Who gets what? Why?

In committee rooms across the city, London's major arts venues are slugging it out over the National Lottery millions. By Michael Church
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The Independent Culture
With the lottery floodgates open, London's musical poker-players are placing their bets. The Albert Hall is chasing £40m, for a people- friendly architectural refit. The Coliseum (pursuing £30m) and Covent Garden (hoping for £78m) are furiously locking antlers over whose bid should take precedence. Sadler's Wells, which everyone had written off as a loser, suddenly looks set to scoop enough lottery cash for a total rebuild. Today, after heavy official hints that 45 lottery millions will be forthcoming to finance Richard Rogers's overarching "Crystal Palace", the South Bank is unveiling its plan for a revamped Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Sadler's Wells will be closed from January 1996 till the end of 1997. Covent Garden expects to close for two seasons starting in July 1997. The Coliseum plans to close from March 1997 till September 1998. The restored Lyceum may give temporary house-room first to the English National Opera, and then to the uprooted Royal Opera, while ENO moves to the Wells. Then again, the ROH singers and dancers may spend their exile performing in a tent in Battersea Park. Alternatively, both companies may do as Glyndebourne did while it was rebuilding, and give semi-staged concert performances at the South Bank. Always assuming, of course, that the South Bank is not itself closed for rebuilding. Yes, the whole thing is a mad-hatter's tea party.

The Arts Council, whose job it is to make sure everywhere doesn't go dark simultaneously, has meanwhile stoked up the communal paranoia with a ploy of its own - the Stevenson Report. With a welter of winks and nudges, this provocative document effectively sided with the ROH in its battle with the ENO, which duly responded with a counterblast entitled The Future of the People's Opera House (this being the Stevenson Committee's own patronising description of the Coliseum).

The committee's other preoccupation was the need for a "dance house network". But here the Coliseum has cannily jumped the gun, planning reciprocal seasons with Sadler's Wells, and also planning to house the English National Ballet, whose London base has for decades been that people's palace south of the river, the Royal Festival Hall.

The irony here is that the South Bank, whose new plans have been expressly designed to answer Stevenson's requirements, depends utterly on the ENB's annual three-month residency. "If we lost them, I would jump in the Thames," growls South Bank supremo Nicholas Snowman. "They are our most frequent user. If they went, the effect on our finances would be appalling." It's an even crueller irony that this disaster should loom when, after years of paralysing uncertainty, Snowman has finally found a game-plan to save the world's biggest arts centre from creeping decline.

Snowman has made mistakes in the past, but he's learnt from them. Arriving fresh from Ircam, Boulez's musical research centre in Paris, he at first tried to imbue the South Bank with a similarly austere avant-gardism. Audiences dwindled, deficits piled up, and Snowman pulled back. He next presided over a grandiose plan to revamp the South Bank in tandem with a giant property developer. And he loudly proclaimed that the Hayward Gallery was an architectural dinosaur which should be replaced forthwith. Recession put paid to the scheme, however. And there was no more talk about dinosaurs.

But Snowman had grasped two painful truths, on which his latest plans are based. The first is economic: with an area the size of Trafalgar Square to administer, the South Bank Centre simply has to bring commerce on to its patch. As Snowman points out: "If every hall was full, every night of the year, we would still end up in deficit." Hence the businesses and workshops which will operate in the temperate zone beneath Rogers's glass wave.

The second truth is cultural. The audience for the South Bank's classical events was in slow but steady decline: partly thanks to the growth in the record market, and partly, admits Snowman, because too many concerts were mediocre. Ergo: fewer but better concerts, more world music and jazz, and an influx of dance and small-scale opera.

"The QEH is not setting up as a rival to the other theatres in London," says Snowman. "It's part of the network which everyone wants. Small-scale opera is where the action is. The world of the huge symphonic blunderbuss has gone." His architects' plans are ingenious, expanding the foyers, colonising the vast unused roof space, and offering easily manipulable alternatives for dance, opera and music. The auditorium will acquire a new stage, proper wing space, a fly tower, and an orchestra pit.

The Purcell Room will become a rehearsal space, and a new recital hall will be built underground, between the Festival Hall and the river. The Festival Hall itself will be returned by Rogers to its pristine state, with the enthusiastic aid of its original architect, Leslie Martin. And Martin, incidentally, was the young Rogers's professional father-figure. Another wheel comes full circle.

So much for the shells. Perfecting the sound waves within is a very different matter. For acousticians, two things are paramount: the shape of a hall, and the number of people in it. The Festival Hall owes its notoriously dry acoustic to the fact that it's too wide, and contains too many bodies for its size. Bodies absorb sound, just as carpeting does. Since this is a listed building, the acousticians involved in its refurbishment are in for a tricky time.

The acoustics of the QEH are good, and will be made even better thanks to retractable fabric "banners" which will be let down from the roof. To boost audience capacity, boxes may be installed on the side walls: these, oddly enough, will also improve the sound quality.

Robert Harris, the acoustician in charge, explains it all in terms of "cue-ball reflexion": sound bouncing off walls, and down from the undersides of boxes, like rays of light off a mirror. "To get the right clarity, and a sense of spaciousness - a sense of the orchestra being bigger than it actually is - you need it bouncing off the walls within the reverberation- time of the direct sound." The perfect shape for a concert hall - instinctively realised in Germany and Austria in the 19th century - is therefore the shoe-box, with a balcony all round.

Hence the feeble acoustic of the Barbican, a fan-shaped auditorium designed before this piece of ancient wisdom was rediscovered: the sound just leaks away. And hence the abominable acoustics of the Albert Hall, made even worse by its dome. A dome, says Harris with a shudder, is anathema to an acoustician. "It results in a very uneven distribution of sound, too loud in some places, too quiet in others, and in some places produces funny effects." The other problem at the Albert Hall is that, when full, it contains far too many bodies, so the absorption is extreme.

When the Albert Hall's lottery bid was unveiled to the press, no mention was made of its acoustics. When pressed, a spokesman replied contemptuously that it was "not only a classical music auditorium", and that improving the sightlines for sporting events was at least as important. Acousticians, he said, might be brought in later. Yet this is where, for two solid months each summer, the Proms take place. How very odd.

But the whole situation is odd. When these wonderful metropolitan projects have come to fruition, there still won't be a major London concert hall whose acoustics rival those to be found in Birmingham, Glasgow, Nottingham or Cardiff. And if an operatic blackout does occur, some punters may find they have kicked the operatic habit.