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The Young Vic

Location: The Cut, Waterloo, London

Artist: Clem Crosby


The Young Vic theatre reopened in October 2006 after three years of redevelopment and refurbishment. Working to an open-ended brief, fine artist Clem Crosby created a 180-panel installation of commissioned paintings to clad the outer wall of the Young Vic theatre’s main auditorium. 180 monochromes comprises 180 individual paintings in dark cadmium yellow on black hand-painted industrial cement board encased in silver aluminium mesh grid. The paintings, each 8 x 4 ft, were installed at random by the contractors. The commission and collaboration was an entirely new experience for Clem Crosby whose work had been up to that time gallery based. The artist also proposed interventions within wall surfaces of the theatre’s public spaces and lavatories.


The original Young Vic theatre was designed in the 1970s by architect Bill Howell as a temporary space intended to last for five years only and built for £60,000. Thirty years later the Young Vic’s new artistic director David Lan embarked on a refurbishment (funded mainly by the Arts Council Lottery, Jerwood Foundation, London Development Agency, London Borough of Lambeth and the Genesis Foundation) to reconfigure the existing auditorium and add a split level bar and restaurant, a new studio theatre and other performance and support spaces. The aim was to upgrade backstage facilities and the technical infrastructure as well as to improve public areas and facilities. Architects Haworth Tompkins, who had worked on a number of theatre redevelopments, including the Royal Court in London, were chosen from a design competition shortlist of four practices.

Commissioning objectives

The commissioning process began in 2001 when Steve Tompkins of Haworth Tompkins proposed the appointment of an artist to collaborate with the architects on the fabric of the new Young Vic Theatre. The brief was to transform what Tompkins describes as the potentially ‘dumb’ external volume of the auditorium into a vibrant and celebratory element which functions during the daytime and at night.

Tompkins saw this as an opportunity to create a sense of intrigue and transformation. David Lan and Steve Tompkins were both keen to maximise the potential of the street views and the changing light conditions, as well as to exploit the potential for theatricality. The artwork, a ‘studio painting’ envisaged on a grand scale, was intended to emphasise and place value on the auditorium: the most important area of the whole building artistically.

During the day the colour of the panels remains largely hidden behind the metal mesh and the installation comes alive at night when flood lighting illuminates and reveals the full colour and texture of the cadmium yellow panels.

From the very beginning of the scheme Steve Tompkins was concerned with expressing and making distinct the different elements and areas of the building and giving each area what he refers to as ‘a specific materiality’. For example: a weave of dark profiled interior brickwork, use of materials such as metal mesh and timber, and the incorporation of remaining fragments of the original building, such as the green and white tiling from the old butcher’s shop which now functions as the theatre foyer, all define the different areas. This approach was carried through to the brief for the artist; hence the importance of a unique, handmade response rather than purchasing off the peg cladding panels.

Artist selection

Haworth Tompkins had prior experience of working with artists, most recently Antoni Malinowski at the Royal Court Theatre, Dan Graham at the Hayward Gallery and Martin Creed at the London Library. Tompkins was committed to involving an artist at the earliest possible stage and as ‘intensely’ as possible. “Quite soon we realised we needed an artist’s voice working on the project because we wanted to escape normal architectural solutions. We did not want something that felt corporate or industrialised, because the theatre is a one-off; we wanted a handmade unique surface treatment”.

Art consultants Modus Operandi were appointed by the Young Vic to advise on the selection of an appropriate artist. Haworth Tompkins had met the consultants whilst working with Antoni Malinowski at the Royal Court, and they had previously advised Haworth Tompkins on the appointment of David Ward to work on the Regent’s Park Theatre. Vivien Lovell of Modus Operandi proposed five artists and after a studio visit, Clem Crosby was unanimously chosen for the project.

Artist’s involvement/commissioning process

Clem Crosby was appointed in 2003 with an open-ended flexible brief and the freedom to develop creative ideas in dialogue with the Young Vic’s Director and the architects. Ongoing dialogue between Steve Tompkins and Clem Crosby, especially in the early stages of the project, helped inform the colour and textures of the interior spaces.

At the outset Crosby stressed that he did not wish to create a mural or a work that operated as pure ‘ornament’; he wanted to make a work which would be integral, rather than ‘additional’, to the building. In creating the panels Crosby’s intention was to capture the excitement of ‘making the first mark’ when decorating and for this excitement and sense of immanence to be sustained throughout the work.

