Everything in the Garden is lovely

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ACCESSIBLE, INSPIRING and exciting: none of these adjectives could have been used about the Royal Opera House over the past five years.

But yesterday the pounds 216m redevelopment in Covent Garden, central London, was unveiled for its topping-out ceremony. It proved a transformation of the House, not just in terms of architecture and public image. The renovation of the original 1858 building by the architect Jeremy Dixon includes new public areas, new rehearsal and performance studios and a public rooftop terrace with views over London.

Most impressive of all is the restoration of the main part of the 19th- century Floral Hall, the roof of which was destroyed by fire in the 1950s, and which was recently used as a scenery store. Yesterday it was clear how this will become a vast and striking main foyer, open to the public during the day, and with a large glass frontage on to the street.

What underlies all the architectural improvements on display was a belated realisation that access and anti-elitism must speak through the shape of the building as well as through ticket prices. And so there are studio theatres that will give lunchtime performances, free at least once a week, better sightlines and leg-room in the newly air- conditioned main auditorium and better access for people with disabilities. Everyone will enter through the same entrance for the first time and mingle in the same spaces.

And there will be a pedestrian link from Bow Street to the Covent Garden piazza, which will encourage visitors into the building, almost by stealth.

The building itself, in stone and glass, anchored in a granite plinth, demonstrates the skilful way in which a Victorian cast-iron glasshouse - the Floral Hall - has been restored and sandwiched delicately between the familiar stone portico and a new, narrow glass tower that houses the elevator.

At yesterday's ceremony Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, said: "This is a wonderful day. It marks an end of the doom and gloom. More people will be able to come and enjoy excellent work than has ever been the case before."

Increased public access at the Covent Garden theatre has been one of the conditions for continued Arts Council support. Sir Richard Eyre's hard-hitting report condemned it for arrogance and elitism.

Criticism from Sir Richard, MPs, the Arts Council and the Government was heightened because of the pounds 78m National Lottery grant towards the redevelopment scheme and because of the pounds 12m a year the resident Royal Ballet and Royal Opera companies receive in subsidy.

Yesterday Sir Colin Southgate, who took over as chairman when the old board resigned a year ago, said: "In a sense, it belongs to everybody in this country who has bought a lottery ticket."