RHWL’s Arts Team has refurbished and extended Frank Matcham’s Victorian nonpareil, the Belfast Grand Opera House. Sonia Soltani reports on how the two styles have been made to work together

Everywhere in Belfast, billboards are announcing the good news: “Grand Opera House reborn”. The legendary Northern Ireland theatre, designed in 1895 by Frank Matcham, has undergone more than a renewal. It has had an extension attached that bears the same resemblance to the Victorian building as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang does to La Traviata.

“An old favourite with a new side,” claims the marketing campaign. Indeed, the annexe is bold and thoroughly modern. If it were not for the Grand Opera House sign on its vibrant green and red facade, you’d think it was a different venue.

The architect behind this design is Arts Team, part of RHWL Architects, which has already tackled Sadler’s Wells in north London and the London Coliseum, another Matcham building. It was hired by the theatre’s trustees to design foyer and backstage facilities beside and behind the existing Victorian theatre, and this is what it has done – and in the process demonstrated its trademark ability to create multifunctional space.

The client wanted the £10.2m theatre to be in 24-hour operation, and within weeks of its October opening, the Grand Opera House became a centre of activity, and not only for people queuing for tickets at the box office. On a weekday morning people are breakfasting at the ground floor cafe, while the melodious voices of children rehearsing a musical in the studio theatre on the second floor fill the atrium.

We wanted a totally different design so as not to demean the original architecture. Using the same Victorian style would have lost it its original integrity

Barry Pritchard, principal director, Arts Team

The main innovation is the multifunctional Baby Grand studio, which opens up on the foyer space. The narrow 14 × 38m foyer has been arranged around concrete columns, which theatrically frame the space. Daylight permeates through the roof-lit atrium, and from almost any point, the visitor is offered a view into the theatre studio. As part of the agreement for funding with the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the Arts Council National Lottery Fund and the Grand Opera House Trust, artworks had to be included in the project. So the foldable soundproof doors of the 13 × 13m Baby Grand studio come with a wire diagram of a billowing curtain engraved on their patinated copper panels, thanks to the artist Julie Westerman. Another artwork, Treading the Boards by Kirsty Brooks, adds to the fun. Here the artist has printed on glass the legs of actors, singers and dancers selected from the Grand Opera House’s archives, which date back to 1910.

For dramatic effect, the team established a contrast between the green and gold of the doors and the bright orange walls that surround them. Barry Pritchard, principal director at Arts Team, says: “The studio and foyer are to be seen as one space, with a large opening doorway allowing production lighting and sound systems to be shared.”

The studio, which can accommodate 150 people seated and 250 standing, is intended to be a less formal space than the theatre. Depending on the time of day, it can be used for education workshops, conferences, trade shows, fringe plays or film screenings. Besides hosting burgeoning talents and glamorous events such as Belfast Fashion Week, the theatre trustees are eager to offer it for weddings and other private functions.

Much of the success of the building lies in the way the project team has created distinctive spaces in the extension that, as Pritchard says, link it seamlessly with the old auditorium. An element the architect would have liked to have eliminated, however, is the conservatory-like extension that Frank McKinstry included in his otherwise considerate 1980 restoration of the opera house. The architect advised the client to remove the extension but the client wanted it left in – a decision it now regrets, apparently. This unsightly wart, which spoils the elegant Victorian facade, will be used as a corporate hospitality room. At least it serves as a reminder of the tiny and uncomfortable bar and social space theatregoers had to put up with before the new foyer was built.