Post-bomb repairs have been carried out on Manchester's Edwardian cotton exchange. Its elaborate foyer makes a grand front-of-house area for the theatre module within it.
Fate took Michael Elliott at his word – if it missed its cue by a decade. The late theatre director once said that every new theatre should be blown up after 10 years. It was his ironic way of underlining the need for creative renewal. But in June 1996, 20 years after it opened, the revolutionary Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester was blown up by a massive IRA bomb planted in the street outside.

Last November, less than two-and-a-half years after the explosion, the Royal Exchange was back in business – thanks to lottery funding, insurance claims and generous public donations, plus the inevitable cast of hundreds. At the same time, Elliott's prophecy was fulfilled in a sense that was much closer to his meaning. Although physically and emotionally shattering, the bomb stimulated the creative renewal of the whole theatre building. Costing £18.5m, the renovated facilities are now bigger, more sophisticated, more dazzling – and by all accounts more inspiring for actors and audiences – than they were before.

An original revival

Elliott's 1976 theatre had been acclaimed as the world's most advanced theatre in the round. The auditorium was a gem of 1970s futurism. Designed by Levitt Bernstein Associates, it was shaped like a space module – a seven-sided structure in tubular steel and clear glass. With the stage entirely encircled by audience seating, it was avant-garde and intimate in form but, packing in 750 seats on three levels, mainstream in capacity.

This space module sat delicately and incongruously within a cluster of colossal mock-marble columns topped by lavish gold Corinthian capitals and three glass domes. The enclosing shell had been built as Manchester's cotton exchange in 1921, when it was the largest trading hall in the world.

Curiously, the delicate glass and steel structure did not fare as badly in the blast as the ponderous cotton exchange enclosing it. Its lightweight structure had been designed by Ove Arup & Partners to flex when occupied – and flexing was what saved it. However, after 20 years' intensive use, the theatre was suffering from wear and tear. On top of that, the old exchange hall had never been properly refurbished and looked grey and shabby.

In the aftermath of the bomb, the theatre approached the same team of consultants that had designed the original building, including Malcolm Brown and Axel Burrough of Levitt Bernstein. "The original auditorium was clear in concept but roughly executed. We looked to changing it in significant ways, including replacing all the services, in a neat progression from the original design," says Brown. "Outside the auditorium, we wanted to transform the whole hall and the audience's experience of coming here. So we have redone all the backstage and front-of-house areas and added a new studio theatre."

Although it was stripped down to its tubular steel structure and rebuilt using state-of-the-art technology, the auditorium has hardly changed in appearance. The most visible changes are in the decorations, which have been switched from grey to a softer pastel yellow, and in the realignment of the four external staircases.

Other changes to the module are more subtle. Sophisticated 1990s technology was employed to allow the 1970s concept to realise its full potential. These refinements include replacing partitions at floor level with fully retractable glazed doors, improving acoustic insulation to prevent leakage of sound, plus a package of improvements to stage effects and services to enhance the theatre's technical performance.

Zen design

More radical improvements have been carried out to the surrounding Edwardian hall. The colossal mock-marble columns and golden capitals have been lovingly cleaned and polished; the shattered fibrous plasterwork and glazing on the domes replaced. The plasterwork has been painted in a refreshing combination of yellow, ochre and blue-grey, and the three domes have been reglazed in vivid blues and violets.

The bright new decorations are made more radiant by high-intensity lighting. Ungainly hanging gantries lashed up with stage lights have been replaced by seven powerful sulphur plasma uplighters; the middle one radiates the central dome and the other six have reflectors that create dappled effects on the floor of the hall. On top of that, the entire outer shell of the module is wired as a lighting rig, allowing directors to shine lights anywhere in the hall.

Screens have been added at either end of the hall, one concealing storage for stage sets. The open staircases to the upper galleries of the auditorium have also been realigned to stretch out like arms towards the corners of the hall. With the auditorium doors pulled back to either side, the theatre space stretches to the full length of the hall, which is now heated.

To one side of the great hall, an area behind a massive colonnade serves as the theatre foyer. Here, a box-office, bar, bookshop and toilets have been fitted in, with the creation of a new gallery level. Comfortable benches have been tucked around the column plinths. The design style is modern minimalist, with exposed steel I-beams painted charcoal-grey, stainless-steel handrails and glass floors and balustrading. The effect is smart, stylish yet unobtrusive, or as Brown puts it, "Zen-like". The glass and steel gallery is barely noticeable as it creeps around the vast columns.

The effect of these alterations is that the module no longer resembles an alien space craft or an art installation dropped into a disused warehouse. It has been integrated spatially and visually into the great hall. "The foyer has been reclaimed as a pre-show area to the auditorium," says Brown.

Backstage facilities, along with a 120-seat studio theatre and a café-restaurant that stages its own live music performances, have been slotted into existing floors in the enclosing building.

One of the most eye-catching insertions is a modern entrance incorporating a disabled lift that serves the theatre and its new gallery on the first and second floors. The glass and steel lift has been inserted into the original entrance, a semicircular stone alcove with sweeping flights of steps in the grand Edwardian manner. At the top floor, a slender glass gangway slices through the semicircular stone cornice to join the new gallery within the grand hall. The whole assembly is an exhilarating performance of geometric acrobatics in stone, glass and steel.

Audience reaction to the improvements has been enthusiastic. "You could hear the jaws dropping on the opening night," says Royal Exchange spokesman, John Goodfellow. "The first production was sold out, and bookings have been very healthy since then."

There is no sign that the revolutionary spirit of the original theatre has been undermined by its new-found opulence, as Michael Elliott might have feared. If anything, 1990s technology has enabled the early hi-tec auditorium of the 1970s to come of age. And outside the auditorium, the great hall has come alive as the most monumental theatre foyer in the country.

Refurbishing against the clock

“The overwhelming criterion for the project was speed, so the theatre could reopen on 30 November 1998,” says Malcolm Brown of architect Levitt Bernstein Associates. This gave just 29 months for the project team to design, demolish and refurbish the bomb-damaged theatre. Mace was appointed construction manager, bringing in more than 60 trade contractors. The theatre reopened on time, but the rush left nearly every trade contractor with work to finish, says Brown. The biggest problem was fitting out the great hall with scaffolding to repair cracked roof beams and carry out fibrous plasterwork, dome glazing and decorations. But work to the auditorium module could not begin until the scaffolding was struck in April 1998. Irwin, a general builder with an in-house joinery shop, was brought in two months before completion to pick up extra finishing items in the brief. Mace project manager Mike Giddings says it was “able to carry out work without upsetting existing companies on site”.