Mesh had already been considered as the outer layer of material for the auditorium and Crosby was asked to develop the idea of an installation that involved a complementary hand painted surface behind the mesh. His previous work had been with laminates and formica, so research was required to find a paint suitable for exterior use and one that could last for 20 or more years on the façade of the Young Vic.

The Midlands based company Kolorbond and chemist Charles Goodford recommended using a cellulose based paint which mirrored the organic qualities of oil paint. After experimenting with a range of colours and tones, Crosby chose dark cadmium yellow for its ‘fugitive’ qualities: at times appearing yellow, at others orange. Initial colour proposals proved too subtle for the space. Crosby wanted the effect to be ‘physical’ and visceral. Various weights of mesh were also tested, some of which were colour-treated.

A prototype panel was installed on the auditorium façade for two months during 2004 to test street conditions and the impact of day and night light.

Client's perspective

The commissioning process involved a certain degree of risk. David Lan emphasised that the Young Vic as the client did not know what it was going to get, and the importance as a commissioner of ‘keeping your nerve’. Unusually, the artist was not required to make formal proposals or presentations; instead David Lan and the architects visited the studio at various stages to view work in progress.

The actual making of the work took three months over the summer of 2006 during which Crosby worked exclusively on painting the panels in his studio. The panels were installed in July/August 2006 by the cladding contractors. At Crosby’s request the installation was made in entirely random order with no preconceived sequence in mind.

David Lan sums up the effect of the painting: “Theatres have lives during the day and the night - each of a different kind, the one preparing for or recovering from the other; one an anticipation, the other a transformation and a celebration. Clem's huge act of imagining expresses all the contradictions in our theatre’s lives and yet is a work of art in its own right. It's a sort of efflorescence of the whole building and yet an irreducible and material part of it. We're thrilled.”

Artist’s involvement in other areas of the building

As part of his original brief Crosby also advised on the colour of the interior walls of the building. Asked if he was interested in working on other parts of the building, Crosby proposed the lavatories which became an additional element to his brief.

Crosby painted each of the six lavatory blocks a different colour to which organic glass forms made from slumped glass were applied, the intention being to introduce an unexpected, playful and fun element. The panels were made by the London Glass Blowers in Bermondsey to Crosby’s design. The organic shapes are intended to contrast with the industrial materials used for the sanitary fittings and cubicles.


The Young Vic total project cost was £12.45 million and the construction costs were £6.9 million. The total public art spend was approximately £120,000 and came from percent for art funding agreed right at the beginning of the project. The level of Percent for Art funding was agreed between Haworth Tompkins, David Lan and Buro Four and without the involvement of the local authority.

Unusually for a capital project, the percent for art allocation not only remained intact throughout the whole redevelopment but, following the successful collaboration between architects and artist, was increased to fund Crosby’s role beyond the principal commission to cover the supplementary interior work (the treatment of the lavatories). This was paid for through the project contingency budget.

The retention of the percent for art allocation on this project is a major achievement: it is not uncommon for percent for art budgets to be the first element to be cut, if and when overspending occurs. The Young Vic development as a whole came in on time and to budget.

The artist was paid a fee to be part of the design team and a fee for the commission. All other elements, such as the cost of the paint and other materials and the installation costs, were paid from the capital costs of the build. Arts consultancy fees also came from the percent for art allocation. The treatment of the lavatories was subject to another contract for Crosby.

Key issues

  • Impact on artist’s practice. The Young Vic project, the artist’s first public art commission, has had an impact on Crosby’s studio practice: previous work had been in black and white, colour has now become a feature of his work. The experience has been a positive one for all parties and there is a desire for the artist and architect to collaborate on future initiatives.
  • Artist’s contract and project management. Initially the writing of the artist’s contract was not part of Modus Operandi’s brief, however when the contract written by the client and modelled on that of subcontractors proved to be inappropriate to the artist’s commission, Modus Operandi were asked to advise on rewriting the contract. Due to pressure on budgets Modus Operandi’s role ended with the artist’s contract and project management of the artist’s commission became the responsibility of project managers Buro Four; however Modus Operandi continued to advise the artist informally throughout the commission.
  • Open ended flexible commissioning brief. This allowed creative dialogue to flourish and the opportunity for new ideas to develop during the redevelopment programme.


[email protected]

[email protected]

[email protected]

[email protected]

© Frances Lord, 2006