Architecture and Theatre

Architecture & Theatre, a three-year seminar held in Reggio Emilia in 2004, 05, 06, and subsequently presented in a book, in which the elements of architectural design, engineering and technical knowledge, languages of live entertainment, attention to the role of audience and the questioning of methods that generally characterize the construction of new theatrical buildings are juxtaposed. A reflection on the theatre and about the theatre.

What follows is the introduction of the book published in 2007 by Il Saggiatore.

1. Why this book

The new theatre proved itself
a disgusting monster made of concrete
and of solid disregard for theatrical art.
Ingmar Bergman, Lanterna Magica

This volume was born as a moment of further reflection and documentation of the three editions of the international seminar on Architecture and Theatre, held in Reggio Emilia in 2004, 2005 and 2006, which started as an international seminar on the relationship between design disciplines and performing arts. The seminar began on a constructive intent – to invite the diverse key players of new theatrical design and building construction to a common ground of discussion.

Our era is characterized by the construction of new buildings for music, theatre and dance performances. Often these buildings are conceived full of complex symbolic values and expectations because they represent the way in which a community defines its own values by projecting itself into the future. At the same time, they suffer from a divide between the world of architecture and that of the performing arts, two worlds that have never been so distant, even sometimes antagonistic, as in recent decades.
The design of a building for the performing arts represents a time and a place of experience in which different expressive languages, different dramaturgies – spatial, narrative, communication -, different instruments and technical needs are united and compared with the aesthetic and expressive research of a specific community.
The uniqueness of this process does not reconcile with the specialized separation of professional competences. The peculiarity and complexity of the architectural project for theatres does not tolerate fractures and imbalances; it cannot tolerate a division between form, function and technology. The result is an objective difficulty, if not a real divide, in the relationship between the main players. If we consider recent buildings and halls, we almost always face a general loss of the optimal ratio between the volumes of the hall and those of the stage. From this difficulty come a multitude of further problems. To exemplify: voices and instruments that are scarcely audible or, on the contrary, too loud and stages that are difficult to use due to structural limitations, reduced flexibility in the use of the scene, halls that cannot be darkened and so on.
The reflection of this scarce permeability between the world of architecture and that of the performing arts is often palpable in the dissatisfaction of those who design, those who work in the theatre, and the audience: in this context, dissatisfaction easily generates frustration and the mortification of artistic and creative skills.
The seminar Architecture and Theatre has deliberately combined very different experiences and knowledge, to try to reach a completeness of the discussion or at least to make its complexity more tangible. The ultimate purpose is to account for a place – the theatre – that is necessarily in continuous transformation. A transformation that concerns both the performance languages and the expectations of the audience: the design of a theatrical building needs, today more than ever, the collaboration of the different players who are able to make it live.

Seminar Architecture and Theater 2004, inside the Cavallerizza Theater
Seminar Architecture and Theater 2004, Peter Stein and Mario Botta
Seminar Architecture and Theater 2004, Francesco Giambrone, Romeo Castellucci

2. Safeguard the imaginary

If imagination is not kept alive
there can be no basis for
ethical judgment or political necessity.
James Hillman, Politics of beauty

Over the centuries, the theatrical building has undergone continuous transformations. Transformations of all kinds, intensified enormously in the last three centuries, especially throughout the twentieth century. These transformations are the reflection of the social mutations and of the creativity of artists as evidenced by the variety of genres, the plurality of languages and the forms of the scene in continuous evolution.
For centuries, the transformation of the theatrical spaces and the adaptation of the internal and external architectural structures of theatres were guaranteed by a strong exchange of thoughts between artists and architects. By idealizing, it is as if the architect has always shown himself ready and capable of restoring form and dignity to the “temporary” art of the stage.

