The Nation's Village Hall

From Frank Zappa to the Sally Army, this hall is truly all things to all men. By Jonathan Glancey and Ben Summers

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"It looks like the British Constitution", said Queen Victoria of the Royal Albert Hall on the day the Prince of Wales declared it open 125 years ago. Quite what the Queen meant we will never know. But it probably was not that the great hall of arts and sciences named after her late and beloved husband, Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (typhoid fever had done for him 10 years earlier), went round in circles, that its impressive facade hid little more than a thumping great hole, that no one knew exactly what it was for, other than being all things to all men.

She was certainly at odds with the journalist who described it as "a monstrous cross between the Colosseum and a Yorkshire pie". What we do know is that the Royal Albert Hall, designed by Captain Fowke and Colonel Darracott Scott of the Royal Engineers, is a cross between a Roman amphitheatre and the State Opera House, Dresden. We also know it cost pounds 200,000, took four years to build, comprises six million bricks, 80,000 terracotta tiles and five miles of steam heating pipes. We know its dimensions - 155ft to the top of its iron and glass dome, an elliptical circumference of 735ft - and that, although designed to seat 8,000 Victorians, it is limited, for reasons of safety, to 5,600 these days. Its interior has been described as "somewhere between a hospital, a boarding school, and a Soviet ministry". It was last rewired in 1957.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney said, a touch wistfully, that it would take 4,000 holes from Blackburn, Lancashire to fill it. Actually, what fills it is the annual Henry Wood Prom concerts, bouts of sumo wrestling, guitar riffs by Eric Clapton, the massed bonnets and tambourines of the Sally Army, paper poppies falling from the dome on Remembrance Day, 11,000 Trekkers (the number of buffs who turned up at last year's Star Trek conference) and the strains of Handel's "Messiah" at Christmas.

And, of course, there is Yehudi Menuhin, who made his first performance here as a 13-year-old in 1929. He got to the Albert Hall before Maurice Chevalier and Edward Elgar; before even the Ford Company made their booking to publicise the pounds 100 car in 1936. That was neither the first nor the last trade launch at the hall, which is a model of openness and tolerance. Virtually anything can go on within its walls - a full-length circular marathon, the nation's first gramophone concert (in 1906, attended by a 10,000-strong crowd), and at one time Indian civil service examinations.

There always has been some cosmic debris in the hall's galaxy of stars. This year on the bill are the wrestler Hulk Hogan, Beauty and the Beast on ice, and the Fiat Cinquecento for its launch.

In the words of its own publicity, this all-singing, all-dancing monument to the Prince Consort is the Nation's Village Hall. Corny, but close to the truth.

What in a village hall would require some stacking of chairs and trestle tables calls for serious lumberjackery at the Albert Hall. The floor may be built up and moved to suit an event. "It's slightly more advanced than scaffolding," says David Elliott, deputy chief executive, "but it's not hi-tech." With a lot of elbow grease the hall can be an ice rink, a conference centre, a 2,500-seater dining room and a concert venue all within a week.

Rock concerts were temporarily banned in 1972 after a memorable performance by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention which the management thought in poor taste. Today, the likes of Elvis Costello and Eric Clapton bring in a toe-tapping middle-class audience, the sort that worries less about turning on, tuning in and dropping out than about missing the last Tube to Waterloo.

It is not, nor ever was, a beautiful building (and certainly not revolutionary) and it remains short on lavatories, bars and decent acoustics. Millennium funding might yet improve matters, but the Albert Hall is no place to hear music more subtle than "Rule Britannia" or "Land of Hope and Glory". The hall was famous for its echo from the day it opened. "Amen", concluded the Bishop of London at the opening ceremony. "Amen", said the audience of 7,000. And "Amen", replied the echo, rumbling above their heads for a full minute.

Did Bruckner make use of this anomaly as he dug into the 150-ton steam- powered Willis organ (10,000 pipes, 146 stops) for the hall's premiere concert? What did Wagner make of it as he blitzed through eight performances of his own work in 1877? Sir Thomas Beecham, the populist conductor, said the hall could be used for a hundred things, but music was not one of them.

The acoustics were improved by the 135 glass-fibre baffles planted in the ceiling in 1969 (after extensive consultation with the BBC and various acoustics experts). The mushrooms' days may be numbered. The hall's owners say the time has come for "an aesthetically more pleasing way of achieving the same acoustic result".

This has hardly mattered to Prom concert audiences, who first came here in 1941 when Queen's Hall, their original home, was destroyed by bombs. It was said that the Luftwaffe left the Albert Hall untouched because its round form made it such a perfect marker for the pilots and bomb-aimers of Dorniers and Heinkels.

The Germans did, however, do for the Imperial Institute next door. Along with the Natural History Museum and the Imperial Institute, the Royal Albert Hall formed part of a gigantic Victorian development, built largely on the profits of the Great Exhibition of 1851, which has survived more or less intact.

The Albert Hall has been self-financing since it opened. The money to build it was raised through the Great Exhibition committee (pounds 50,000) and from selling 1,300 seats at pounds 100 each to subscribers on a 999-year lease. Its affairs are overseen by a corporation which has charity status ("the Corporation of the Hall of Arts and Sciences"), established under Royal Charter in 1866 with the task of "maintaining and appropriating the hall for purposes connected with the arts and sciences". The harsh facts of financial life mean it must make money to keep itself afloat, something about which the Victorian founders were perhaps too optimistic. A series of Acts of Parliament have loosened restrictions on the hall's operation, the first of these giving the nod to sporting events such as boxing.

Although the hall needs money spending on it (it was last given a wash and brush-up on its centenary in 1971), it has made a trading surplus of pounds 1.2m each year since 1990. The remainder of a lease for a 10-seat box in the Grand Tier went on offer last year for about pounds 300,000. On top of this, seat-holders must pay an annual levy for each seat (currently pounds 556). This fee plays a large part in keeping the hall afloat financially. And Patrick Deuchar, its dynamic chief executive, plans to make it ever more popular over the next few years, raising the number of events from 280 to 340 a year.

Like some secular Mecca, it is one of those places that is far more than a building. Everyone in Britain is likely to visit it at least once. For once, you can believe the PR: the Royal Albert Hall is the nation's village hall.

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