Category Archives: theater

Jean-Claude Carrière Theatre

Jean-Claude Carrière Theatre in Montpellier, France, by A+ Architecture, 2013

All photographs by Marie Caroline Lucat, courtesy of A+ Architects

Given the 21st-century goal of reducing carbon emissions in everything from manufacturing and transportation to food production and building, architects and engineers are looking to timber structures as a means of reducing the demand for carbon-intensive concrete and energy-intensive steel. Most of the attention is being given to research aimed at high-rise timber structures, some up to 42 stories tall. But this theater at Domaine d'O in Montpellier, France, designed by A+ Architecture, illustrates the potential in smaller structures in wood.

Wood is immediately visible on the exterior of Jean-Claude Carrière Theatre as a diamond-shaped lattice that is variable across the solid facades of the theater. But the use of wood goes well beyond this applied pattern—the exterior walls (tilt-up construction), floors, roof framing, interior walls, glass framing, as well as the facade are all made from wood. The architects put the quantity of wood in the building at 1000 cubic meters (35,300 cubic feet). In concert with the decision to use wood for its low-carbon and low-energy environmental benefits, the project was conceived and built in only 12 months.

Other benefits that the architects give to the decision to build almost entirely in wood include easy prefabrication, a clean construction site (dry, instead of wet), and that 90% of the project can be dismantled and reassembled elsewhere. This last part is important, given the fact that the carbon captured in trees stays there only as long as the material is in use; only until it is burned in a fire, for example. This does point to one concern with timber structures, but "advocates for wooden buildings say mass timber does not ignite easily and forms a layer of char that slows burning," according to a New York Times article on high-rises framed in wood.

Yet even with all of these benefits and the widespread use of wood (visible and not) in the Jean-Claude Carrière Theatre, it's the diamond lattice that commands the most attention, partly because it can be found throughout the whole project. This pattern comes into the lobby through the glass framing; the pattern is more regular here but it is particularly striking, owing to the transparency of the wall. In some places the lattice of the facade extends in front of the diamond openings, creating a layering that recalls the Prairie designs of Frank Lloyd Wright. Lastly, the wood lattice can be found inside the theater itself, where it stands out in front of a black background. From outside to inside, from front door to theater, the project stresses the environmental benefits of wood by making rich and enjoyable spaces where wood predominates.

The Public Theater

The Public Theater in New York City by Ennead Architects, 2012.

Sometimes the smallest and most discrete of projects can have the greatest impact. Such is my take upon experiencing the new lobby for The Public Theater at Astor Place, and hearing the history of the building and project from Ennead Architects (formerly Polshek Partnership). The Public occupies the former Astor Library, which actually consists of three buildings constructed over the course of 30 years in the middle of the 19th century. The Byzantine landmark nevertheless appears as one entity, with bilateral symmetry about its taller middle section. Over the years the building changed from a library to a boarding house and then to a theater, when Joseph Papp persuaded the city to save the building from demolition in the 1960s. Small physical changes had large effects, especially the relegation of the library's exterior steps to the interior, a situation that made the lobby of The Public's five theaters less than ideal.

Easily the most important design decision in the transformation of the lobby and entry by Ennead Architects is the relocation of the steps from inside the building back to the sidewalk. This decision certainly complicated the process, as it brought the city's Department of Transportation into the picture, but the benefits to both The Public and the city outweigh any potential headaches or delays. First, ADA ramps were provided, a much better arrival than the handicap lift formerly by the front door. Second, the shallow and generous three-sided steps are a nice public amenity, accomplished by bumping out the curb in front of the steps. Third, the addition of a canopy over the stairs helps to give the institution a strong identity on Lafayette. Fourth is the fact that the exterior steps free up space in the lobby, something that gave the Ennead team, led by project designer Stephen Chu, design counsel James Polshek and management partner Duncan Hazard a bit more freedom in their lobby design.

Upon walking inside, the first impression is the fairly generous size of the space (not huge, but bigger than before). Yet the second impression is the most important: the space flows from the lobby in all directions—through the arched openings on the left and right, through the larger rectangular openings in the back wall, and up to the new mezzanine inserted above the ticket booth opposite the entry. Ennead's reworking of the circulation, in particular the fire stairs bordering the lobby, enabled them to provide access to the five theaters and Joe's Pub (formerly entered via an alley on the north side of the building) through the various openings of the lobby. Red and black text (done with Pentagram) is seemingly pressed into the white plaster, giving clear orientation from this central space.

