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Royal Albert Hall
Kensington Gore, London, UK
Royal Albert Hall
associated engineer
Francis Fowke
Henry Young Darracott Scott
Roland Mason Ordish
John William Grover
date  April 1867 - 29th March 1871
UK era  Victorian  |  category  Building  |  reference  TQ264796
ICE reference number  HEW 300
photo  Opening ceremony, illustrated in The Graphic (1871) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The main engineering feature of the famously elliptical Royal Albert Hall in Kensington, London, is its magnificent wrought iron and glass roof. The Grade I listed building is in the Italian Renaissance style, and has been extensively restored.
The hall was designed to fulfil two functions — a concert venue and a conference centre for learned societies. Its construction was financed in part from surplus funds left over from the building of Crystal Palace in Hyde Park for the 1851 Great Exhibition. Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, and Henry Cole (1808-82, knighted 1875) planned a complex of public buildings south of the exhibition site. The 20.2 hectare Gore Estate was purchased using the exhibition's £150,000 profit plus a £177,500 government grant.
Albertopolis, as the complex was dubbed, included formal gardens, a central hall for the arts and sciences, Imperial College, Royal College of Art, Royal College of Music, Royal Geographical Society, Science Museum, Natural History Museum and South Kensington Museum.
In 1856, the first building, South Kensington Museum (later renamed the Victoria & Albert Museum or V&A), was completed. The central hall was the second. It began with the construction of a conservatory, 80.8m long and 22.9m high, on the north side of the estate overlooking the Royal Horticultural Society gardens. Designed by Captain Francis Fowke (1823-65) of the Royal Engineers, it was essentially a miniature version of Crystal Palace.
The conservatory opened a few months before the death of Prince Albert (14th December 1861, typhoid). It was to be the new hall’s lobby. However, the funds intended for what was initially known as South Kensington Hall were used instead to build the Albert Memorial and the plans for the hall were scaled back.
In 1865, Queen Victoria approved Fowke’s and Cole’s new proposals. The ambitious original 30,000 seat venue was now reduced to a hall with capacity for 7,000. It would be managed by a governing body, under royal charter on a 999 year lease at one shilling (5p) per year. This arrangement is still in place today.
Inspiration for the design of the hall came from Fowke’s and Cole’s visits to the Roman arenas at Arles and Nîmes, in France. When Fowke died in 1865, he was replaced by fellow Royal Engineer Major Henry Young Darracott Scott (1822-83, promoted to Colonel and then Major-General in 1871).
The plan of Fowke’s hall originally had semicircular ends and straight sides. Scott modified this, keeping the main proportions, roof form and layout of corridors, staircases and exits, but altering the plan to a true ellipse, placing offices and ancillary structures within the perimeter. He exchanged the plaster ceiling for an iron and glass roof, and remodelled the exterior, adding a frieze and three porticos with arches large enough to accommodate carriages. The much smaller south porch adjoined Fowke’s conservatory.
Rowland Mason Ordish (1824-86) and John William Grover (1836-92) carried out the calculations and detailed design for the impressive roof, the building’s most technically challenging element to construct.
In April 1866, an advisory committee was appointed to oversee the design. It included architects, artists and two eminent civil engineers — John Hawkshaw (1811-91, knighted 1873) and John Fowler (1817-98, knighted 1885). Hawkshaw, Fowler and engineer William Fairbairn (1789-1874, 1st Baronet Ardwick 1869), the project’s ironwork contractor, all made significant contributions to the roof design.
In April 1867, contractor Lucas Brothers commenced work. On 20th May, Queen Victoria laid the granite foundation stone using a golden trowel. The ceremony took place in a huge tent erected on the site, where the queen announced that the hall should be named The Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences, to commemorate her late husband.
The building was constructed using some six million red bricks and 80,000 buff terracotta blocks. Overall it is about 83.5m long by 73.2m wide, with the long axis aligned approximately north-south, perpendicular to Kensington Gore. The outer structure is divided into five stages, with the smaller-diameter top stage rising above the lower stages to support the roof. The full-height outer wall of the fifth stage forms the inner wall of the lower stages. The walls are 6.1m apart and 965mm wide at the top.
Street level entrances are provided in the first stage, between the porticos. Square-headed windows ring the second stage and round-headed windows the third stage. The fourth stage is surrounded by a balcony with doors into the hall. The fifth stage carries the dome. The north, east and west porches are two storey, the first double height and the second corresponding with the third stage. The balcony extends over the portico roofs.
