The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden has been hitting the headlines since it went on site in 1996: defective design, vandalism, strikes and claims have plagued it. Well, it was never going to be easy – imagine trying to do £220m of work in a maze the size of Wembley Stadium. Over the next eight pages, Building finds out what it will look like when it’s finished – and how the project became Britain’s most notorious.
A grand, classical, horseshoe-shaped amphitheatre with three tiers of balconies, crimson velvet furnishings and vast royal coats of arms. As well as the music and the singers, that’s what the Royal Opera House means to its high-paying audiences.

But not to Charles Broughton, project director for joint-venture architect Dixon Jones BDP. “The auditorium amounts to little more than 10% of the enlarged opera house complex, and it’s stuck in the north-east corner of the 1 ha site,” he says. “The backstage – which the audience never sees – is the space that generates the volume of the building. What we are building here is a machine for producing opera.”

Walk backstage, and Broughton’s claim is brought home. You find yourself standing in a 40 m high void, like that in a power station, that rises three times higher than the proscenium arch into the newly extended fly-tower overhead. Even more extraordinary, the stage stretches sideways and then winds around two corners to end up as a set-assembly area and rehearsal space.

The floor is level throughout this enlarged backstage area. But much of it is covered by 200 flat-topped wagons resembling oversized trestle tables on wheels. The wagons butt up to each other to produce a highly mobile raised floor to the stage. The wagons are propelled by a series of electric motors with projecting cogs that are attached to surrounding walls. In the words of the opera house’s director of operations and development, John Seekings, they make up “a huge baggage-handling system”.

Three productions a day

This huge industrialised complex has been created with one prime objective: to increase the opera house’s productivity 50%. Rather than staging two different productions a day, the house will now be able to change productions three times. This enhanced capacity is intended to reinstate the Royal Opera House near the top of the international superleague, alongside New York, Chicago and Paris.

The logic of the baggage-handling system is that fully assembled stage sets, for up to four different productions, can be mounted simultaneously on the wagons. These are stored in the basement and the side stage areas, and can be reshuffled in only two-and-a-half hours to leave a complete series of stage sets on their wagons on the main stage, ready for the next performance.

Likewise, the fly-tower has been enlarged and mechanised to deliver eight times the previous number of scenery flies. Arranged around, above and below the huge backstage are myriad other new and improved facilities for the extended opera house. Of these, the most spectacular is the Floral Hall, a huge Victorian glasshouse with a barrel-vaulted roof that had been partly destroyed in a fire in 1956. The Floral Hall

has been restored and moved from its original site behind the opera house to the front at first-floor level, where it will serve as a resplendent and spacious crush bar.

“The Floral Hall is the lynch-pin, or breathing space for the whole development,” says Broughton. “Before, circulation was constrained by the auditorium’s location in the north-east corner.”

Stairs serving the auditorium, which previously segregated the cheaper seats upstairs and expensive ones downstairs, have been reconstructed to link all levels, and lifts added. And, as a gesture to the general public who contributed £58m towards the scheme via the lottery, public access has been improved. The ground floor below the Floral Hall, a passageway through the heart of the complex linking Bow Street and Covent Garden piazza, and two open-air loggias on the rooftops overlooking the piazza, will be open throughout the day and evening.

In addition, the perimeter facing the piazza and Russell Street is lined with 12 shops, cafés and restaurants. Other new facilities in the complex include a 420-seat studio theatre, four ballet studios and a warren of workshops, stores and offices for opera and ballet.

As encouraged by English Heritage, the listed building fabric has been refurbished to match the original, while new extensions exhibit a bold, modern style, with smooth-skinned walls, sharp arrises and cleanly punched-out rectangular windows. However, this neat dichotomy is made more complex by the new arcades and facades facing the piazza, which are in a repro classical style loosely inspired by Inigo Jones, with stone Tuscan columns, vaulted ceilings and elaborate mouldings. Not surprisingly, the effect of the three differing styles is somewhat disjointed.

Re-raked tiers, reconfigured seats

As for the grade I-listed auditorium itself, this has been subtly renovated and upgraded. Tiers have been re-raked and seats reconfigured to give better sight lines, and partitions between boxes have been realigned, so that seats face the stage more directly. Air-conditioning has been introduced, supplied from plant rooms by two overhead ducts the width of a railway carriage, umpteen risers lost in odd gaps in the enclosing walls and supply grilles tucked below each seat. An obtrusive lighting gantry has been replaced by concealed lights that drop through flaps in the ceiling. Only 100 extra seats have been added, and these extend the top tier above the main portico.

When the opera house reopens for performances in December, little change will be visible, prompting punters to ask what all the £220m has been spent on. This is the response Charles Broughton is hoping for.

Project from hell: what went wrong in the house

Royal Opera House public affairs director Keith Cooper hit the headlines in 1996 as the venomous star of BBC television’s The House. This six-part, wasp-on-the-wall documentary revealed the in-house conflict behind the running of the world-famous Covent Garden opera house.

