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June 8, 2009

ROCKING THE PALACE:Facing the challenges of using an historic venue

A recent event held at Hampton Court Palace in Surrey, southern England, provides a wonderful insight into the benefits and difficulties that come with the growing trend of using unusual venues. Ian Whiteling reports on the regal celebration…

A concert at the historic Hampton Court Palace near London to mark the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession to the English throne this May, presented production company Riverside Productions with some intriguing challenges that any business looking to hold a major event at an unusual venue could encounter.

One of the biggest obstacles to overcome was the installation of a large auditorium in a highly confined, historically significant space. 

The concert was initially proposed by Hampton Court Palace. The idea was to get legendary keyboard player Rick Wakeman to perform his 1970’s prog rock odyssey The Six Wives of Henry VIII, which has sold an incredible 15 million copies worldwide.

Wakeman himself had proposed a similar concert soon after his original success, but the event never got beyond the concept stage. So he was, understandably, delighted to make his original dream a reality, and gratefully accepted Hampton Court’s invitation. He was so keen, in fact, that he decided to promote the event himself.

Breathtaking backdrop
Keith Morris of Riverside Productions was brought in to design and produce the event.

“We decided to stage the concert in front of Henry’s Gate, the iconic entrance to the palace,” says Morris. “We came up with the idea of siting the auditorium on the front lawn, using a stage canopy with a clear back, so that Hampton Court Palace formed an impressive backdrop.”

Unusual venues are becoming increasingly popular to increase the impact of events and increase audience engagement, whether a rock gig or a conference for a major corporate. But each venue has its own set of complications that need to be handled carefully and sympathetically, and Morris knew he would have to overcome a number of hurdles at Hampton Court Palace.

Historic event: The concert's breathtaking backdrop

Heritage site
Riverside’s concept required the construction of a temporary outdoor venue sited on a narrow rectangle of undulating land in front of the palace’s main facade. The area was bounded by the Hampton Court Palace estate wall at the rear, the main access road to the palace on the left-hand boundary and the tree-lined River Thames towpath to the right.

“It was a difficult site with unusual ground conditions and features,” explains Morris. “One particular complication was the presence on site of several antique, protected bollards. In addition, we had to get permission from English Heritage to temporarily remove an historic lamppost.”

He invited seating and structure specialists Arena Seating to suggest ways of positioning a demountable auditorium in the tight space. The arena design had to take into account a number of fundamental requirements.

First, the road had to remain clear at all times to ensure safe, effective egress and emergency access. Likewise, a three-metre gap was needed between the front of stage and the first row of seats. A third consideration was the height of the tree line at the rear of the auditorium, which meant that the tiered seating needed to be high enough to achieve optimum capacity and visibility, but low enough to fit under the trees.

The design process
“There were a number of different ways of approaching the challenge and Arena Seating initially offered several different solutions,” Morris explains.

One possibility was to use flat seating throughout, which required an understructure to create a level area and avoid the bollards. Other possibilities included different configurations of tiered seating.

“Using its own design process, Arena narrowed the options down and presented me with the best and most economical one,” Morris continues. “This comprised a mixture of flat seating supported by a scaffolding and decking substructure, combined with a tiered grandstand at the rear.”

Commenting on the work that went into establishing the best seating option, Martin Clark, commercial director of Arena Seating’s Special Structures, says: “We carried out three site surveys, including a laser survey, to establish the best position for the stage and the seating.

“It was important that the tiered seats did not disappear into the tree canopy. We also had to find a way to level the undulating ground in a way that protected and cleared the historical bollards.”

Safety conscious
Arena Seating’s Special Structures division designed and installed a complex supporting structure, requiring precise engineering calculations to support the 3,500 flat seats, while a 1,250-tiered seating grandstand behind gave the audience an excellent view of the concert.

Health and safety was also a major concern, as Clark explains.

“Although the stage and seating completely filled the available space, we were able to ensure that stringent safety measures were built into the demountable auditorium,” he says. “Through experience and state-of-the-art design, we arrived at a solution that took into account all the unique elements of the site, while achieving the capacity that the promoter required.

“The whole left-hand side of the tiered seating had an attractive canopy of trees, and we were able to fit the upper rows comfortably beneath the lower branches with just a small amount of light pruning.

“Throughout the design-and-build process, we were highly conscious that this was an historically sensitive site,” Clark continues. “We drew on our wide understanding of heritage sites to take the greatest care of the grounds and the buildings around us.”

Spectacular results
Morris, who clearly understood the difficultly of the task facing Arena, was delighted with the company’s approach and the results. “The system worked very well indeed,” he says.

Of course, the concertgoers had little notion of the hard work that went into organising the concert. But they were in no doubt of what a fantastic event they had experienced to celebrate a truly historic occasion, made all the more spectacular for being held in the grounds of one of the UK’s most historic estates.

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