Theatre Design & Technology - Feb 1969 - 16

For the Theatrical Experience,
an Architecture of Truth
New York City
If any new light is to be cast on current
problems of theatre design, it seems to me
that we must re-examine some very old
facts about man. Modern scientific knowledge should indeed enlarge our understanding of man's relation to his theatre, but it
is not apt to change the relationship itself.
In all the vulgar rationalizations of technology
(of which McLuhan's is merely the most
glib); in all the venal apologies for the
merciless technical attrition to which the living theatre has been subjected, we meet this
constant theme: things have changed. In
some respects, of course, they have. We
applied the electronic eye, the electronic
ear and the electronic tongue to the performing arts. The number of legitimate theatres in the country dropped from 560 to
193 between 1927 and 1961; Broadway
openings fell from 264 to 38 in the same
period. Such changes may have been inevitable, given the uncontrolled commercial
exploitation of the field. But this by no
means proves that such changes were desirable or that they constitute the unique
path for future development. Least of all
does the grim record of the last thirty years
"prove" that the experiential nature of human perception has been modified a millimeter or that the esthetic process itself has
in any way been altered.
Most discussions of the esthetic processwhether in drama or painting or architecture-fail because they do not relate that
process to its base in the reality of experience. Once removed from this matrix, it becomes possible to discuss esthetic matters
as though they were abstract problems in
logic. Current architectural theory and criticism suffers especially from this misconception. This finds expression in the persistent
tendency to discuss buildings as though they
were exclusively visual phenomena. This
leads directly to serious misconceptions as
to the actual relationship between the building and its human occupants. Our very
terminology reveals it: we speak always of
having seen such and such a building, of
liking (or not liking) its looks, of its proportions or color not seeming just right, etc.
These are all convenient expressions and
they all have an aspect of truth. The danger
is in their implicit assumption that man
exists in some dimension quite separate and
apart from his buildings; that his only contact with them is that of passive exposure;
that this contact occurs through some narrow channel of sight; and that the experience
is unaffected by the environmental circumstances under which it occurs.
If modern science proves anything, it is that
the facts are quite otherwise and that our
modes of thought must be revised to conform to them.


Mr. Filch's article is reproduced with permission from
ARTS IN SOCIETY (Vol. IV. No.3, Fall-Winter
67-68), Pp. 491-501.

Were our esthetic experience with art form
and artifact in truth so abstract and onedimensional, then it would be quite easy to
assert that the printed or el ectronic facsimile is an acceptable surrogate for the prototypal original. And, more and more, this is
precisely our error: we find ourselves speaking of the live performance of Olivier in the
Shakesperian tragedy and the telecast facsimile of it, or of the actual experience of
the Lincoln Center and a published photograph of it, as though they were exactly
equivalent, interchangeably valid phenomena: in fact, they are only remotely comparable.

surrounds and encapsulates him at every
level of his existence metabolic and perceptual. For this reason, it must be understood as being a very special kind of vessel
whose walls come more and more closely
to resemble permeable membranes which
can accept or reject, admit or reflect the environmental forces which play upon them.
The analogy's uterine-and not accidentally:
for with such vessels man modulates the
environmental forces acting upon himself and
his activities and so guarantees their uninterrupted development, in much the same
way as the mother's womb protects the

All art, all architecture is, like man himself,
totally submerged in an all-encompassing environment. Hence they can never be felt,
perceived, experienced in anything less than
multi-dimensioned reality. A change in one
aspect or quality of the environment inevitably affects our perception of, and response to, all the rest of the experience.
The primary significance of a painting may
indeed be visual or of a concert, sonic; but
perception of these forms and response to
their stimuli develops in a situation of experiential totality. It seldom occurs to us to
wonder why we have never seen a performance of Hamlet in a snow-covered wheat
field or listened to a concert in a stormtossed rowboat. The controlled environment
afforded by theatre and concert hall are so
taken for granted that their role in making
th e esthetic possible is quite forgotten. Recogni tion of this fact is crucial for esthetic
theory, above all in the case of architecture.
For, far from being narrowly based upon
any single channel of perception like vision,
our esthetic experience of the building actually derives from our body's total response
to the environmental conditions it affords. It
is literally impossible to experience architecture in any "simpler" way. In architecture,
there are no spectators: there are only participants. The body of architectural criticism which pretends otherwise is based upon pictorial facsimiles of buildings (studied
incidentally, inside the controlled environment of another building and not upon actual
exposure to real architecture at all.

Architecture must thus meet criteria much
more complex than those applied to other
forms of art. Th is confronts contemporary
architect with a formidable range of subtle
problems, none of which will be solved unless the difference is understood. All architects aspire to produce beautiful buildings. But "beauty" is not a discrete property of the building: it describes intimately
the occupant's response to the building's
impact upon him. The response is bound to
be complex: psychic in nature, it is always
grounded in somatic stimulation. Thus the
esthetic evaluation of a building can never
be merely a matter of vision, it can only be
a matter of total sensory perception. To be
truly satisfactory, the building must meet all
the body's requirements, for it is with the
whole man, not just his eyes, that the
building deals.

Man was compelled to invent architecture
in order, actually to become human. By
means of it, he surrounded himself with a
new environment more nearly tailored to
his requirements than any nature afforded_
The central function of this architecture is
thus to intervene in man's favor. The building (and, by extension, clothing for the individual and the city for society as a whole)
has the task of lightening the stress of life
of removing the raw environmental load from
man's shoulders so that he can focus his
energies upon truly human tasks_ The building, even its simplest forms invests man,


From this it follows that the architect has
no direct access to his client's psyche: the
only channels open to him are indirect,
somatic. Only by manipulating the physical
properties of his environment-heat, air,
Iight, color, sound, odor, surface and spacecan the architect reach his client. And only
by doing it well-that is, meeting all his requirements, objective and subjective-can
he create buildings which the occupants
may find "beautiful."
The foregoing postulates seem essential if
we are to understand why the design of all
theatrical buildings is such a hazardous
process and why so many recently-completed
buildings have proved so disappointing in
real life. The architects have simply not
employed experiential criteria in their design
decisions. In creating vessels for the performing arts, the architects are intervening in
one of the most complex of all esthetic
processes. The painter or the poet, for all
the public nature of his creations, works in
private. For this work, he needs one sort of
environment; but the viewer of his canvas
or the reader of his poem may require quite
another. But in the theatre the work of art
is created anew with each performance,




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