This week the strangest drama venue in London opens on the South Bank. And, as Martin Spring found out, it’s a brilliant performance by an 80-strong cast

Within sight of Europe’s-tallest-building-in-waiting, the Shard, stands its antithesis. Instead of stretching high-tech materials and methods to their limit, this newly completed building on London’s South Bank is composed of waste materials and has been put together in a couple of months by about 80 volunteers. It is a proper building, nevertheless: a 120-seat theatre that opens for public performances this week. Known as the Jellyfish, it is junk architecture in its most literal sense and most pure form.

The merry band of volunteers is backed by some serious planning and design. The idea was dreamed up by the Red Room, an alternative theatre company, with support from the Architecture Foundation and other public organisations. The design is by Martin Kaltwasser of Berlin, an architect and eloquent evangelist for recycling, with Adams Kara Taylor providing structural engineering back-up.

“I give a rough vision of the design,” says Kaltwasser, “and within that the volunteers have had the freedom to make what they want. So we’ve developed that vision together, and we’ve had such fun doing so.”

The finished product resembles a bulging basket woven out of a medley of building detritus salvaged for free in London.

I contacted some big contractors to ask for waste materials. They said: ’Great, we’ll ask our project manager to sort it out.’ But I heard nothing more from most

It is sheathed in an irregular, overlapping assemblage of mdf linings, chipboard offcuts, crude plywood hoardings and painted stage-set panels. Its curved front end is faced in boards in roughly horizontal fashion and at its rear end are two jellyfish tentacles of timber pallets and jagged boards. Inside, the spacious rectangular auditorium is lined in more overlapping panel offcuts, graduating upwards from darker to lighter shades.

“What we are doing here is taking something worthless and making something of worth out of it,” says Kaltwasser. “We want to use all the material we’ve salvaged, even the smallest pieces. And we use them as found without cutting them.”

Behind the cladding panels and boards stand two shells made of sturdy timber freight pallets. Between the shells and below the roof, a structural frame of conventional scaffolding poles can be glimpsed. Admittedly, these poles were not discarded but supplied and erected by a mainstream contractor. They give a failsafe support to an occupied building, as demanded by Southwark council building control. In similar vein, fire officers called for the internal timber linings to be sprayed with an intumescent fireproof finish.

Sadly, one element succumbed completely to statutory controls. This was a wall of plastic water-cooler bottles that had been assembled and decorated by schoolchildren. “It gave off a milky blue light, like an underwater jellyfish,” says Maja Mysliborska from Poland, one of the many out-of-work architects and architectural students who volunteered. “But the fire officers said it would give off toxic fumes if it caught fire.”

Another disappointment was the response of the mainstream building industry. “I contacted several big contractors on local sites to ask for any waste materials,” says project manager and theatrical producer Ben Melchiors. “They said: ’Great, we’ll ask our project manager to sort it out.’ But I heard nothing more from most.” The exceptions were Carillion and Balfour Beatty, who donated pallets, hard hats and high-visibility jackets. But from Mace at the Shard came nothing at all …

For information on location and performances go to

Project team

Developer The Red Room
Architect Köbberling & Kaltwasser
Development adviser M3 Consultancy
Structural engineer Adams Kara Taylor