From the mid-seventeenth century up to the entire following century, the spread of the Italian theatre throughout Europe is often the work of major architects of that time such as Fontana, Juvarra or Vanvitelli. The highest point though, was probably experienced in the eighteenth century with the architect-scenographer, a unique figure that combined the competences for the realisation of a theatrical building and of the scenography. Gaspare Vigarani, Jacopo Torelli, the Bibiena and Mauro families develop and pass on a knowledge that blends constructive knowledge, aesthetic considerations and principles related to mathematics, geometry and physics. This form of “experimental” wisdom resists until the end of the nineteenth century, adapting to and generating at the same time new theatrical genres. It is only recently, with the diaspora of specialized knowledge, that the theatrical “body” has fallen ill.

This loss of correspondence between different knowledge seems to proceed in a completely parallel way to a more general devaluation of the force of imagination in Western societies: the era in which the “literal” form of interpretation and transmission of reality prevails, seems to abandon that generating force of imagination to which our culture has attributed, from its origins, an active role.
The Greek theatre sets tragic events in places that are not visible, outside the scene, thus driving the imaginative potential of the citizen-spectator to its highest. The blinding of Oedipus, the suicide of Antigone, the killing of the children by Medea, it all occurs offstage. What the viewer “sees” is the consequence of the tragic gesture and intervention, with all its emotional aftermath. In between there is the emotion aroused by having left the viewer, the community, alone with its own imaginative resonance, with its astonishment and with its own psychic, political and ethical imagination. Without imagination there is no beauty, no astonishment : imagination is the psychic force that makes visible what does not yet exist.

Returning to our subject, once the actors and skills have been split, the terms of the issue do not change: Architecture and Theatre continue to have implicit common purposes, both inventing their own audience, “establishing” it as a subject not yet given.

Both the architect and the director, composer, playwright and choreographer direct the thought, create new forms of life that are not given. They both plan and anticipate something that does not yet exist: theatre and architecture create the new in the form of words, spaces, sounds, gestures, thoughts. Therefore, there is an indissoluble link between architecture and theatre, with an ontological vision that must be safeguarded and enhanced in all its potential.

Peter Brook, Mahabarata, Mercat de les Flors, Barcelona, 1985
Maurizio Balò, Electra, Caio Melisso Theater, Spoleto 2003
Graham Vick, Fidelio, Birmingham 2002

3. The theatrical forms and the role of the architect

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.

Walter Gropius, Totaltheater, floor plan with stage in proscenium position, in arena position, in deep position
Foreign Office Architects (Foa), Music Box, London, 2003
Francisco Rodriguez de Partearroyo, Teatro Real, Madrid, view of the stage

4. Transmission of knowledge

The terrain on which the discussion around Architecture and Theatre rests is therefore a terrain of ruptures and fragmentation. Compared to the architectural aspect, the transmission of knowledge, which guarantees some continuity of work in the various fields of theatrical and musical expression, shows a substantial crisis. A crisis that inevitably leads to a loss of technical awareness, even on the part of those who are called to manage the organization of a stage on a daily basis.

In this respect it is worth remembering that in order to give the green light to the technical apparatus of the Vienna Opera (1869), the stage was subjected to a test deemed the most demonstrative: to carry out, within acceptable times, the changes of scene planned by Wagner for Das Rheingold. Only after this step, the stage and the technology were completed: that technical setting has remained essentially the same for over a century.
Getting closer to our days, it is clear that in the case of a well-built theatre, the question of what type of representation and how it would occur was asked. The absence of these questions, lost in the weakness of the relationship between clients, architects and artists, leads to a chain of consequent problems and an inevitable break in the transmission of knowledge. An already highly fragile knowledge as it deals with artisan know-how, on which there is very little literature: technical, productive, planning knowledge intertwined with economic-managerial logic. Too many theatres and concert halls of recent construction, with their heavy and inadequate technology, with a scarce flexibility of use, exclude from the horizon of their realisation possibilities a large part of the present and future music productions, but also some of the recent past. On the contrary, a modern, necessarily variable space would open the way to new planning, dramaturgical and    production possibilities.
To achieve this, there should be a different awareness in the design of the technical characteristics of a theatre. Theatrical technology is never neutral, on the contrary, it is a variable function. And it changes mainly for dramaturgical reasons, as it happened for the architectural forms of theatres in the past.
The design of a new theatre or concert hall must take on the burden of examining all the problems related to technological solutions. The theme of mechanization is never uncritical, it must contain the awareness of a technical knowledge originally based on manual skills. A centuries-old artisan transmission that is harmful to forget, with the risk of finding yourself with a headless technology, oblivious of its most elementary practices, difficult and heavy to manage.
We are running the risk of unknowingly achieving the greatest of paradoxes, in which so many modern stages already live: an indiscriminate increase in technologies corresponds to an increase and not a decrease in the complexity of doing, with a negative impact on productivity and management aspects. Starting with the quality of projects and work.