A frieze of allegorical and historical scenes encircles the outer wall at the top of the fourth stage, 19.8m above ground level, and covers 16 different subjects. It is 243.8m long and 2m high, assembled from 800 panels of terracotta mosaic tiles, each 305mm long. Photographs of the artists’ drawings were projected at actual size onto the panels to act as blueprints for the mosaic work. The frieze took two years to create and cost £4,426.
The roof is an elliptical dome supported on wrought iron trusses. It measures 66.9m by 56.5m and sits 36.6m above street level. The weight of the roof is transferred from the 30 main trusses, which radiate from a central elliptical ring, to cast iron shoes on an elliptical horizontal-web plat girder sitting on the building's inner wall.
The upper members of the trusses are curved to a vertical radius of 34.75m, and the lower members to 44.2m. The central ring is 5.3m deep, the same as the maximum depth of the trusses, and about 13.7m in diameter. Its underside is 10.7m above the shoes.
A trial assembly of the ironwork was made at Fairbairn’s engineering works in Ardwick, Manchester. It was then dismantled and sent to London, where it was erected on temporary timber centring scaffolded from the auditorium floor, completely filling the auditorium. In May 1870, when the wedges were knocked out of the centring, the 338 tonne structure settled just 8mm.
The dome was clad in two layers of ridge-and-furrow glazing (weight: 279 tonnes). A draped calico awning, 1,115 sq m in area, was installed beneath the glass to reduce solar glare.
Royal Albert Hall arena-format concert venue consists of: a basement; ground floor and Stalls (Level 0) with access to the choir seating and Loggia Boxes; first floor and Grand Tier (Level 1); second floor and Second Tier (Level 2); third floor and Rausing Circle (Level 3); and fourth floor and Gallery (Level 5). The Royal Box, located in the Grand Tier, is offset from the centre of the performance area for the best acoustics (though at first the vast enclosed space did have a significant echo).
Each level is bounded by an access corridor located between the outer series of masonry walls. The floors are of fireproofed concrete. The building was provided with one hydraulic lift (elevator).
Rapid evacuation of the hall is made possible by the large number of separate exits from the tiers to the staircases, a configuration that replaced the original idea of staircases opening into the encircling corridors. Water for firefighting was stored in large tanks on the picture gallery's roof, fed by the artesian well in the Royal Horticultural Society gardens.
The organ — the largest in the world at the time — was built by Henry Willis (1821-1901), and cost around £8,000 (contract price £7,500). It stands behind the stage in the main auditorium and is 21.3m high, 19.8m wide and weighs some 152 tonnes. Originally, its bellows were powered by two steam engines. Though used at the opening ceremony, the organ was not fully completed until 18th July 1871.
Engineer and contractor Wilson Weatherley Phipson (1838-91) designed and installed the heating and ventilation system under a £5,000 contract, exclusive of any brickwork required. Phipson’s specification describes some features of modern air conditioning ...
Fresh air was drawn in through two 1.8m wide shafts (located the south end of the building) by two 1.75m diameter fans driven by a 4.5kW steam engine. The air was fed into "Heating Chambers" under the Stalls, under the auditorium floor and under the basement outer corridor. The chambers were filled with 102mm diameter cast iron water pipes, heated by two 22.4kW condensing boilers. Incoming air was warmed as it flowed between the pipes. Each chamber was also fitted with a "moistening Tank to ensure the required degree of moisture to air". Warm air was then piped around the building. In winter, the temperature in the auditorium was intended to average a chilly 14.4 degrees Celsius, and not lower than 12.8 degrees Celsius. In summer, the air was cooled with cold water sprays. After circulation, air was vented through an aperture in the ceiling into a louvred exit shaft "at least" 2.4m in diameter on the roof.
The building was illuminated by 11,000 gas burners, lit mechanically by electricity. Apparently, all the jets could be lit within ten seconds. The gas jets would be replaced by electric lighting in 1879-88.
Scott calculated the hall held 7,165 audience members and 1,200 singers and musicians in the orchestra pit. If required, the total capacity could be increased to 10,000.
On 29th March 1871, Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales opened the Royal Albert Hall (illustrated above). The prince delivered the opening address as the queen was too overcome with memories of her late husband to speak. The building was completed on time and (reportedly) £252 under the £200,000 budget. Some £40,000 of the funding had been derived from the sale of private boxes.
In 1889, owing to financial difficulties, the Royal Horticultural Society surrendered its lease on the gardens. The conservatory and arcades adjoining the Royal Albert Hall were demolished, along with cloakroom and refreshment areas.
From 1922 onwards, additional exits were provided from the hall’s upper levels and external doors to match the originals were installed, as required by London County Council. In 1924 and 1933, the organ was repaired and enlarged by Harrison & Harrison of Durham.
