Architecture watchdog conducts public review of Levitt Bernstein’s Shrewsbury theatre and Farrell’s national park

As part of Architecture Week, CABE has allowed the public to see its secretive design review process in action. The commission’s design review panel considered an application by Terry Farrell & Partners and another by Levitt Bernstein Associates before a live audience for the first time.

While Sir Terry Farrell’s proposal to convert the Thames Gateway into a national park was the more ambitious of the two, Levitt Bernstein’s scheme for a £17m theatre complex in Shrewsbury was more typical.

The theatre drew detailed though constructive criticism from several panel members.

The practice had spent four years designing a 650-seat theatre, studio theatre and dance studio on the Severn riverfront overlooking the historic town centre.

“We wanted to create a landmark building, but also a welcoming building that would draw people into it,” said Gary Tidmarsh, a director of Levitt Bernstein. “We wanted to engage the surroundings on all four sides to bring people along the riverside into the scheme. It is a cluster of buildings rather than one monolith. There are vistas through the building, and the fly-tower is a point block that is slim and nicely proportioned.”

Peter Jarrett, city planning chairman, took exception to the prominent fly-tower. “It’s going to be a landmark architecture, but you don’t want it to shout out,” he said. “It should have a quiet presence.”

Among the CABE panellists there was a consensus that the scheme was too bitty and over-articulated. “If this is a civic building, then you need a big gesture. But the riverside elevation is over-fussy,” said historic area planner Chris Miele. “You’ve made it look like a small building, but it isn’t,” said architect Pankaj Patel. “I would have liked a simpler palette of materials and forms.”

Summing up the discussion, CABE deputy chairman Paul Finch encouraged a simplification and rationalisation of the scheme. “You have ended up with something that is less than the sum of its parts rather than more than the sum of its parts. So I just think that you should take a step back and take a deep breath and reconsider it.”

“It’s tough on architects to go through a design review in the public gaze,” added Finch. After the meeting, Tidmarsh accepted that the comments were “bloody useful”, but regretted that the review was not held before the planning application had been made, when it would have been more useful.