Seminar Architecture and Theater 2005: Antonio Calbi, Silvia Milesi, Vittorio Gregotti, Daniele Abbado, Marco De Michelis, Yvonne Farrell, Shelly Mc Namara - Grafton Architects, Isabel Da Silva, Antonio Latella
Seminar Architecture and Theater 2004, Luciano Damiani
Seminar Architecture and Theater 2004, Santiago Calatrava

5. From the seminar to the book – the theatre as a secular temple

The way we imagine our cities,
the way we design their purposes,
their values, and the way we increase their beauty,
defines the self of each person of that city,
because the city is the tangible exhibition of the community soul.
James Hillman, Politics of beauty

A theatre is often referred to as a secular temple of a community culture. A temple is normally selectively organised, simplifying as much as possible the functions – related to the needs of spirituality – that an architecture must enhance: strictly those and not others.
In the past, architects were asked to best exercise their compositional, artistic and aesthetic skills in the design of public, civic or religious buildings, or in private residences. This is the case of the Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore in Venice, the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza and the Villa Rotonda – all designed by the same architect, Palladio, but still were very different in their structure because they responded to distinct functions and purposes.

Having lost that clear distinction between religious and civic space, having removed from religious architecture that sort of formal primacy it had, today we are proceeding towards a sort of homologation of the value and aesthetics of all buildings with a public and collective function, such as airports or shopping malls, stadiums or theatres, churches or museums.
Paradoxically today, in the world of specialization, the produced containers are less specific, less distinct on a typological and formal level. Faced with the critical lack of communication between the worlds of architecture and the performing arts, the Reggio Emilia seminar was an occasion to exchange the value of different experiences. An exchange of different testimonies within a single context that led to a debate, at times heated, in which an academic discussion on the issues in the field was developed.

Seminar Architecture and Theater 2005: Antonio Calbi, Silvia Milesi, Vittorio Gregotti, Daniele Abbado, Marco De Michelis, Yvonne Farrell, Shelly Mc Namara - Grafton Architects, Isabel Da Silva, Antonio Latella
Teatro di Documenti Rome created by Luciano Damiani
Renzo Piano, Prometheus by Luigi Nono, Church of San Lorenzo, Venice 1984

6. The difficult task of the architect. The problem of the customer

The dimensions of the proscenium, the stage, the parterre, and the arrangement of the audience, require decisions that will affect the quality of both the work and communication that will take place inside the theatre building. These are parameters that play a decisive role based on minimum dimensions and measurements, often on details. An equally fundamental role is that of the materials of the structures and for upholstering. The combination of these factors determines how the audience will be able to adequately hear the sound of a piano, the voice of an actor, or a string quartet.

