A theatre is never forever. A theatrical building expresses the needs of a particular practice, of a thought that is born and formalized in a specific historical period. Around the mid-eighteenth century, dozens of active theatres in Venice were open throughout the day. They would host a very diverse crowds, people from different backgrounds, who gathered to talk business and culture, to eat and play, to weave social and romantic relationships. Then, during designated hours, (not just in the evening), the curtain would open and visitors would become the audience of a theatrical performance. The same applied more or less to the English Clubs in which the Elizabethan theatre was born and established. Very different buildings in which similar forms of life took place and which produced equally different forms of theatre and mode of participation.
The life of a theatre is a life that is fragile in its own way, it crystallizes only when a given form or language is established over time. This is the case of the nineteenth century opera houses conceived on the scheme of the Baroque tradition. These were revisited in the light of a greater rationalization of the distribution elements and, above all, of technical equipment. Piermarini’s project for the Teatro alla Scala in Milan is undoubtedly the paradigm of a hall, the one for opera theatre, in which the largest possible capacity, with an economic advantage, was guaranteed by orders of boxes one above the other and a gallery.
In Italy, there is a tragic current situation, that counts many historic theatres that have been poorly restored – particularly between the 1960s and 1980s – due to incompetent technicians, political interference or deafness. The marginalization of artists or their disorientation and other variable factors have led to real disasters; in the best cases they’ve led to philologically correct interventions, more often to hybrids that do not favour any particular form of live entertainment. For those who work in theatre, the impossibility of a normal loading and unloading of the elements of scenography, unsuitable or scarcely usable fly systems, stages with no orchestra pit, poor or limiting reception of the public, insufficient acoustics and visibility, poorly placed control rooms, are certainly not insignificant details. Such examples are endless, especially in Italy. Buildings such as the new headquarters of the Piccolo Teatro in Milan, the Carlo Felice Theatre in Genoa, the new Auditorium in Rome, the Teatro delle Muse in Ancona, the new theatre in Bolzano, the Teatro degli Arcimboldi in Milan, the Teatro Lirico in Cagliari, etc., present almost the whole range of problems reported so far with the addition of other issues such as the use of “heavy” and in some cases dominant technologies, illogical and excessively long distributive elements, the absence of service passages between room and stage, variations that lead to new, illogical forms.
Can all these responsibilities be attributed to a single professional?
Among the dominant characters of the cultural panorama, the icon of the Starchitect appears strongly. In recent decades, the architect has become the Intellectual, the interpreter of reality, a sort of deus-ex-machina to whom one can entrust. He embodies both the responsibility for his traditional tasks but also the responsibility of sealing, with a single amazing building of undoubtable quality, daring cultural and urban marketing operations. This is the case, just to mention the best-known examples, of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the new Auditorium in Rome and the MART in Rovereto. Today, in Europe and America, the signature of a famous architect can be enough to change the urban economy of a city. This is well known by the administrators of small, medium and large centres who want to increase the number of visitors by using the image effect given by the new monument, museum, theatre, or cultural centre. A city-collection of designer objects is preferred to the difficult practice of urban planning and design. In addition to this, there is the frequent reduction of a complex discipline, such as architecture to its sole linguistic dimension. Just as the architectural form must not derive from function alone, at the same time the aspects linked to the functioning, and therefore to the physiology and vitality of the building, cannot be dismissed as secondary aspects.
The seminar in Reggio Emilia was only a first step, aiming to bring together experiences that have hitherto been distinct, and to investigate the reasons for this disjunction. The problem of the relationship between architecture and theatre must be tackled urgently if we do not want to continue to cause more damage. We must also be politically aware that theatre projects are significant interventions both in terms of investment of public money, and at symbolic level, for local and national identity. The ethical implications of the issue seem obvious.