Heritage in red and gold

Heritage in red and gold

One of London’s most treasured and iconic buildings, the Royal Albert Hall is an architectural marvel.

Built in a Neo-Renaissance style with a façade of red brick and terracotta, fully encircled by an 800-foot mosaic frieze and 16 panels representing the Arts and Sciences and a vast rotunda, the Royal Albert Hall in London was the vision of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, a great lover of the Arts. After visiting the 1851 World Fair, he wanted to give London a building wherein people could enjoy art and science and be surrounded by the best schools and museums.

The hall, which was designed by Royal engineers, was supposed to be called the Central Hall of Arts and Sciences, but Queen Victoria changed it to honour her husband who passed away tragically before it was completed. In fact, this whole area with its museums and colleges dedicated to the Arts and Sciences, like the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal College of Music, is called Albertopolis.

We walk up a wide, winding staircase with our guide Eileen Robinson, who points out small details that we might have missed otherwise. The ‘A’ that is woven into the wrought-iron railings, for instance. “The A stands for Albert and there are 13,500 ‘As’ in the building,” she explains. The staircase is wide because women never walked alone those days and this was the width needed for two women walking together dressed in flounced skirts.

The interiors in red and gold take my breath away. The hall was built on the lines of an ancient Greek or Roman amphitheatre. When the Hall’s gigantic 279-tonne glass roof was installed, it broke the record for the largest unsupported glass dome in the world. The hall’s pipe organ was the largest in the world when it was built in 1871, weighs 150 tonnes and was called ‘the voice of Jupiter’ with 9,999 pipes. The hall can seat up to 6,000 people with some standing space in galleries. There are seven levels in all, from the arena below to the standing gallery.

Doomed acoustics?

However, the domed roof meant that the sounds echoed badly. Many attempts were made to fix the sound. Till the 60s, the acoustics of the hall was so bad that the locals joked that you paid for one concert and got two because of the echoes! Many attempts were made to fix the sound quality and acoustics.

In the early 1900s, a calico ‘velarium’, somewhat like a sailcloth, was stretched from the ceiling like a tent, to absorb the echoes, but that did not help much. It was finally in 1969 that the problem was solved by fibreglass diffusers that look like aerial mushrooms, which were suspended from the concave ceiling, to deflect the sound from the dome and absorb it.

Eileen tells us that the venue not only hosts music concerts, but also ballet, tennis matches, award shows, corporate meetings, circuses and film premieres. It has even hosted the first Sumo wrestling match outside Japan, in 1991, when it had to install extra-large showers in the toilets! The hall can host sit-down dinners for up to 2,500 people, with all the food prepared on the premises in temporary kitchens on each floor. It has hosted famous performers, musicians and artistes, and every luminary you can imagine — from The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix to the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela.

Every possible kind of event has been held here — from the world‘s first indoor marathon of 524 laps run inside the auditorium in 1909, to the first bodybuilding competition judged by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with as many as 60 competitors. It’s even been the venue of the Ford Motor shows in 1937, when the hall was filled with trucks, cars and even ambulances! When an Olympic skating gold medalist brought his ballet troupe in 1984, the floor had to be frozen and later the ice was dumped in the Thames River!

Basement to the rescue

Since it is a heritage building, additional floors cannot be built. However, the problem of space was solved because of its four-and-half stories of basement space. “When they hosted Madame Butterfly in 1999, they flooded the floor with 16,000 gallons of water from underground tanks to create a Japanese water garden, describes Eileen.

“Long ago there was no space like this for performers and their props; when ‘Hiawatha’ was staged here in 1924, performers had to change inside tents pitched on nearby Hyde Park,” says Eileen with a smile. “During 1941, if the air raid siren went off during a performance, a red light would come on and the audience had to head to trenches in nearby Kensington Gardens or Hyde Park,” she explains. Since the Royal Albert Hall had such an eye-catching roof, enemy pilots used to look out for it to reorient them while bombing London.

“There are artistes and performers who have special needs,” says Eileen. The Cirque du Soliel bring their own furniture and props — 75 tonnes of equipment. Eric Clapton, who is very particular about his diet, built a kitchen here that is still in use. We have a look at the loading bay from where the heavy equipment and props are unloaded from vans and are transported by trolleys straight to the stage area. The loading bay is painted with murals and sometimes doubles up as a performance space.

The hall is a busy place and is fully booked until 2021; it hosts an average of 390 events throughout the year. What’s so special about the venue, one may ask? Maybe the Beatles said it best: “Standing up on those steps behind the Albert Hall in our new gear, the smart trousers, the rolled collar... up there with the Rolling Stones we were thinking, ‘This is it – London! The Albert Hall! We felt like gods!”