Although performing arts centers worldwide today hire the globe's top architects to design their theaters, the trend actually dates back long before the 21st century.
"If you look at the history of theater in New York, designs in the early part of the 20th century were all by well-known architects, like Thomas Lamb and the Eidlitz brothers," says Laurie Beckelman, president of Beckelman + Capalino, a New York-based arts consulting firm, and former chair of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. "More recently, Eero Saarinen, who did the TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport, also designed the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. It's not a new phenomenon."
Many winners of the Pritzker Prize -- the most prestigious award in architecture -- have designed a number of these new theaters, receiving accolades for their work. Theaters by prize winners include Jean Nouvel's Guthrie Theater complex in Minneapolis (his first completed project in North America) and Frank Gehry and Hugh Hardy's Pershing Square Signature Center, the new home of the Signature Theatre Company on West 42nd Street in Manhattan. The Shanghai Poly Theater, by Tadao Ando, is now under construction in Jiading, China, next to a man-made lake in the center of a large park.
These architects "think as artists," says Beckelman. For example, Gehry--who also designed the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York--is also a sculptor, and therefore "he has an incredible range, a lifetime of experiences and a passion for all types of arts," she says.
Cathleen McGuigan, Editor-in-Chief of Architectural Record, the oldest professional magazine for architects in the United States, describes well-known architects commissioned to design theaters as "architects of drama, and these are spaces for drama." That includes the work of Safdie and Gehry.
"[Their work is] very much about the flow of people moving in space," she says, adding, "What's the interesting challenge about theater is they have to have space where an enormous number of people converge and circulate to their seats. These are architects who think about how people move and enter a theater, and they do so in a dramatic and elegant way."
At the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, you’ll find the performance home of the Kansas City Ballet and Lyric Opera of Kansas City. Its architect, Moshe Safdie, has described the theater as “festive and exuberant. The three balconies envelop the hall in a horseshoe-like enclosure. Each balcony is broken down into a series of steps cascading from the center rear balcony to the individual boxes on either side of the stage. The balcony balustrades are a contemporary reinterpretation of the gilded, glittering, candle-lit balconies of 18th- and 19th-century theaters.” Safdie’s design also features a series of murals on the theater’s acoustical structures by students at the Kansas City Art Institute. These create an overall effect of “a dynamic mural, rich in reds, greens, blues and yellows, fused into the geometry of the room,” Safdie explains. 1601 Broadway; 816-994-7200; kauffmancenter.org.
César Pelli of Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects designed this structure, as well as the entire Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County that houses it. The flexible, black-box theater can accommodate up to 300 seats and is a more intimate space than the center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House (2,400 seats) and Knight Concert Hall (2,200 seats). One highlight here is “Ways of Performing,” a spectacular 28-by-40-foot glass mosaic-tile mural in the lobby by Cuban artist Cundo Bermudez. It celebrates music and performance with imagery depicting the artistic process and backstage activities of the theater; semi-abstract figures of jesters and dancers preparing to perform seem to float on its vivid blue background. 1300 Biscayne Blvd.; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org.
Opened in 2006 on the banks of the Mississippi River in the historic Mills District of downtown Minneapolis, the Guthrie is Pritzker Prize–winning architect Jean Nouvel’s first project completed in North America. Its twilight-blue metal façade blends with the evening sky, highlighting eight large-scale images of Guthrie productions screen-printed directly onto the façade on steel panels. (Actors featured in the images include George Grizzard, Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn and Blair Brown.) Three vertical LED signs on top of the Guthrie’s three theaters reflect the industrial signage of the area. The 1,100-seat Wurtele Thrust Stage, a tribute to the original 1963 Guthrie, has seating on three sides. Other theaters here are the 700-seat McGuire Proscenium Stage and 200-seat Dowling Studio, a flexible black-box space. 818 S. 2nd St.; 612-377-2224; guthrietheater.org.
The new West 42nd Street home of the Signature Theatre Company features a design by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Frank Gehry and H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture. The 294-seat Irene Diamond Stage contains a straight rake of seating that rises from the stage edge and is contained within plywood walls. Plywood panels, evoking the texture of cracked earth, wrap arvound the walls, while a single grand doorway connects the theater to the center’s lobby. The 191-seat Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre combines grand opera house design and off-Broadway intimacy. This theater’s boxes are almost close enough to the stage for audience members to reach out and touch the actors. The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, also with 191 seats, can be used in multiple configurations, and is named after the Signature’s founding playwright-in-residence, Romulus Linney. 480 W. 42nd St.; 212-273-0784; signaturetheatre.org.
Located at Bard College and designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Frank Gehry, the Richard B. Fisher Center contains the Sosnoff Theater, an intimate, 900-seat auditorium that can be used for theatrical productions, opera and performances of chamber and symphonic music, and Theater Two, a flexible teaching and performance black-box facility that can seat up to 300. “It’s not a traditional theater building,” says Gehry. “It has a park-like setting. As you approach, you see the building glistening. It’s welcoming. Its façade at the end of a meadow looks out onto an expanse of green that will stay green. Its entry canopy is not a marquee, it’s more like a covered porch—a place for visitors to mingle, to enjoy a sense of community inspired by the performing arts that the building celebrates.” 60 Manor Ave.; 845-758-7900; bard.edu.
This theater, by Pritzker Prize winner Tadao Ando, is now under construction in Jiading, a developing area in the outskirts of Shanghai. The theater will be the centerpiece of a new cultural complex. “Rather than expressing through its exterior the energy of Shanghai, the ‘magical city of the Orient,’ the building aims to capture this dynamism within its internal spaces,” says Ando. The theater (scheduled to be completed in late 2013) is at the center of a large park with lush greenery and a man-made lake; it stands by the lake and has a simple rectangular volume, with cylindrical void spaces inserted at various angles. This freely formed three-dimensional composition provides the framework for the building and for the 1,600-seat hall at its center. “The collision and intersection of solid and void, and cubes and tubes, provides complexity within the framework and gives rise to spaces with rich character,” Ando explains.
The handiwork of Pritzker Prize–winning architect Zaha Hadid is slated to begin at the end of this year in the Bouregreg Valley, in the heart of the capital of Morocco. The complex will include a 2,050-seat theater, a 520-seat theater and a fully equipped outdoor amphitheater accommodating up to 7,000. “The design takes its energy from the Bouregreg River,” says Hadid. “The dynamics of the river are introduced into the site, generating the landscape of the park that engulfs the amphitheater. This gesture gathers strength from the ground and in one fluent sweep extends into the sky to generate the envelope that sculpts itself over the two auditoria, arches back to the ground and melts back into the landscape.… These fluid sculptural forms create a seamless spatial experience that flows into the main foyer, molding the grand staircases. This fluidity provides an intuitive visual and physical guide for visitors.”
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