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Paisley Town Hall: The Main Event

19 Oct 2023

Paisley’s shift from industrial centre to a cultural powerhouse has taken another key step with the transformation of its town hall into a multifaceted events space. Here, we assess its performance. Photography by Chris Humphreys.

Paisley’s shift from industrial centre to a cultural powerhouse has taken another key step with the transformation of its town hall into a multifaceted events space. Here, we assess its performance. Photography by Chris Humphreys.

Paisley’s Victorian Town Hall has long been the main event for the town in urban terms, playing the supporting act to the Abbey in a towering duet that makes a forceful architectural statement. Despite this, however, the Buddies have never taken the building completely to heart owing to accessibility restrictions and the inescapable air of benign neglect.

No more. Under the aegis of Renfrewshire Council, £22m has been pumped into the Neoclassical pile, transforming dusty corridors, storage spaces and empty halls into a ‘plug and play’ entertainment venue, the latest salvo in a concerted effort to establish Paisley as the Brooklyn of Glasgow. Hosting events and performances as well as weddings and conferences the multifunctional venue will serve as a stately counterpoint to the Hydro, providing a more intimate venue in which performers can get closer to their audiences. The full redesign and refurbishment has been delivered at the hands of Holmes Miller and has seen the building mark 140 years at the centre of the town in better than new condition, retaining its ornate Victorian character while updating services and facilities with a bar and terrace overlooking the Abbey.

The extensive work includes the addition of sound and lighting gear, retractable seating and a lowerable main stage. James Doherty, public affairs manager at OneRen, the charitable trust operating culture, learning and sporting facilities for the authority, showed off the cinema room to Urban Realm, effectively a building within a building at the very heart of the venue: “If St Mirren were in the cup final you could have a live screening in here! These chairs can be taken up and you could have a board meeting or a corporate event. One of the great things about the building is that it is essentially six venues in one. Next door to the screening room we’ve got the main hall but with a gig going on this room is completely soundproof. You cannot hear anything that is going on outside and vice versa.” Explaining the technical aspects of accomplishing this feat Steven Coulson, an associate at Holmes Miller, explained: “We sank separate piles and built a small building off of that so this does not connect in any way.” Upon entering the new reception the first thing that hits you is the richness of the interior decoration with marble and brass in abundance throughout, a conscious effort to provide visitors with an experience to remember.

As Doherty proudly exclaimed: “We are going to have a big Brasso bill at OneRen. This place is filled with brass and marble.The word I would use is opulent and why not for Paisley? Why not have a high-spec, rich, vibrant and colourful building?” Coulson adds: It’s grade one listed so all the old ironmongery was brass, part of the listing was that we kept the heritage aesthetic but also brass kills COVID! Silver and brass both kill bacteria.”

At the heart of the venue is a voluminous performance space that extends a giddying 30m plus into the air, suitable for striking awe into people sitting below but less attuned to the needs of modern concerts. “It was a big echoing cathedral which was terrible for live music”, said Coulson. There was a four-second echo, sound was bouncing around but the reverb is now down to 1.5 seconds. We spent a lot of time hiding absorbent surfaces and acoustic panels in a really hard room. Around every floral ceiling rose you will see a white rectangle, that’s grade A absorbent material as are the grey coved panels around the edge and the red semi-circular portions above the windows. These are all acoustic absorbers to bring reverberation down during live performances.” More than just an attractive space the new town hall is a practical space, fully geared to meeting the demands of promoters and artists in the competitive touring environment. Artists can simply plug in their guitars and take advantage of all the lights, audio and visual systems at the flick of a button. “Accessibility is a massive win,” says Coulson. “The building was just 20% wheelchair accessible when we started, it was an Escheresque maze of spaces. It is now 80% accessible. We’ve installed two huge 21-person passenger lifts and replaced steps with ramps. For the first time, you can get wheelchairs on the first-floor balcony seating area which has some of the best views in the house. You can also get to the loggia, a beautiful room to get married in.”

Illustrating the lengths to which the team was willing to go the latter achievement is the result of threading a new corridor through what was the original back wall of the main hall. This one intervention saw the balcony taken down and shifted to create ramped access to the outdoor gallery. As a result, one of the most impressive spaces in the building can now be reached by wheelchair users. Showing off another of the new rooms opened up to the public for the first time, like a doting mother, Doherty enthused about the dedicated bar, located in a previously walled-off antechamber. “On a sunny Paisley afternoon, and there are lots of them, trust me, this would be a great place to have a drink and it is a destination in itself. However, we’ve decided that the bar will only open when there is an event. We won’t compete with other businesses. We want to bring footfall in as a bonus.”

Winding the clock back on this hidden piece of history Coulson revealed some of the insights his research had brought: “This room wasn’t connected to the main corridor, you could only access it through the basement at the back. The reason is that it was a smoking room, during the prohibition era and then for five decades it was used as a store room. Now two new doors open it to all. That’s why we have these grilles, they’re smoke extracts.” Pointing to the distinctive teak parquet flooring beneath our feet Coulson continued: “This is the original flooring and is what influenced the choice of timber covering. We wanted a dark material to match what was already there.” This rich material extends to wall panelling in two distinct flavours – with modern vertical slats to distinguish from the horizontal originals. New and heritage seating has been added to the main hall to ensure a net gain in capacity to 1,200 despite the interventions, a feat of exhaustive modelling to find the optimal arrangement for comfort and views.

“We did a full 3D analysis of every seat in the hall,” Coulson recalls. “We built a BIM model, ran scripts and tested. We proved the heritage seating - these are comfy now because we’ve reupholstered the original timber benches - could see only half or three-quarters of the stage. But that’s not enough if you want people to come back. So all the seats are raked and reordered to make sure you can see 100% of the stage. You are guaranteed a good seat. That’s why we have some quirky things like rotated seats -it’s the only way you could get a guaranteed view of the stage from the corners.” Reclining back in his seat Coulson explained that this was a tall order. “I’m quite tall so I made sure the legroom was enough for me, it’s a tiny bit more than what building services asked for.”

Impressive as the visible changes are it is what has gone on behind the scenes which impresses the most, with painstaking efforts taken to hide mechanical and electrical systems from view by integrating concessions to modernity within everything from ceiling roses to in-floor ventilation and breakfast bar plinths. This attention to detail shows that the delayed opening will be well worth the wait.

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