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Back to the first half of the 20th century and it was in America that mass production was becoming ever more efficient and chains of theatres were blooming all over the country. Architects commissioned to design these theatres were no longer being briefed by the playwrights and managers but by the owners of the chains with the sole intention on increasing box office sales. The aesthetics were clearly intended for the paying customer and the money directed at the entrance lobby and the ever growing auditorium spaces and the less spent on the ever smaller dressing rooms. This problem was less common in Britain around that time as very few theatres were built during the war but a prime example for Britain did come about with the redevelopment of the Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1930. Designed by modernist architect Elizabeth Scott, after months of fundraising and committee meetings, was expressed by the director of the theatre William Bridge-Adam as having,
“Absolute flexibility, a box of tricks out of which the child like mind of the producer may create whichever shape it pleases. It should be able to offer Mr Poel an Elizabethan stage after his heart’s desire.”
The Architectural Review responded to it with critical acclaim. Sightline was an area singled out as being particularily good with no pillars obstructing any views and no boxes. Acoustics were also mentioned,
“the shape of the theatre resembles a giant horn and is so deigned that the players can be herd from all parts of the stage and the sound distributed evenly throughout the auditorium. The splays and the ceiling of the proscenium, together with the forestage when in use, act as reinforcment to the source of sound.”
Finally the use of materials and the style where mentioned.
“Though new theatres continue to appear in constant succession throughout the country, each newcomer, with very occasional exception, represents no more than another step along the tiresome path of motif ornament and meaningless decoration. Since Palladio built his theatre of Vicenza there has been no development other than an increasing tendency towards vulgarity and over-elaborationâ€¦ in the new theatre in Stratford-on-Avon materials are used with intelligence, selection and fitness of purpose and designed by the nature of the material.”
It later became clear that the actors did not feel the same way. Comments were made over the distance from the stage and front row and the bare walls stretching from the proscenium to the circle. It was described in The Other Theatre, published in 1947,Word count: 294
“performing to Calais from the cliffs of Dover.” (Baliol Holloway)
Clearly the architect had not achieved what she had wanted (an intimate theatre) nor what the client desired. What had happened here was a lack of communication and cooperation between the two professions. In the past there was an understanding of what was required and little was said between either professions but back then the architects working on theatre buildings would have specialised in Theatre design, most of them being builders themselves with several years of experience under their belts. The word specialist was not used in Britain until the mid-19th century, pervious to that an architect who designed theatres would just be referred to as a Theatre Designer.
Earlier cases have been recorded in other parts of the world where renowned general architects have thought they could solve the problems aroused by the old theatre designs. At the end of the 18th century London had several theatres which had work done to them such as Benjamin Dean Wyatt’s Theatre Royal in Drury Lane which also received architectural critical acclaim. Too often theatres built by renowned generalist architects are more extravagant and end up having work done to the auditorium within and around a decade. Luckily for both architect and theatre owner money had become available for rebuilds and amendments however vast. The theatre professions displeasure with the works of Wyatt’s at Drury Lane and Elizabeth Scott at Stratford -upon-Avon are only a couple of examples of what happens when famed architects try and impose a solution to and old and accustomed problem. Their belief that they could rethink the nature of the auditorium’s issues upon their first attempt can be seen as naÃ¯ve and as the theatre profession is more voluble than the architectural realm when provoked, the public tend accept the blame being placed on the architect.
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Luckily there are a few first time Architects, Theatre Designers and Consultants who do listen to their clients and are willing to spend the time studying the code for auditorium design as well as meet technical requirements. As a result there are many theatres in both Britain and America which function out of a healthy relationship between both theatre and architecture professions. The breakdown in communication is what both sides have to be wary of and this can often be caused by the architects instinctive to offer slender resources to the external design. In some cases it may be the case that the architect has taken a modernist mind-set, strange to the theatrical precedence which is generally that the outside of the building should express what’s inside and also the other way around. Therefore in the name of architectural truthfulness as a whole, the detailing and shape to the auditorium could be sacrificed by the architect under his manifesto. Looking at it the issue in detail, the same outcome can be caused by the opinion that the architect is not changing anything just reorganising the auditorium elements more effectively which is just as dangerous as believing that they can change the nature of the auditorium itself. Therefore by trying to organise these key components such as lighting, side seating and acoustic materials, and moving them to the perimeter of the space the eye of the viewer may be drawn to the outside of the stage rather than inwards at the actor. The attention would be drawn to the side walls and ceiling hence the actor will have to try harder to gain the attention of the audience. The problem with auditoriums in the past was the failure to draw the attention to the front 15ft of the stage which should “appear to float”. Some of the causes may have been that the seating went too far back or was spread too wide.