Given the opening up of the lobby and the flow of space through the openings, it's not surprising that very little of the design is object-based; even the lighting is hidden above the beams where it highlights the coffers as it illuminates the space. The only objects inserted into the space are an elliptical bar, a chandelier above it, and the aforementioned mezzanine. The latter attracts attention through the red-glass guardrail, yet it fits with the general scheme of white, red, and black. The bar and light fixture, combined with the ticket booth behind as well as the openings on both sides, reinforce the symmetry of the building and the lobby. Most striking and dynamic is the Shakespeare Machine, the large light sculpture designed by Ben Rubin. Even as it anchors the center of the lobby with the bar, its swirling form and ever-changing readouts capture the motion of people in the space as they venture to and from shows. Yet the lobby and mezzanine are also places for lingering, something that would have been furthest from people's minds in its previous incarnation.

KU Lied Center Addition

KU Lied Center Addition in Lawrence, Kansas by Helix Architecture + Design, 2011.

The Lied Center of Kansas at the University of Kansas (KU) consists of a 2,000-seat multi-purpose theater with rehearsal rooms, dressing rooms, and administrative spaces. Completed in 1993 per a design by Omaha's HDR Architects, the building is a brick hulk sitting in a sea of parking west of the KU campus. Three years later Topeka's HTK Architects added the Bales Organ Recital Hall (which serves the KU School of Music) on the west side of the Lied Center. Rounding out the architectural context in this patch of Lawrence is the nearby Dole Institute of Politics, designed by ASIA Architecture and completed in 2003; it fronts a large reflecting pool next to the large shared parking lot.

On the opposite side of the Lied Center from the Recital Hall, Helix Architecture + Design has added an educational wing and expanded the lobby and offices. Like the original building, the addition is funded primarily by the Lied Foundation Trust, which aims at making performances, lectures, and educational programs accessible to the people of Kansas. The new addition is anchored by a multi-purpose rehearsal/presentation space that also accommodates meetings, receptions, dinners, and pre- and post-performance activities.

From the exterior the addition fits quite seamlessly with the existing, at least in terms of the matching brick color. Helix eschews the decorative stone that is found elsewhere, particularly as banding on the ground floor. Instead the addition is relatively minimal, basically comprised of brick and glass. The latter zig-zags from the education space down to the new entry, giving a glimpse of each from the exterior. The combination of stepped glass walls (in plan) and angled brick walls at the base gives the impression that the addition is carved from a mass of brick. Aside from this impression, they also make clear where the building access is located.

Entering the addition from the outside, the visitor first encounters some very red carpeting leading to a display on the far wall and the theater beyond; to the right is the education space, visible through a glass opening in the wall with glass doors. Walls and ceilings are folded to give the impression that it's been carved from a white solid; in this sense exterior and interior merge, even though the materials are distinct. But the ceiling's folds are not arbitrary. They conceal vents, cove lights, and equipment suspended from the ceiling. Randomly located downlights give a celestial appearance to the folded overhead plane.

Helix was faced with a bit of challenge, like putting lipstick on a pig, as they say. They made the most of it and subtly sculpted the addition, inside and out, to create an impressive space for appreciating art in eastern Kansas.

Photographs are courtesy of Aaron Dougherty.

The Arch

The Arch in Mandal, Norway by 3XN, 2011.

Mandal is a town of 15,000 people southwest of Oslo at the very tip of Norway. It overlooks the North Sea, and in every other way relates to the surrounding water, be it the sea, the river, or inlets. Danish architects 3XN describe the town as charming, marked by "historic white wooden houses, ... narrow streets, a river running through the center, and beach and forest nearby." Their design for a cultural center in Mandal responds to history and landscape, replacing industry with culture in this remote place.

