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The rehabilitation of an early 19th century theatre

Alissa Ugolini—homify UK Alissa Ugolini—homify UK
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In Bilbao, Spain, this stunning early 19th century theatre had fallen into disrepair. The Theatre Champs Elysees, locally known as The Chocolate Box, sat untouched through uncertain times. Luckily, architecture firm Santiago Fajardo, recognised the building's cry for help, and in 2003, in conjunction with a grant from the General Society of Authors and Editors (SGAE), an agreement was signed with the city of Bilbao to the restore and rehabilitate the theatre. The design of the building is in the French Basque style; characteristics of this are evidenced in the main façade. Richly decorated, this piece of architecture is very important to the area, as it is one of the first examples of modernist design in Basque Country. The history and lifespan of the theatre has been tumultuous; in 1978 a bomb was planted inside, and subsequent years have resulted in budget cuts, and the stop and start of restoration. Knowing this, it comes as no surprise that this building has now been heritage listed.

In an attempt to return the theatre to its former glory, the following points were considered the most important during the restoration period: the main façade, the entrance hall, and the proscenium (the arch over the stage opening). From here, additional revenue raising features were added, such as a cafe, restaurant, multi-purpose space, classrooms and exhibition centre. So, with this history lesson complete, let's take a look inside and see how this stunning building was given the opportunity at a second chance.  

Space defying

Respecting the Art Nouveau style, the total reform of the theatre has included many changes. Not only has the internal volume been increased, but the overall height and width of the building grew also. The renovation added 2,300 square feet to the theatre, and now integrates the residential building to its rear.   

Inspired by nature

The most important external factor is the main exterior façade, receiving the nickname the pillbox. It highlights a great horseshoe shaped arch, which hugs the public entrance doors. The building itself was designed by Alfredo Acebal, but the motif we see here is the work of Basque Frenchman, Jean Batiste Darroguy, with ceramics completed by Daniel Zuloaga. Intricately decorated with fantastic animal and plant motifs, small hints at mythological creatures have been added into the mix too. The concrete for the external envelope was imported from England, with this grand artistic realisation being independent of the entire building. 

A resounding applause

On March 11, 2010, the theatre was reopened, and today is considered one of the most important spaces in Bilbao, as well as one of the most technically advanced in the entirety of Spain. The design of the main room has not been limited; in fact, all types of events including theatrical performances, concerts and even dinners can be held here. If you've had the pleasure of visiting Paris, you will notice that the inside of this theatre bares a stunning resemblance to quite a lot of the architecture there. Given that it was a trend, and the favoured style of the late 1800s—early 1900s, this comes as no surprise.


The main hall takes on the shape of a horseshoe arch, which is a subtle nod of agreement to the grand ceramic façade. In keeping with the Art Nouveau style, the hall is heavily decorated and ornamented with beams, columns, cornices and undulating lips of steel. The structure is supported by six pillars that are topped with palm-shaped half arches, leading into the wall or into the roof, ending at the dome. 

Dine in style

The fifth floor houses a store front, whereby which we can see Bertendona Street and the surrounds of the area. The restaurant you see pictured, offers traditional and local cuisine, with a modern touch—paying homage to the modern, yet historically respected refurbishment of the building.

We hope you have enjoyed this look at a re-loved and re-purposed building. If this type of article was interesting to you, have a read of our restoration ideabook about a hotel in Edinburgh here.

Whitton Drive:  Terrace house by GK Architects Ltd

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