The stem for this problem maybe that some architects are taught and become firm believers that form follows function, thus the functionality fallacy. They work only with statistics in creating a design which is dictated purely on numbers. Areas of the design which could not be measured were often ignored or left to the architect to decide on the outcome unattended. This is a clear example of a lack of a real philosophical discussion on the nature of how theatre functions, between the theatrical technician and the architect.
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To understand the architect let’s look at how the development of the proper approach to theatre design. First of all a team needs to be formed consisting of: an architect, engineer, acoustic consultant, cost consultant and theatre consultant. An architect naturally heads the team as is in the architect’s office where he or she works alongside partners, associates and has technicians underneath heading different departments on the construction drawings. There will be some younger members of the team which would have graduated high from their architectural schools wanting to work for an experienced architect on high level projects who spend their time trying to find rational solutions through designing sketch schemes with the architect. These young people are who the Theatre Consultants should liaise with.
The Engineers occasionally have a tendency to take over a project which can be dangerous for the position of the architect. The electrical engineer has the safest role in terms of lighting which can be overseen by the Theatre Consultant and more central to the success of the project is the mechanical engineer. The mechanical engineer takes charge of the heating and ventilation. Theatres require that the space be dry and cool whilst also being silent, something theatre managers specify as being essential is the silence. Architecture Actor & Audience states that
“Quite simply there is nothing more expensive and nothing more necessary.”
The overall job of the engineers be them electrical, structural or mechanical is to solve how the design is put together as opposed to the “what” and the “why” of the design.
This leads us to the dangerous cases in which the engineers take over the role of designer of theatres from the architects. 1950’s America and engineers were emerging with numerous qualifications in stage design and acoustic and scenic engineering claiming they had solutions to sights and sounds. Fixed angles where determined for acceptable sightlines in the auditoriums. Ceilings hidden by lighting, previously referred to as “the heavens” to capture the rising human spirit and to keep a cap on the theatre space to focus the attention back down to the actor. The side walls which had been lined with humanity in the early years were also now shaped for acoustic advantages. To create a theatre that was intimate, it was suggested that the furthest seats from the stage had to be of a certain distance. Jo Melziner’s so called field tests in which he concluded that the furthest distance of:
“55ft (16.8m) for Julie Harris in drama, slightly more for Gertrude Berg in a rather broad comedy and 100ft (30m) for Ethel Merman in anything.”
What had not seemed to be considered was the density of the space given to the individual audience member or of the impact of the amount of people to be fitted into the full distance allocated.
Just to mention some of the theatres loved by the theatre profession; the Old Vic in London, the Lyceum and the Booth in New York, all of which would be considered badly designed with views obstructed with bad sightlines and areas with a lack of legroom but shows succeed in these theatres
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Nowadays this is realised as being a mistake in design as functionality actually took away from the experience but in the 50s and 60s this confusion of the criteria of what makes a good theatre experience had not been realised. What differentiates the live theatre is the sense of community and involvement not the emphasis on the visual lines and sound quality.
Maybe if we take a step back and look at what Marcus Vitruvius Pollio wrote in the early first century BC on theatre architecture, we could possibly find another angle on design. Vitruvius having been an architect and builder shared most if not all his knowledge in his ten books on architecture. He makes detailed reference to existing buildings and gave recommendations on how to build new ones.
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The conclusion is that clients are appearing to be increasingly greedy wanting larger seating volume with equal comfort. The architect must not fall for the naivety that they can solve the problems which have been around for centuries. An architect’s overconfidence in his technical skills can easily cause the failure of a production and not have the talent of the production or writers to blame. Many newly emerging architects believe that theatres need modernisation but there needs to be a greater understanding of the magic and illusionistic handling of the space of such a complex building type. It seems better then to stick to old strategies which work and if there is an old theatre in question then keep it if it works. Amendments can be made to the dressing room and bar, possibly the foyer but not to the spaces in which the audience interact with the performers. By looking to the past for answers we will find that the majority of successful theatres are based on the principles of the “sacred geometry” which should be considered as special harmony with the intention to encourage movement of energy not as a robust net of formations. Finally the sightline paradox. It seems the theatres which work well suffer from the occasional views with obstructions but those theatres which have excellent sightlines all-round are universally disliked by actors and audience.
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