Hannah Playhouse: The Home of Downstage

Story by Olivia Martin

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, 2018

No right angles

Hannah Playhouse is architect James Beard’s most celebrated building. Beard is best known within architectural circles for his significant contribution to Wellington's inner city examples of Brutalist architecture, of which Hannah Playhouse is the hallmark. It was heralded as courageous, inventive and even miraculous due to its clever manipulation of the rhomboid site at the corner of Wellington’s lively Courtenay Place and Cambridge Terrace.

The design is full of personality, non-conformist (its plan contains no right angles) and progressive. It is the steel and concrete embodiment of the Downstage Theatre’s vision, and itself deserves a standing ovation.

A challenging rhomboid

The use of the building shaped most of its design, with the ‘rubbing of shoulders’ of all dimensions of the theatre community; actors, directors and audiences, as its primary function. Constructed from off shutter concrete with concrete floors and columns, unpainted timber and steel; the building’s exposed textures are consistent throughout.

The building follows the challenging rhomboid shape of the site. Helmut Einhorn, when reviewing Beard’s smart spatial design, asked: ‘Why should Wellington architects be called upon so often to perform such miracles? It is impossible to think of any other place where a site like this would have been considered for use as a theatre’.

Then and now

  • <p>The original Downstage Theatre,</p><p>Courtenay Place, Downstage Theatre, and Wellington looking west from the Embassy Theatre building in 1968.</p>
  • <p>The Hannah Playhouse under construction in 1972.</p>
  • <p>The Hannah Playhouse auditorium, 6 October 1973.</p>
  • <p>James Albert Beard, architect</p>
  • <p>Hannah Playhouse from Cambridge Terrace in 2019.</p>
  • <p>Hannah Playhouse from Cambridge Terrace in 2019.</p>

The Downstage story

The site of 12 Cambridge Terrace was originally the home of the ‘Walkabout Coffee Bar’ a 1960s nucleus of creativity and dramatic performance. Conversations and activity at ‘Walkabout’ spawned the Downstage Theatre Company in 1964. Meetings, between actors and restaurant owners, soon changed not only the function of Walkabout’s second storey but eventually the landscape of New Zealand theatre. Downstage Theatre Company became New Zealand’s longest running theatre group until its closure in 2013.

By 1973, and with a generous $300,000 gift from Sheilah Winn, conversations began about upgrading the venue, to be named after Winn’s maternal family who were founders of the Hannahs shoe company. This donation prompted the employment of James Beard, an inspirational Wellington architect whose impressive work and ‘out-of-the-box’ architectural aesthetic, was deemed perfect to create an ‘intimate space’ in which to perform challenging works.

Brutalist Beard

James Beard (born 1924) grew up in Christchurch, the Garden City, which may have influenced his love for ecology and horticulture. After graduating from the University of Auckland in 1948, Beard travelled to the United States to study city planning at MIT and landscape architecture at Harvard. On his return he co-founded Gabites & Beard architects and town planning consultants (later, Gabites Toomath Beard & Wilson), who specialised in urban design.

Playing with concrete

In line with ecological considerations, the Hannah Playhouse concrete remained undoctored, so that the ecological processes; growth of pollution, stains and algae, could be observed. This gives the Playhouse its quintessential 1960s Brutalist appearance. The architectural term Brutalism is derived from the French brut, referring to the use of raw, undoctored concrete.

The Playhouse encapsulates the spirit of Brutalism, uncompromising and anti-bourgeois. Beard described the Playhouse as: ‘quite a rugged thing so they could do anything they wanted with the space and bash it about. Essentially, it is that textural nature that is my contribution.’

Hannah Playhouse

12 Cambridge Terrace, Te Aro, Wellington 6011, New Zealand