For Norwegians, Mandal is a popular resort town for its beaches. An aerial view of the town reveals a long, gentle arc of sand open to the south, reaching towards the river and the old industrial core where the cultural center is located. "The Arch," as the cultural center is called, perches itself on the riverfront; its white surfaces respond to the historical houses in town. As well, the low, tapering building does not overwhelm the context, where trees are the tallest neighbors and create a green backdrop for the white buildings.

The Arch is a house of the people, so we designed a building that in an elegant and soft motion gathers the town's cultural life, while the modern expression bears witness to a town in development. -Jan Ammundsen, Partner and Head of Design at 3XN

Inside and out, Ammundsen's design is about long, gentle curves, be it the shape of the facade's openings, the way the building ramps up from the land side, or the way the primary exterior walls arc in plan. There seems to be a relationship between the building's form and the beach, the river, and other natural features in the area. With the white walls, it's as if Ammundsen and company want to make the building a balance of the physical and the manmade.

In addition to designing The Arch, 3XN has master planned the context for the building. "Future projects" surround the cultural center on the northeast and southwest, bending to The Arch's curves yet more in tune with the historical buildings that came before in their small scale. Another planned element is a pedestrian bridge, now under construction, that spans the river and links the cultural center to the west side of Mandal. As expected, the bridge follows The Arch's curve and offers spots to take in natural and historical views of the town and the cultural center itself.

Austin Theater

Austin Theater in Austin, Texas by Miró Rivera Architects, 2000.

When Miró Rivera Architects approached the renovation of the Old Austin Theater (1939) from an adult theater into office space for a software company, rather than obliterate any sign of the site's previous incarnation they chose to keep one unmistakable element, the marquee. Projecting like an alien appendage, the blank marquee, with lights, gives the design a touch of whimsy that would otherwise be missing.

According to the architect's web page, the other goal in the design, besides keeping a defining characteristic of the previous use, was to, "engage the building in its prominent urban condition through the creation of a strong, copper-clad corner." The copper panels are sized to the existing marquee, but any overt relationship to the existing building stops there, the exterior walls creating a wholly new character for the building. The two horizontal window openings, and eroded wall with steel frame above the entry, help to break up the monolithic exterior.

Surprisingly the interior appears much more light-filled than the minimal openings on the elevations would suggest. The ability to easily create multi-story spaces within the existing shell may help in this case.

Beyond the copper facade, the most appealing aspect of the project is the disparity of old and new uses, adult theater and office space, respectively. In terms of downtown developments, renovation of buildings as uses change helps to create continuity over time, allowing people to see change while also getting a glimpse of the past, something that razing and designing anew can't offer.

[Google Earth link]


Toneelschuur in Haarlem, Netherlands by Henk Döll, 2003.

In 1996, cartoonist Joost Swarte made a series of sketches for a new home for Toneelschuur, a firm that deals with contemporary theater, dance and film, located in Haarlem, Netherlands. These colorful sketches illustrate the company's desires: to relocate to a historical part of the city with low-scale structures, the creation of separate components for each function, and a playfulness that would contrast with the historic fabric but also become an identity for Toneelschuur.

Swarte and architect Henk Döll (at the time with Mecanoo but now with his own office Döll - Atelier voor Bouwkunst) snaked the new building between existing ones via a clever, yet very simple plan. The two dance theaters are arranged along a line that extends from the main entry to the back of the site, with one theater placed on either side of the line and shifted to one end, their final location based on their size and the site conditions. Back of house areas for each theater are placed on the outer edges with the two small film theaters located above the entry.

The primary, street entrance is both the project's main identity and its locus of activity. With the two film spaces raised above the entry, as mentioned, the architects took full advantage of this and created a sculptural prow that juts out to the street. Once under this and inside, generous double-height spaces allow for the spillover from theatrical performances while also using stairs and lookouts for additional people-watching, a natural extension of the performances inside.

The theater spaces are simple, sparse, and straight-forward, fulfilling their function without drawing attention away from the performances, a reversal of the public spaces that is definitely appropriate. In each case the architecture sets up the performance, be it staged, impromptu, or just a simple matter of watching people.

[Google Earth link]

National Theatre Okinawa

National Theatre Okinawa in Urasoe, Japan by Shin Takamatsu, 2003.

