Fig Tree Theatre Refurbishment

By Stukel Stone
public spaces

Fig Tree Theatre, Gate 5, High Street, UNSW, Kensington

By: Stukel Stone

Photography by Michael Kai

How does the project respond to its context, contribute to the public domain for example street or neighbourhood?

“In spite of the fact that the building is extremely modest, this is an oasis in a great concrete world, it’s sylvan, arcadian and beautiful”.  - Professor Robert Quentin speaking on The Fig Tree Theatre, 1969.

The Fig Tree Theatre is located on the Kensington campus of UNSW. It completes a trio of buildings which are listed as a historically significant conservation area including; Old Tote building circa 1918, White House circa 1893 and the Fig Tree Theatre circa 1948.  Twelve mature Moreton Bay fig trees, planted 1893 are also protected. Erected as a recreation hall for emigrants in the aftermath of WW2, the building is a single storey, timber frame and corrugated steel clad structure. These humble materials and simple built form are in surprising contrast with the exciting social history. The hall became an important arts venue when converted into a theatre,1963.  The Old Tote Theatre Company used the theatre until it became the home for the National Institute of Dramatic Art, NIDA, for close to 20 years, 1969-1988.

Stukel Stone’s design for the foyer interior is sympathetic to the contemporary physical context and to the history of the building. The surrounding student housing (Architectus 2010) creates an urban canyon in which the Fig Tree Theatre and Moreton Bay fig trees are situated. The interior colour palette pays homage to the concrete facades of the student residences as well as to the majestic trees; grey, sage, white and chocolate.  The original 1960s seating benches upholstered in red wool have been accommodated and provide a punch of colour in the muted interior.  Other highlights have been offered by material selection of brass and orange colour-backed glass.

What problems did you have to solve?

The anachronistic siting of the building, which once aligned with the finish line of the race course, sets up a dynamic relationship with the strong grid of the recent surrounding student housing by Architectus.  These geometries are carried into the new interior of the foyer through the shaping of the bar and seating platform which successfully work to encourage circulation and engagement with the space.

The main foyer (a lean-to addition of the original 1940s recreation hall) presented a spatial problem with its raking ceiling, narrow room proportions and a theatre entrance door 860mm above floor level.  The room was rationalised through the introduction of the illusion of a false ceiling created by dark paint above the picture hanging rail and the four large pendant light fixtures.  

What was the contribution of others, including engineers, landscape architects, artists, builders and other specialists to the outcome?

Black and white photographic prints by the photographer Robert Walker, who is known for capturing the lives of many Australian visual and performing artists, are displayed on the foyer walls.  The Fig Tree theatre was the place of his first theatre assignment, Hamlet  starring John Bell in 1963 for The Old Tote Theatre Company.  His photographic prints, many of productions at the Fig Tree theatre, were rehung by Stukel Stone to feature as the main visual material on the walls of the foyer.

How would you describe the value of design in relation to the cost of the project?

The key design value was to acknowledge the ‘world of theatre’.  The bespoke seating platform (located off the original stair in the main foyer) plays with the theme of spectator vs. performer, by blurring this relationship the platform cum seating bank allows patrons to simultaneously ‘see’ and ‘be seen’. The bar is graced by a changeable backdrop made of 150mm wide reversible panels. Venue users set the scene for their events with either; a bank of solid orange colour, alternating stripes of colour/mirror, or all mirrors. This enables the space to be manipulated to suit the world of a production whether it be a tragedy, comedy or contemporary avant guard performance. 

What are some important sustainability aspects of the project?

Where practicable existing architectural fabric was retained, such as the timber ceiling battens in the smaller foyer, the timber thresholds at doorways, ceiling track lighting, and timber stair in main foyer with its wall mounted handrail. 

The new materials introduced are robust, relatively unprocessed with expected longevity and attractive patinas.  Raw brass, plywood, reconstituted stone, linoleum, Murobond pure paints.  All lights are dimmable to illuminate only the activity at hand. 

What do you consider to be the benefits of the project for the client, users and the community?

The refurbishment of the Fig Tree theatre foyer and bar has contributed to the enlivening of the historically significant Fig Tree theatre precinct which acts as a ‘town square’ for the student population, in particular the many inhabitants of the new Architectus’ student housing. The contemporary presentation of the venue has increased the profile and cultural value of a theatre that has already informed the lives of generations of theatre practitioners and their audiences.

Other general comments

Stukel Stone (Daniel Beasly & Tobhiyah Feller) design and documentation

Campus Living Villages

MNR Constructions

High Street, UNSW Campus, Kensington - completion 2011

Flooring - Forbo ‘Marmoleum Real’ floor, ‘Dark Bistre 3236’
Wall and ceiling paint – Murobond ‘Pure’
Wire mesh - Locker Group brass woven wire mesh 5mm aperture 1.25mm dia wire
Pendant lights - Satelight ‘Hemisphere’ satin black
Bar mirrors – bespoke pivoting brass edged mirrors and colour back glass
Bar tops - Caesar Stone Smooth Silk ‘Sage 2750’
Bar joinery – 17mm black laminate form ply
Bar pendants - Dedece Tom Dixon ‘Beat Light’ group