The building was closed from autumn 1940 until May 1941, as a result of wartime bomb damage to the roof and window glazing. In 1941, a sound-reflecting canopy was installed over the performance platform in an attempt to improve the rather poor acoustics. The canopy was suspended from the roof.
In 1949, the glazed inner dome and its awning were removed and replaced by the present arrangement of a fluted aluminium double-skin inner dome fixed to the bottom ribs of the roof trusses. The aluminium skin includes sound-absorbing material. At the same time, some of the decorative plasterwork above the gallery, damaged by water penetration, was removed.
In February 1958, the Royal Albert Hall was Grade I listed.
During 1968-9, saucer-shaped fibreglass acoustic diffusers (109 or 135: sources vary), or ‘mushrooms’, were suspended from the roof in a further attempt to refine the auditorium’s acoustics.
In 1971, the open north portico was enclosed in steel and glass to a design by architect Ronald Ward and Partners. The whole building was cleaned, removing external grime. During the 1970s, Harrison & Harrison carried out refurbishment works on the organ and fitted a roof over it in an attempt to improve its sound projection (not successful).
However, major maintenance and radical refurbishment works to the building were still required. In 1987, frost-loosened pieces of terracotta on the upper levels fell from the underside of the gallery.
In April 1993, the steps, gardens and underground car park between the south porch and Prince Consort Road were purchased. In 1996, a £69.1m restoration programme began. Funding included a £40.2m National Lottery grant. Building Design Partnership acted as architect, structural engineer and quantity surveyor, with Taylor Woodrow as construction manager. The hall closed for just two periods of four weeks during the eight year project, which was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 30th March 2004.
From July 1996, the auditorium was remodelled. Structural timberwork was removed and replaced with prefabricated hollow-core tiers, which also act as air conditioning plenums. Seating in the Stalls and Circle (Loggia Boxes, Grand Tier and Second Tier) was reconfigured to improve access, legroom and sightlines. The original 1,630 Circle seats in eight rows were reduced to 1,520 seats in seven rows. The hall now accommodates 5,250 people seated, with a standing-room gallery at the top. The gallery plasterwork, removed in 1949, was restored.
In 2001, following further acoustic tests and 1:12 scale modelling, the number of mushroom diffusers was reduced to 85 and their locations repositioned towards the centre of the ceiling to optimise sound quality.
The principal works took place to the south of the building, between 2001 and 2004. The south steps were removed and the underground car park deepened by 12m, creating a three storey basement where stage, sound and lighting equipment can be trucked in, unloaded undercover and delivered to the auditorium by lifts. The basement also incorporates air conditioning plant, an electricity sub-station, workshops and dressing rooms. The truncated south porch was rebuilt to match the three larger porticoes. The new south portico and associated structures contain 100,000 bricks and 8,000 terracotta blocks.
From January 2002 to June 2004, the organ was dismantled, refurbished and reconstructed by Mander Organs of London at a cost of £1.5m. The 1970s roof was removed. High wind pressure was restored to the pipes, an extra stop installed (making 147) and the number of pipes increased to 9,997 — the largest of the 14.5km of pipes is 762mm in diameter, 12.8m long and weighs almost 1 tonne. It is now the second-largest organ in Britain.
The original overlapping perimeter glazing to the roof was replaced to match the rest of the roof structure, using new aluminium glazing bars. A new ring beam with maintenance gantry was installed below the ceiling. Ventilation and temperature control were improved via a new fresh air shaft 55m long and 2m in diameter. The statue of Prince Albert outside the south side of the hall was temporarily removed during the works and its plinth modified to conceal a ventilation and fire-fighting shaft.
Additional bars, restaurants, lavatories, function rooms, offices and improved disabled facilities were created throughout the building in the spaces gained by the remodelling and new construction.
In 2008, one of the restaurants was further remodelled and the following year, alterations to the west portico created a multi-use space for small-scale performance. During 2011-4, the backstage area, staff canteen, changing rooms, box office and restaurant were modified and improved.
In 2013-6, the Victorian steam heating system was converted to a more energy efficient low temperature hot water system. Additional piping was installed above the Rausing Circle corridor and the ring main in the basement replaced.
Wherever possible, electric lighting is being replaced with LED lights, including in the mushroom reflectors.
Architect: Major-General H.Y.D. Scott
Contractor: Lucas Brothers
Roof ironwork: William Fairbairn, Manchester
Concrete floors: Fox & Barrett
Terracotta blockwork: Gibbs& Canning, Tamworth
Mosaic tiles: Minton, Hollins & Co
Heating and ventilation: Wilson Weatherley Phipson
Research: ECPK
reference sources   CEH Lond

Royal Albert Hall