When Japanese architect Shin Takamatsu burst onto the architecture scene in the 1980's, his buildings resembled something out of a sci-fi film, like Bladerunner. Perfectly suited to the lights and cacophony of Tokyo, these early buildings made that architect's reputation, but over the years his practice Takamatsu Architect and Associates has created a diverse body of work, in size and scale as well as appearance. The recently-opened National Theatre of Japan on the island of Okinawa finds the architect balancing tradition with his thoroughly modern design sense.

The consultant committee for the newest of Japan's National Theatre had a traditional-looking building in mind when Takamatsu presented a design that has a traditional flavor without directly copying or mimicking the past. The building's exterior is dominated by a lattice-work, concrete wall on all sides that arches overhead towards the sky. A gap between the wall and the red-tile roof emphasizes the floating nature of the roof's design as well as the uniqueness and importance of the concrete wall.

Takamatsu found inspiration in the local, vernacular houses. Outside the lattice wall relates to chinibu, walls of braided bamboo, and the local red tiles, kawara, are used on the roof. A local limestone is also used at ground level to soften the arched openings of the concrete wall. Inside, color is introduced as a way to relate to the performances rather than local buildings, as colors are taken from the outfits of kumiodori performers, a 300-year-old dance drama important in the region and to be a large part of the Theatre's programs.

The main theater space uses woods (cherry and cypress) for its surfaces to help create a suitable interior environment for performances that are typically outside affairs. As well, the theater space is designed to work well for the kumiodori and to accommodate other types of performance. Just like the building, a blend of tradition and modern, the activities inside look to the past without ignoring the present or the future.

Symphony Space

Symphony Space in New York, NY by Polshek Partnership, 2002.

Symphony Space, a community-based arts institution in New York City, was founded in 1978 in an abandoned movie theater. Now called Peter Norton Symphony Space, its new facility, situated around the corner from its newly renovated Leonard Nimoy Thalia at 95th and Broadway, is the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, both by the Polshek Partnership of New York. The extensive project includes "a new cafe, new entrances, lobbies and box offices, a broadcast room, dressing rooms, offices, an elevator and stairway to connect all three levels of the complex, and new building infrastructure, including plumbing, electrical, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning."

From its new entry it is obvious that the public spaces are a mix of architecture and text, combined to give the organization an identity on the Upper West Side. The dramatic, aluminum-clad cantilever and asymmetrical composition, along with the large, backlit text, are relating to Symphony Space's unconventional programming and the space's incorporation into a new residential development. While a small portion of the development externally, the entrance is composed in a way that helps it to stand out, recalling the De Stijl movement of the early 1900's.

As witnessed in the image at left, the entrance's presence is even stronger at night as the text leaps from the surface in a composition as asymmetrical as the architecture. Designed by multi-disciplinary firm Pentagram, the use of lower-case, sans-serif text connected by borders with rounded corners relates to Symphony Space's broad range of programs and appeal.

Both the early Modernist architectural vocabulary and the use of text continues to the interior public spaces, helping to unify the two theaters that are now linked. Keeping the in the De Stijl vein, it seems like text and light have replaced color as a means to articulate different surfaces, appropriate at a time when information is so widespread and valued.

[Google Earth link]


EMPAC in Troy, New York by Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners, 2004.

Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute's Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) is a $142 million, 203,000 s.f. project on the edge of the school's main campus overlooking Troy, New York. EMPAC's goal is to "enable artists, engineers and scientists to meet in a way that they respectfully challenge and change one another, while building on the distinct characters of their disciplines," according to director Johannes Goebel. Designed by Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners (with local architect David Brody Bond), the unique program posed many challenges, including the combination of traditional and experimental performing art spaces, dealing with the dramatic slope of the site, and the acoustic quality and flexibility of the performance spaces.

Much of the traditional/experimental problem is dealt with via the program: a 1,200-seat concert hall, a 400-seat theater, two studios (3,500 s.f. and 2,500 s.f.) - as well as artist-in-residence suites, rehearsal and support spaces - help to demarcate the range and flexibility of performance spaces. Taking these requirements as a starting point, the architect created a sequence from the entrance on the north (concert hall) to the south (studios and theater), each contained within a unified mass that also keeps each space distinct. From the outside this mass gives the project its primary image, the hull-like, wood-clad object visible behind the large, transparent exterior wall, similar to Richard Rogers's Bordeaux Law Courts.