Maurizio Pollini, in his video interview for the seminar, points out that “If architects were aware of how much the sound of a piano can improve by moving the instrument even five centimetres, or even just two centimetres, they would be much more responsible – and gratified – in seeing how much joy or delusion their work can cause”.
It is evident that a lot of knowledge converges in the figure of the architect and that they must responsibly coordinate them. However, other figures who should share these responsibilities should not be overlooked. In fact, there is almost always a lack of clarity of roles and tasks at the origin of the project. Whether a theatrical building is commissioned by competition or by direct assignment, the customer is often absent; functional and technical specifications are often insufficient and not able to meet a given reality. The theme is elusive and little investigated. Elusive, because in Italy the commission almost always comes from a public institution, whose role is dictated by the times and terms of bureaucracy. The examples are endless and unfortunately destined to increase. Finally, it should be said that in cases in which the customer – public or private – is an active part of the project, there are satisfactory results in operation and compliance of the building with its need and purpose.
The figure of the customer, or client, has always played a decisive role in architecture: the success or failure of a project often depends on the dialogue that the client and the designer are able to have, a dialogue that must be start with the design idea and end at the conclusion of the construction works.
On the other hand, in the commissioning of a building it is impossible not to consider as equally important artistic figures whom the project is designed for: the customers of the designing of a building for the performing arts are, and must be, the performing arts and artists themselves. Further problems arise for the design of the architect, who often finds himself facing a heterogeneous and critical panorama: for at least a century and certainly from the birth of the figure of the director, the strictly scenic arts have brought along their own self-criticism. They have somehow internalized their own criticality.
Starting from these references, it is evident that the picture presented to the architect-designer is full of heterogeneous, problematic and critical factors. Today, the elaboration of the project does not tolerate forms of neutrality, passivity, superficiality: it must inevitably be an assumption of responsibility and a strong interpretative action.

Lluis Dilmè, Xavier Fabrè and Ignasi de Solà-Morales, Gran Teatre de Liceu, Barcelona, 1995-1999, top view
Seminar Architecture and Theater 2004, Marco De Michelis
Frank O. Gehry, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles 1987 - 2003

7. Conclusions

The contemporary performing arts find themselves in a situation of constant instability of their statute, constantly in search of new solutions in their relationship with the present and history. On the other hand, there are moments of strong self-critical emergency in the field of architecture as well. As in the case of Renzo Piano when, with subtle irony, he affirmed that “at least in the terms in which it has been conceived so far, the profession of the architect is on the verge of extinction. Today it is no longer enough to update the catalogue of expressive means or to renew the stylistic code: it is the architect who needs to be re-designed”.

It is typical of art to shy away from overly binding hypotheses about one’s future. This has led in recent decades to requests for ever greater flexibility, modularity of the stage space and to a request for non-invasiveness, for lightness of the architectural element. The contemporary theatrical and musical dramaturgy manifests more often, outset the compositional moment, its own congenital aspiration to ‘gain space’ There is a dramaturgy of space that is no longer limited to what happens behind the fourth wall.
In sight of this situation, the request to be made to the architect is to design buildings that enable and help the work of composers, playwrights and directors. In other words, we need a conscious architecture capable of envisioning a place where the questions of dramaturgy, music and direction will find an answer. Ultimately, it is necessary for the architect to approach issues relating to contemporary performing arts, not only in the design phase but well before that. In other words, it is necessary that the architect becomes again a set designer, musician and director too; that he understands that today’s performing arts tend to redesign and modify the theatrical space itself.
This publication aims at being a medium that helps understand what happened, or where and why the design knowledge, common to the two worlds of Architecture and Theatre, was interrupted, il helps identify the critical issues and indicate possible solutions. In this process the voice of professionals who have faced these problems first-hand is essential; one should listen and consider the solutions adopted and the peculiarities of each moment as critical examples. In order to do this, it was necessary to “provoke” the discussion, inviting to a common table representative of the most diverse languages, skills, poetics and problems – even at the risk of misunderstandings, flag raising and clashes. The design of a theatrical space, starting from the needs of theatre, music and dance as well as the needs of technical knowledge and its transmission, is an act that must be able to activate knowledge in an inclusive way, make the different elements react with each other in order to reach what shapes the accuracy and the beauty of architecture.

Seminar Architecture and Theater 2004, Ian Mc Intosh, Frèderic Flamand, Virgilio Sieni, Jean-Guy Lecat
Lluis Dilmè, Xavier Fabrè and Ignasi de Solà-Morales, Gran Teatre de Liceu, Barcelona, 1995-1999, top view
Seminar Architecture and Theater 2004, exterior of the Cavallerizza Theater