survive and prosper.”

Geometry and Atmosphere by Short, Peter Barrett and Alistair Fair is published by Ashgate. It is the result of work funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and carried out by teams from the University of Cambridge and University of Salford.

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