Monday, January 20, 2014

The Theaterbunker

On the corner of Islington Green, facing onto Essex Road, there is a rather swanky apartment block. It is about four stories high, with a central courtyard that faces onto Essex Road. The ground floor is finished with a sort of faux-marble effect -- less tacky than it sounds -- and the upper floors are clad with something like cedar weatherboarding. I wouldn't call it an attractive building, necessarily, but it's clear that more thought was put into its design than you'd expect for an apartment block, even somewhere as swanky as Islington.

I first encountered this building in the spring of 2008, when I started working in an office nearby. I used to walk past it on my way to the shops to get lunch, or when heading to the bookshop a few doors up the street. Though the building was mostly finished, there were still workmen on site handling the fitting out and big wooden hoardings covering the entrance to the courtyard on the Essex Road side. At the time I paid it no mind.
     I started to think things were a bit odd when I noticed that, despite the construction hoardings and empty commercial units on the ground floor, people were living in the apartments on the upper floors. The windows had curtains and I'd sometimes see people wandering around inside. As the years passed a gym moved into the ground floor on the far end of the site, away from the green, and a penthouse apartment was added on to the top floor. The Islington Green end of the site, however, remained boarded up. The courtyard was hidden behind construction hoardings.

There were some other things about the building that struck me as odd. On the Essex Road side of the building there was a heavy-duty freight elevator that didn't seem to go anywhere (it's on the far right hand side of the picture above, notice that the room directly above it is someone's kitchen.) There are also several semi-concealed fire escape doors (the recesses on either side of the courtyard entrance) that don't appear to have staircases above them. All in all, it was a conundrum. I tried googling the building on several occasions, but came up with nothing. How do you google a building if you don't know the address or anything else about it?
    Today, this changed. When I was walking past the building on my way to the shops, I saw a planning application note pinned to one of the hoardings. It was notice of an application for an entertainment licence (theatre/music venue) made on behalf of the 'Collins Theatre'.
I dashed back to my desk and started searching for information. At first I was frustrated by references to the Collins Music Hall, which stood on that site until it burned down in 1958, but I soon dug down to find the good stuff.
     The first article I found was this one "Sally goes underground with £28m new theatre". It stated, to my astonishment, that there was a three-storey high basement under the site containing a 600 seat theatre. The article mentioned an architectural practice -- CZWG -- and a search for them turned up this page. At this point I dropped my soggy low-fat sandwich on my keyboard with a sguidgy flop of shock. Could it be that this basement, less than 100m from my office, was the final resting place of the reproduction of Shakespeare's Rose Theater, built for Shakespeare in Love?
     My doubts as to whether this project had ever actually gone ahead were quashed by pictures I found on the websites of the firm that built the basement, and the firm that created the beautiful glass roof over the auditorium. More detail on the project was furnished by this 2008 article in The Stage, entitled "Mystery surrounds Islington’s Collins Theatre as opening beckons".
     After 2008, however, it all seems to go quiet. The next mention I could find of the project was this article in the local paper "Waiting in wings... theatre still a shell after 20-year campaign", dated June 2009. Then, ominously, came this article in The Stage in September of that year, "BSC plans Shakespeare in Love’s Rose Theatre replica for northern base" linking the Rose Theatre reproduction with the BSC and suggesting that the Collins Theatre plan had fallen though. The next mention I could find of it was a passing mention in an article about a local Labour Party activist and artist called Avis Saltsman Baldry. According to "Great art grows on trees! Hugging Trees by Avis Saltsman at Islington Museum" she had been closely involved in the campaign to build the theatre. Her rather tetchy response, printed the following week, mentions that the state of the theatre was the "subject of litigation".
     Nothing more seems to have been said on the subject until the summer of 2013. The letters page of the Islington Tribune from August contains the following letter  "Still waiting for ‘curtain up’ at our underground theatre", written by Avis Saltsman Baldry. In this letter Ms Saltsman blames the Lib Dems and the economic downturn for the lack of progress on the project before complaining about the negative attitude of unnamed contractors in a manner that I can't really follow. Reading between the lines, it seems to imply that the theatre has no practical way to get large objects in and out, which seems rather a serious shortcoming.
     I would be interested to know more about this history of this project, and how it came to collapse so spectacularly, but I suspect it will be many years and many legal battles before we find anything out. Nonetheless, there are some clues. In a 2008 article questioning the logic of building a shiny new theater in an area that is already very well served with cultural venues, Simon Wroe of the Islington Tribune mentions that the developer was granted an exemption from the affordable housing requirement in return for promising to build the theatre. It seems unlikely that they would do something as expensive as excavate a three storey basement just to avoid putting any social housing in their development, but stranger things have happened. It would certainly explain why they're so profoundly unconcerned by its emptiness.

Having gotten this far, I've just realised that I can't find the Islington planning department reference for the new application, which might shed some light on what is currently going on. I'll have to write it down and check tomorrow.