Dealing with the slope of the site came naturally from the location of the program spaces and the desire to bury these large volumes into the slope to bring down the mass of the design. For example in the image at left, the 70-foot fly space of the theater is concealed within the rectangular mass to the right of the protruding "hull". Also, by following the slope of the site, the entrance is limited to one-story in height, creating expectation as one traverses the atrium and in-between spaces towards the views of Troy and the Hudson River at the building's end.

Lastly, due to the presence of up to 24 spaces in the building that can be used simultaneously (in addition to the program spaces, the public spaces are all designed for performances), acoustical concerns were very high. Acoustical consultant Kirkegaard Associates of Chicago used independent foundations, resilient isolation, and the natural topography of the site to provide as much acoustic isolation as possible. As well, the concert hall will have suspended fabric panels less than 1mm thick that will reflect high-frequency sound but allow mid- and low-frequency sound to penetrate and add to the reverberation of the hall.

[Thanks to Jim K. for the heads up on this week's dose. Google Earth link]

Tenerife Opera House

Tenerife Opera House in Tenerife, Spain by Santiago Calatrava, 2003.

Click images (courtesy Javier Salmones) for larger, color pictures.

Before the official opening of Frank Gehry's much anticipated Walt Disney Concert Hall in October, Santiago Calatrava's Tenerife Opera House in Santa Cruz, Tenerife will open to the public. With its inauguration on September 27, the Opera House will bring attention both to the city of Santa Cruz and the Canary Islands, a grouping of seven islands west of Morocco. An autonomous region of Spain, the islands are known more for its nightlife and beaches than for cultural amenities, though surely this building is an attempt to infuse the islands with both high culture and world-class architecture.

The enormous amounts of press given to the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California can be attributed to various reasons, including the lengthy design and construction process and the concomitant financial concerns, the architect's stardom and his success in Bilbao, and the Hall's family name and its associations. With each of these newsworthy items, the design takes second stage, especially since its inception occurred in 1987, before the design for the Guggenheim and other buildings since completed. In relation to his other work it will be seen out of order, though it will be judged on its aesthetics, its acoustics and as a product of one of the world's leading architects.

Similar consideration will be given to Calatrava's design for the new home of the Tenerife Symphony Orchestra. Aesthetically, the Opera House follows from sculptural studies that Calatrava investigated earlier in his career. With an absence of program and scale, the sculptures were useful for the architect/engineer to develop novel forms generated from the study of forces. This investigation lead to the dramatic, symmetrical form of the building, an engineering marvel in concrete and stone. His method is contrary to Gehry's, whereby designs like the Disney Hall, embody artistic intuition instead of engineering skill, though each creates objects of unique beauty.

Sited on nearly six acres next to the ocean, the building seems to rise up and over itself in the form of a wave from the waters below. Two auditoriums, totally 73,000 s.f. with a capacity of over 2000, is contained under the wave, as well as administrative offices, below-grade parking and a public plaza (click here for section). Acoustically, the two halls were designed to be adaptable to different performances and situations, with openings that can be closed for the ideal treatment. Although the building will be the permanent home of the TSO, upcoming events include plays and even conferences that justify the variability.

In relationship to Calatrava's previous work, the Tenerife Opera House sees both an increase in scale and variety of program for the architect who started with small commissions and bridges as his forte. With his architectural style suited to long spans and repetition it's not surprise that he has done train stations and airports, but this building is his first concert hall. Its design definitely says, "Calatrava" though the resemblance to skeletal forms of his previous work is less evident. Instead the graceful form is something unique entirely, resembling a wing but not necessarily modeled upon one.

Recently completed buildings, including the Milwaukee Art Museum and the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, have given Santiago Calatrava increased exposure internationally. His recognizable, unique structures, like Frank Gehry's, have the potential to attract attention to their locales and their companion cultures. This trend toward architecture as attractor to improve economics via tourism has its good and bad points. The emphasis on architecture is refreshing with a potential to educate the public about their surroundings, though the importance of "cutting edge" architecture may detract from the importance of a building's relationship to the greater context and intelligent thinking about urban design.

[Google Earth link]