Theatre build

Tales from the Theatrical Woods: Chapter 12

From David Lloyd Jones,
Consultant Architect, Project Co-ordinator

A small film records this historic moment. Building work started on 20 June and in less than five months the opera house has a roof (and floors at all six levels).

By afternoon the persistent rain had eased. An assembly of hard-hatted builders, decorously attired GPO staff, and puffer-jacketed, tweeded and befirred great-and-good gradually foregathered on the tiers of the now roofed over auditorium. Bamber thanked the designers, administrators and builders for their unalloyed efforts and again welcomed the appearance of the fully formed opera house in his backyard; there were arias (Tannhauser from Stephen Gadd, Vissi d’arte and Casta Diva from Claire Rutter, and the Porgy & Bess duet). Joanna Lumley led three cheers for Christina and Bamber; Christina announced the imminent cutting and distribution of a magnificent cake prepared by Armenian Arsen depicting yet another representation of the building, but this time a deliciously sugary one; and Martin Smith explained the tradition of topping out – the purpose of the gathering.

It seems that the tradition goes back to the Pharos with evidence in 2700 BC of a live tree in a topping out ceremony for one of the earliest stone temples. In pre-Medieval Scandinavia, trees were placed on buildings to appease tree-dwelling spirits who had lost their homes in the site clearance; and in the US, coming out of the 1930’s recession, Native American iron workers on high rise office towers surmounted the buildings with greenery on the basis that no building should be taller than a tree.

“Wherever topping out is celebrated, and whatever its origins, all stories have a common thread that the evergreen tree or branch symbolises positive things: good luck for future occupants; a safe build project; continued growth; and the celebration of an important achievement in the building’s construction.”

With that, a small yew was hoisted to the roof to appease the spirits of the Home Pittles.

David Lloyd Jones

PS: If you haven’t yet been on a tour of West Horsley Place and seen the magnificent Theatre in the Woods being built, you can join us on Sunday 27th November – tickets are free but spaces are limited.