The Marlowe has been key to the city’s cultural life yet the former theatre building, a converted 1930’s cinema, more resembled low-grade jazzy seaside architecture than the major theatre in one of Britain’s finest historic cities. The old Marlowe was demolished to make way for Keith Williams’ new Marlowe which has been constructed on the same site on an expanded plot which now connects the site to the banks of the River Stour.
The new theatre contains a 1,200 seat main auditorium, flytower and orchestra pit, a 150 seat second space, cafés and bars, rehearsal and backstage facilities.
The building has been treated as a single composition rising in layers from the existing buildings along the Friars, the street on which the Marlowe sits, to the pinnacle of the remodelled flytower. An 8m high, reconstructed stone colonnade enwraps the glass foyer, mediating between the necessarily large components such as the main auditorium and flytower, and the 2 and 3 storey historic buildings along The Friars.
The triple level foyer unites all public spaces and auditoria. It is seen as a crystal ribbon by day transforming into a blade of light by night, an open, inviting place within the city.
After the cathedral tower (Bell Harry), the old Marlowe’s flytower was the second tallest structure in Canterbury. Lumpen and aesthetically crude, it contained the minimum theatrical volume for its purpose. Williams conceived its replacement to create accent, and a more dynamic silhouette, proposing a new flytower some 9m taller at its highest point than that existing. Oriented toward the cathedral, the new flytower provides a prominent pinnacle of secular architecture within the city whilst ensuring that the mediaeval cathedral’s religious architecture retains its pre-dominance. This radical proposal adjacent a World Heritage site sparked much controversy but was finally accepted.
The flytower’s surfaces are clad in a stainless steel mesh skin, dematerialising the flytower’s form, and causing its surfaces to subtly reflect the hues of the sky. In a move echoing the elevated main theatre at the Unicorn 2001-2005, the second auditorium is lifted 5.5m above entrance level, to allow the foyer to slide beneath maintaining visual connection with the river. The second auditorium’s external skin is clad in pre-oxidised copper to form a contextual connection with the red/brown roofscape of the city.
Construction began May 2009 on a 2 year programme to completion and was opened by HRH The Earl of Wessex KG, GCVO on 4th October 2011. The project has proven immensely successful and soon after its first 5 years of operation the Marlowe had sold its 2 millionth ticket making it one of the UK’s most successful regional theatres.