Keith Williams, co-designer of the Wexford Opera House, is one of Britain’s most respected architects. Irish Building looks at his career to date.
For a relatively young practice, Keith Williams Architects has an impressive haul of prizes and awards, including being named ‘Best Public Architect’ by RIBA in 2007.
The son of an engineer, Williams claims to have always been fascinated by buildings and that it was natural for him to end up designing them. He studied architecture at Kingston and Greenwich Schools of Architecture before co-founding Pawson Williams Architects in 1987. In 2001, he established his own solo firm Keith Williams Architects, which currently has 25 employees, and which has done a significant number of projects in Ireland.
One of the practice’s first large projects was the Athlone Civic Centre and Civic Square, which garnered 11 architectural awards, including a RIBA European Prize and the Irish Concrete Society’s best overall award in 2004. The following year, RIBA named him ‘best newcomer’ and two years later, in 2007, RIBA named him ‘best public building architect’.
As well as Wexford Opera House, his work in Ireland also includes: the Irish World Music Centre in Limerick, Monaghan County Council’s new headquarters and county library in Clones and he is currently working on a new county library in Athlone.
In the UK, his first significant building was Unicorn Theatre in London, which is especially designed for youth theatre and which earned the practice six architectural awards. At present, he is working on the redevelopment of the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, a project made more difficult by the fact that it is located within a UNESCo World Heritage Site.
Key competition projects include: the Centro Culturale Di Torino in Italy, the Schiller Museum in Marbach am Neckar in Germany, the Centro de la Justica de Madrid, the Kunstenshus Herning in Denmark and the Moesgard Museum in Denmark.
“We have build up an expertise and a good reputation for large public buildings, civic offices and performing arts spaces,” he says. “I have to say that I am happiest when working on these projects, because I believe they have the ability to enhance the lives of people on a daily basis more than more ordinary buildings can do.”
Williams believes that good architecture is primarily with simple components, such as light, form, space, scale and material. He said: “What interests us in the main is the way we move through buildings and the way light and space effect the quality of that experience. We are also interested in the quality of materials and how they relate to the building and its users. What are those materials like to touch and to probe and to smell? These sensory experiences are very important to us.
“The firm’s architecture, with its concerns for the interplay of space, light, form and material, coupled with careful consideration for scale history and context, allows us to achieve an aesthetic balance between our own contemporary, visionary projects and that which exists already, whether sensitive and historic or brownfield.
“Our singular ambition through all of our projects is to ensure that each of our client’s projects is designed to be both suited to their needs and to be of the highest possible quality that their budgets can provide. The firm’s range of skills include: a full architectural design service, urban design, interior architecture and fit out, bespoke product design and architectural competition.”
As well as successfully winning many international architecture competitions, the practice has been appointed to act as jurors in competitions too.
Williams claims that he is proud of all the buildings that have been designed by his practice and that he has no particular favourite, but he does admit that working on Wexford Opera House was a “very enjoyable experience”.
“You don’t get to design an opera house very often,” he says. “And the whole team, Wexford Opera Festival, the OPW and the contractors Cleary Doyle all had a commitment to quality.
“The OPW were challenging, demanding and generally very positive. I am aware of many other projects that the OPW have done and, if you look at them, they have been done to a very high quality. When they are not designing, the Office of Public Works are important commissioners of fine architecture. I wish we had an OPW in England!”
Comparing the design/planning process in the UK and in Ireland, Williams says the main difference between the two jurisdictions is the appeals process. “It’s fair to say that on all of the projects we have worked on we have entered into an early dialogue with the planning authorities, which is essential in ensuring that a project is properly interrogated before it goes forward for approval. Most of the issues are resolved or addressed prior to a scheme going to a council committee for approval – that is a constant on both sides of the Irish Sea, as is the rigour of the questioning by planning departments!”
Outline planning permission for the Wexford Opera House was granted before Keith Williams Architects joined the scheme. He says the initial design and project was a robust one, ‘but it is fair to say that there has been significant aesthetic and technical development of the design’. He explained: “There are a whole series of subtle interventions that we made, including refinement of the timber cladding and simplification of the auditorium, which evolved from, and retains the characteristics of, a horseshoe form. We also developed the idea of the auditorium being analogous to a stringed instrument, with its timber cladding and its sweeping form.
“What is it that makes an opera house, is a good question. It has to be more than just having an orchestra pit, as there are many theatres that have orchestra pits in them, for example, the Marlowe Theatre, which I am working on in Canterbury.
“The auditorium is probably the most important element in an opera house – it is a room specifically designed for its purpose that tends to have greater volume than other theatres so as to provide a sense of depth to the sound. In terms of audience perspective, opera is generally a showy thing with auditoria having a high-quality finish – there also tends to be a greater level of intimacy and we have achieved that with the horseshoe layout.
“The scale of the orchestra pit and the stage are important too, they have to be of certain dimensions. In Wexford, the backstage area is especially large, so that during the Opera Festival they can have sets and scenery for three different opera works ready for use.”
One characteristic of the old Theatre Royal that has been retained in the new design is the venue’s ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’ quality, located as it was behind a row of 19th century houses along High Street. This quality has been retained, by reinstating the two-storey frontage and using this to accommodate offices and dressing rooms. “As a result, you enter the Opera House through a rather modest entrance and it is only when you are in the building that you get a sense of its scale when the space opens up, first in the foyer area and then in the four-storey auditorium. While it cannot be said to be a ‘secret opera house’, it is one that is veiled from close view.
“The full drama of it as an architectural assembly is only really apparent when you are looking at the Opera House from the opposite side of the River Slaney. From there the new flytower, clad in copper, a material long-associated with buildings of civic importance in Ireland, appear sin the skyline alongside the spires of Wexford’s two Pugin churches and the Italianate tower of the Franciscan Friary, announcing the presence of an exceptional new cultural building in the historic townscape.”