The first post-war theatre listed in Wales and a fine example of Brutalist architecture.
- St David's Hill, Harlech, Gwynedd, LL46 2PU, Wales
- Risk Rating
- 7 (Community Rating: 3, Star Value: 2, Risk Factor: 2)
- Local Authority
- Gwynedd Council
- Coleg Harlech Limited
- Colwyn Foulkes and Partners
- Date of Construction
- Grade II*
- Database Link
- View in Theatres Database
Designed by Colwyn Foulkes and Partners in 1973 as an arts venue for the adult education centre Coleg Harlech, Theatr Ardudwy is an exceptional example of classic Brutalist architecture and a rare example of this style of building outside an urban environment.
Opening in 1927, Coleg Harlech was Wales’ only long-term residential education college for mature students. It was established by Thomas Jones, Cabinet Secretary to both David Lloyd George and Stanley Baldwin, to continue the work of the Workers' Educational Association in a residential environment. The college complex originally comprised Plas Wernfawr, a 1908 house built in the Arts and Crafts Georgian style together with a Great Hall wing built in 1910. The campus expanded to include a library added around 1939 and, more latterly, a gymnasium and an amenity centre. The theatre was built to replace the Great Hall which was destroyed by fire in 1968.
While Plas Wernfawr, the library, the forecourt and garden structures were listed it wasn’t until 2016 that the theatre itself was included in the listing, recognised by Cadw as ‘a striking and unusual example of architectural Brutalism, using form and structure to give clear expression of purpose.’
Theatr Ardudwy is a dramatic addition to the rural landscape, contrasting with the neighbouring Coleg buildings. The part circular, part hexagonal 256-seat auditorium is wrapped in ribbed concrete with an upper set-back storey of copper sheet cladding and forms a striking composition from the road. Meeting rooms are situated on two lower tiers, externally comprising aluminium framed windows and rough concrete panels, their form echoing the curved geometry of the auditorium above. Internally, the original high-quality finishes including slatted wooden walls, terrazzo flooring and a radial timber slatted ceiling in the foyer remain in situ and are in good condition.
The theatre is a remarkable and striking building and is the only arts provision in the local area.
Why is this theatre at risk?
Theatr Ardudwy has been on the Theatres at Risk Register since 2019.
The future of the theatre and the Coleg Harlech site had been perilous for several years prior to the theatre’s inclusion on the Theatres at Risk list. Addysg Oedolion Cymru, the previous owner, had been in conversation with Welsh Government about an urgent repair and planned maintenance programme for both the college and the theatre building. A feasibility study commissioned for the college site in 2016 recommended that a hotel or restaurant with serviced accommodation would be the most viable use for the site, and this would be run by a commercial operator. Concerns were raised that the physical condition of the theatre building may deter commercial operators and, through this, concern over the long-term viability of the theatre. At that time, it was suggested that the theatre be demolished. This led to the confirmation that the theatre was indeed included in the Coleg’s statutory listing, offering some protection for its future.
In February 2018, safety concerns finally forced the theatre to close. There had been little investment in the external fabric of the building for many years. The roof was in need of repair and there were concerns over the deteriorating condition of the exterior of the building, including some of the concrete elements where the steel reinforcement had rusted. There were also reports of lead and copper theft from both the theatre workshop and main college roofs during this time.
Cadw in partnership with Snowdonia National Park Authority and working with the owner, undertook a Planning Guidance Note to provide a planning framework to inform any future development in November 2018, This records the theatre as a significant heritage asset on the site, further helping to protect the building’s future.
The college site has since been plagued by ownership issues. It was bought by local businessman Leslie Banks in April 2019 but put back on the market in the October of the same year. An auction in autumn 2020 then saw the site split into separate lots, the historical parts of the site – including the theatre – being kept as one lot. This was felt to be to the detriment of the historic buildings which, if the site had been kept in one ownership, may have been able to benefit from enabling development elsewhere on the site to help fund necessary repair works.
In June 2021, the theatre and associated listed buildings on the site were sold to a private owner who has indicated an ambition to reopen both theatre and college buildings for the local community. There are still challenges to be overcome regarding the condition of the building and substantial funding required for necessary repair work however it is hoped that the new ownership is the start of a positive new future for Theatr Ardudwy.
The local community currently has no access to the arts without significant travel.
Arts Council of Wales has awarded the theatre various grants over the years and believes that the theatre and wider college site has the potential as a community and cultural sector asset.
Theatres Trust was contacted by the now-owner in 2020 to discuss the condition of the theatre, opportunities for the building and his ambition for community-focused reuse of the Coleg and theatre buildings. Theatres Trust has been providing advice and support where required including funding advice and support with lease and insurance queries.
The theatre and listed parts of the site including Plas Wernfawr and the library were acquired by the owner in June 2021. The ambition for the buildings remains community-focused with an intention to reopen the buildings as soon as is practicably possible and full restoration a longer-term ambition.
In July 2021, a meeting was convened between the owner, Gwynedd Council, Cadw, Arts Council Wales, Snowdonia National Park Authority and Theatres Trust to discuss the owner’s ambitions for the college and theatre. The meeting was positive with all parties supportive of the suggested approach for progressive restoration.
The owner has since met with consulting engineers and building control on site to discuss the condition of the buildings and remains in contact with the local authority and Cadw about their planned approach to see the theatre and college reopened.
Work to clean up the site has since commenced alongside initial enabling works, including commissioning a new survey of the concrete panels, the condition of which had been one of the reasons that the theatre was forced to close. The current hopes are for a phased restoration of the site, commencing with the theatre and followed by the restoration and reopening of the remainder of the site. The owner has suggested that the theatre will be run as a professional house, hosting a variety of cultural events to serve the local community, tourism in the area and provide a wider reach to North Wales.
In February 2022, it was made public that funding had been secured from Cadw for a programme of immediate emergency works to secure and stabilise the condition of Plas Wernfawr. The repair of the roof to the college has now been completed and the project is looking to its next phase which is to repair the roof on the theatre.
Theatres Trust looks forward to seeing the plans for both the Coleg and the theatre as they develop and to working with the owner to achieve their ambition.
Main photo Theatre Ardudwy, Brinkstock / Alamy Stock Photo. Interior, Theatres Trust, Rob Firman