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Lankmark Theatre

It has been with us a year, so how do we assess the Landmark in relation to Victorian Ilfracombe? It has certainly lived up to its name, Ilfracombe will never be quite the same, but this is very Victorian. The Victorians built very extravagantly, in styles completely out of keeping with the discreet Georgian architecture that preceded them, and Ilfracombe has many examples of this. Yet over the years the two contrasting styles have added to the interest and character of the town.

The Landmark also stands on its own, sufficiently distant from other buildings to be considered mainly in relation to the landscape. Here Tim Ronalds, its architect, has restored the spur of the Southern Slopes (which were cut away by the Victorians, to make room for the Ilfracombe Hotel) by putting the lower ranges of the building under grass, and providing walkways over them, thus adding to the many footpaths that the Victorians so generously provided. The views from these walkways of both sea and town are exciting, and from Capstone one can see how sympathetically the whole complex is designed in relation to its surroundings.

The two cones, with the semi-cone of the stage area, are of course, the distinctive feature which cannot be missed, and for many, very hard to take. They developed from the 'Pavilions in a Park' which was put forward at a very early stage of the project, and no doubt conveyed to the architect; a theatre, pavilion and information office grouped together like an encampment. As it is, we have something closer in looks to sandcastles, an idea not inappropriate in a seaside resort! The very fine brickwork (of Dutch bricks made from German clay, Marland no longer being worked) gives them an austere dignity. At one stage there was talk of ceramic tile cladding or polychrome brickwork, of which the Victorians have given us such attractive examples in Ilfracombe, but here we seem to have followed the 20th. Century builders by playing safe with 'penny plain'. Yet the off-white finish makes an exciting contrast to the green surroundings and the changing colours of the sky and sea. This gives the cones a stark, nautical quality which suits their location on the sea front.

Here the architect has taken the environment into full account. The seaward face is of large irregular local stone, cemented with roughly jointed mortar which will in time collect mosses and other sea greenery, blending with the rocks below and cliffs beside it. The south face, looking towards the town, with its delicate canopy and colonnade is much more urbane, creating a sheltered, sunny and welcoming area, the cones acting as protection from wind and wave. The unbroken line of glazing is an invitation to enter, and the open space around the base of the cones gives one the freedom to wander, ahead to the refreshment bar with its large (would it were larger) window overlooking the sea or back into the Tourist Information Centre, with all it has to help us explore this marvellous part of the world, or to the right, where glass doors give one a tantalising glimpse of the Pavilion. One has to enter this to get the full effect of standing under a canvas cone looking up to a glazed oculus, the light from above flooding down on the shapes hanging in mid - air like trapeze artists, a veritable circus tent. In daylight one has a wide panorama at ground level of the Capstone and the St Philip and St James' area seen through a continuous window. At night the canvas takes up the colours thrown on it and with the curtains undrawn, the Pavilion becomes a beacon to the surrounding area.

In contrast, the theatre, by its very nature, is enclosed. But here the architect has given us, not a box with three dead sides, but a cone which can be viewed from all angles without any unsightly 'backstage' areas. Within, the circular plan brings both audience and performers into close relationship. This is not 'theatre in the round', the proscenium arch preserves the distinction between actor and audience, but the intimacy is not lost and the raked seating gives clear viewing.

I remember at one of the preliminary consultations that Tim Ronalds said, in his modesty, that he hoped that we would come to like his building. He realised it was not what most people expected, but that it was the outcome of careful consideration of our needs and the dramatic character of its site. The Landmark has not gone unnoticed in the national press and there have been long articles in architectural journals, mostly very appreciative.

The Landmark is likely to put Ilfracombe on the map in the way that the Tate has done at St. Ives, or even the Opera House at Sydney. It's here, so let us enjoy it!

Jim Bates - April 1999

Created 20/4/99