Destined to be together
Earlier this week, WAN’s Editor in Chief, Michael Hammond, went to London’s world-famous Royal Albert Hall to meet with architect and current Chief Executive, Chris Cotton. Home to ‘The Proms’ and witness to performances from so many of the greats (including David Bowie with David Gilmour, Adele, Dusty Springfield, Sir Elton John, and Jimi Hendrix) the majestic auditorium seats 5,000 people and is the largest concert hall in Europe.
When Chris says that ‘the Royal Albert Hall has been the love of my life ever since I was young’, he isn’t just waxing lyrical. His family moved to London when Chris was 11, staying in a flat just around the corner from the venue. In the days when children were free to roam unaccompanied, he and his sister used to attend performances there, sparking a deep and lasting love of the theatre.
Indeed, on leaving school Chris was all set to go to the Royal Court Theatre to learn his craft in theatre design and stage management. But family tragedy struck, altering his path almost overnight to that of studying architecture at the Architectural Association in London at the tender age of 18. He shares the circumstances of this major turning point with Michael during the interview.
For many years, Chris then designed banks for architectural practice, Whinney MacKay-Lewis. In 1991, he went on to found his own practice named Aros – the Gaelic word for ‘habitat’.
For the next 10 years he travelled extensively between the UK and India, working on a towering 500ft statue of Buddha and its surrounding visitor amenities – a punishing schedule which eventually began to exhaust him, however much he enjoyed the work.
But even as thoughts of retirement began to float through Chris’s mind, it seemed the Royal Albert Hall wasn’t quite ready to relinquish its hold on him. He explains how he came to be in his current role (unbeknown to him as a youth, some project work he had produced at the AA was to come in very handy – more on that in the podcast).
He also discusses how architectural creativity and theatrical creativity should harmonise together to create a physical and emotional experience that sends people home ‘feeling elated’ and with ‘unforgettable memories’ (anything less than that he sees as failure).
Chris speaks of the day-to-day hard graft of putting on performances every day of the year except Christmas Day, and the almost spiritual reverence he and his colleagues feel for the auditorium when they walk into it each morning. Michael asks him the loaded question “If you had designed the Royal Albert Hall, what might you have done differently?” but you’ll have to listen in to find out the answer!
Chris describes the Royal Albert Hall as a ‘very robust’ building, designed by engineers rather than architects and able to withstand being ‘worked hard’. But he also paints a picture of how it is transformed come performance time: “Like dressing up at night to go out, it suddenly looks in all its refinery absolutely magical.”
To hear the details of the enduring life-long romance between Chris and the Royal Albert Hall, listen to his engaging and entertaining interview here…(and if you hear clanking in the background, that’s the set for Cirque de Soleil being built, not the resident ghost!)
We play in with Chris’ favourite track, Adele’s ‘Don’t You Remember’, which she performed at the Royal Albert Hall in 2012.
Chris Cotton is a Judge for the WAN AWARDS Performing Spaces award