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Renovations and Additions to Port Elizabeth Opera House

The Port Elizabeth Opera House was originally designed by local architect George William Smith and opened its doors on 1 December 1892. Four additions followed - the first in 1911, followed by extensions in 1927, 1934 and 1985. The current Opera House is thus made up of five distinct parts. At present, the Opera House is the oldest theatre in Africa and also the oldest operating theatre in the Southern hemisphere.

The original building was designed in a neo-classical style with three storeys and articulated corners including a heavy parapet. The main entrance was from Western Road under a pediment supported by pilasters. With the 1911 extension, a larger volume was created for the theatre.  In 1927 a new entrance was created along Western Road, accentuated by a double storey veranda. In 1934 the fly tower was added as well as dressing rooms for the performers. The dressing rooms were executed in a utilitarian style with Modern Movement overtones. In 1985 a major extension followed that extended the size of the theatre, added another entertaining space (The Barn) and creating a large foyer space for the theatre. This was, however, executed in a style very similar to the old building thus blurring the boundaries of new and old.

In 2011 the Port Elizabeth Opera House Board decided to rationalise circulation in the Opera House and to extend The Barn and improve its access. In order to achieve this, the following formed part of the Project scope:

  • Addition of Foyer space and passenger lift to The Barn
  • Extensions to The Barn
  • Renovations to existing Opera House, including internal/external painting and damp damage repairs
  • Upgrade of Staff offices, including new circulation core
  • Replacement of Carpets and Wallpapers
  • Major upgrade of Air-Conditioning, Lighting, Fire Detection and Ventilation systems
  • Compliance with National Building Regulations in terms of access for disabled persons, as well as fire escapes

The design approach taken is based on three principles:

  • Contrast: In line with contemporary heritage practices to avoid re-creating a false impression the ‘new’ is intentionally contrasted with the ‘old’. The vertical proportion of the ‘old’ is re-interpreted in a steel screen module supporting an elegant stainless steel screen, The new Foyer Extension is also intentionally spatially extroverted in nature further contrasting the largely introverted old building.
  • Background Building: The Foyer Extension is distinctly contemporary, however, far less articulated compared to the old building thus achieving a background aesthetic instead of competing with the richly decorated ‘old’ building. The extension further recedes ‘behind’ the old Opera House while the height is kept lower than the existing. A clear glass ‘break’ is deliberately established clearly separating the ‘old’ from the ‘new’ both spatially and visually
  • ‘Green’ Principles:The new Foyer Extension is naturally ventilated by means of a stack effect. Cool air is drawn into the building at lower levels through ducts and a stack effect is used to circulate hot air out at the top through a system of motorised louvres.

It was further decided to acknowledge the history of the building throughout the years by creative use of colour and painting the various additions in different hues from the same palette. The colours vary from light (oldest) to dark (newest) thus depicting a visual timeline of the Opera House throughout the decades.

Project Facts

Value:R28 million
Client:Port Elizabeth Opera House
Location:Central, Port Elizabeth
Awards:1st Prize SASSDA Stainless Steel Awards 2016 –Architecture, Building and Construction Category SAIA Award of Merit 2018 ECIA Regional Award 2017
Date of Project:2015
Design Team:Albrecht Herholdt, Tony Danev, Jaco Potgieter