Three years on, conflict is still the theme. But this time the stars are project manager Stanhope, construction manager Schal and services contractor Balfour Kilpatrick. Schal is battling to keep control of the £220m refurbishment project that could end as disastrously as one of Verdi’s tragedies. Since demolition began in April 1996, the site has been hit by a series of calamities. Sagging steelwork on the 50 m high fly-tower needed to be straightened with reinforcements, workers have walked off site because of canteen facilities, a crane toppled over – fortunately missing the streets of Covent Garden below – workers have clashed over bonuses, and a delicate plaster ceiling had to be reworked after it was vandalised.

Deadline problems

Now, with the 1 December opening night seven months away, Balfour Kilpatrick says its electricians cannot finish the job until the end of January 2000. Schal is battling to keep the project on course for Placido Domingo’s opening night performance. But that is not the only worry. Keeping to the £140m construction budget will be tough, too. Schal project director Paul Reeder says there is £28m left to spend. But project sources say that unsettled claims could be as high as £15m. After three years on site, the contingency fund that would usually pay for such claims is said to be running low, which means cash will have to come from the construction budget.

Reeder is coy about the situation. “No extra cash is needed at the moment,” he claims. When pressed, he adds: “We will not be a million miles adrift for this project.” Electricians have proved to be the bane of the work schedule. Sparks are in short supply in the South-east and hold the whip hand on many deadline-specific projects. Those working on the Jubilee Line Extension have talked themselves into £1500 a week with a bonus of £2300 for those seeing the project through to completion. Suitably inspired, the 200 sparks at the Royal Opera House negotiated increased bonuses, claiming that poor accessibility has limited the amount they can earn. The latest rise in March added nearly £200 000 to the project bill, according to project sources.

Balfour Kilpatrick, which pays the electricians’ wages, is now stuck with higher-than-expected costs. Project insiders say it has submitted claims relating to work outside the scope of its contract and for accelerations of work. Balfour Kilpatrick refused to comment. Schal is taking a tough line with the trade contractor. Asked about the electricians’ complaint of poor access, Paul Reeder says: “They now have a clearer run and can earn better bonuses. It’s Balfour Kilpatrick’s problem to manage extra payments.”

Poor industrial relations have further complicated a tough job. “Refurbishments are always hard to manage because you never know what you will find,” says Reeder. This is especially true of a project as large and complex as the Royal Opera House. Some of the figures quoted are astounding. More than 150 000 documents have been generated, including 80 000 drawings; 84 trade packages have been let; and some 800 workers are employed on site. Such was the traffic of materials passing that cranes had to be booked a week in advance.

Royal Opera House project director John Fairclough, who is seconded from Stanhope, says the biggest surprise has been the amount of asbestos found in the 2200-seat main auditorium. He adds that the rendering was not as good as expected. Restoring the Floral Hall was a key period in the project. The programme involved dismantling the iron-framed Victorian glasshouse, taking it off site, cleaning and modifying it, then rebuilding it off site near Canning Town, east London, before finally re-erecting, complete with double glazing. “There was no scope for delays. It was on the critical path,” says Fairclough. “We didn’t want to take chances, so the trade contractor was given the chance to learn the rebuilding process off site.” When it came to the crunch, the erection went like clockwork, he adds.

The fees for the project top £33m. Schal alone employs 40 staff. It has a senior management team of five who meet formally three times a week but talk to each other at least once an hour. To manage the massive loads of information, Schal is using a project- wide software system called PIMS. The 50 or so documents that come in the post each day are scanned into electronic format and logged on to a database shared by the consultants and trade contractors.

Walking around the project, it is easy to envisage the problems of working on the house. Filling a 1 ha city block, the building is a dizzying maze of corridors, rooms, stairs and industrial equipment more likely to be seen in a shipyard. Reeder says: “I joined the project in October 1998 and it took me until Christmas before I really knew my way around. I still find myself in places I’ve never been in.” Pity, then, the casual labourer pitched into this site, or workers who leave their tools in the van.

The scheme has already claimed two Schal project leaders. Reeder, who is main board director, has been brought in to see the project through to the end. He denies that Schal had to bring in an outsider to fire-fight. “We have commitment from trade contractors at the highest level, so why not us?” But if it is a question of matching commitment, why was a main board director drafted in only two-thirds of the way through? Reeder’s answer hints at wavering commitment from trade contractors: “Because of the complexity of the job, we needed them to maintain commitment right to the end of the line.”

Reeder is hoping that the end of the line is 1 December. Anything else would be a massive embarrassment, especially since Placido Domingo announced to more than 10 million viewers of the National Lottery Live that his performance on that night will be the highlight of his career.

Chronology of a refurbishment

The existing Royal Opera House was built in just six months in 1856 to the design of EM Barry. The current work on the building is proving to be a much longer and more tortuous process. 1982 Repro-Palladian rear extension for Royal Ballet built to designs by GMW 1983 Architectural competition to refurbish and extend the opera house won by joint venture of Dixon Jones and Building Design Partnership. 1986 Planning application for a £250m scheme submitted by Dixon Jones BDP, but is criticised by Theatre Trust and Covent Garden Community Association, among others. 1990 Revised plans approved by Westminster City Council. 1994 Scaled-down planning application submitted. Plans for money-spinning offices and flats shelved, and hopes pinned on lottery funding. New consultants appointed, including engineer Ove Arup & Partners. 1996 Planning permission for £230m scheme granted by Westminster City Council. Lottery Funds offer £58m of that. April 1996 Start on site. 1 December 1999 Due for completion.