- Article by Stukel Stone
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“In spite of the fact that the building is extremely modest, this is an oasis in a great concrete world, it’s sylvan, arcadian and beautiful”. – Professor Robert Quentin speaking on The Fig Tree Theatre, 1969
The Fig Tree Theatre is located on the Kensington campus of UNSW. It completes a trio of buildings which are together listed as a historically significant conservation area, including the Old Tote building (c 1918), White House (c 1893) and the Fig Tree Theatre (c 1948). Twelve mature Moreton Bay fig trees, planted in 1893, are also protected. Erected as a recreation hall for emigrants in the aftermath of WWII, the building is a single storey structure with a timber frame and corrugated iron cladding. These humble materials and simple built form are in surprising contrast to the exciting social history. The hall became an important arts venue when converted into a theatre in 1963. The Old Tote Theatre Company used the theatre until it became the home for the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) from 1969 to 1988.
Stukel Stone’s design for the foyer interior is sympathetic to the contemporary physical context and to the history of the building. The surrounding student housing (Architectus, 2010) creates an urban canyon in which the Fig Tree Theatre and Moreton Bay fig trees are situated. The interior colour palette of grey, sage, white and chocolate pays homage to the concrete facades of the student residences as well as to the majestic trees. The original 1960s seating benches upholstered in red wool have been accommodated and provide a punch of colour in the muted interior. Other highlights are created by brass and orange colour-backed glass. Black and white photographic prints by photographer Robert Walker, a celebrated photographer of many Australian visual and performing artists, are displayed on the foyer walls.
The anachronistic siting of the building, which once aligned with the finish line of the race course, sets up a dynamic relationship with the strong grid of the neighbouring student housing by Architectus. These unresolved geometries are carried into the new interior of the foyer through the shaping of the bar and seating platform, which successfully work to encourage circulation and engagement with the space.
The main foyer (a lean-to addition to the original 1940s recreation hall) presented a spatial problem with its raking ceiling, narrow room proportions and a theatre entrance door 860mm above floor level. The room was rationalised through the introduction of the illusion of a false ceiling, created by dark paint above the picture hanging rail and the four large pendant light fixtures.
The design acknowledges the ‘world of theatre’. The bespoke seating platform (located off the original stair in the main foyer) plays with the theme of spectator vs. performer, allowing patrons to simultaneously ‘see’ and ‘be seen’. The bar is graced by a changeable backdrop made of 150mm wide glass reversible panels. Venue users set the scene for their events, enabling the space to be manipulated to suit the mood of the production taking place.