Theatre Design & Technology - Feb 1969 - 19

Hence our theatres are full of devices aimed
primarily at pleasing the eye (though not
necessarily aiding it in perceiving the play
itself) while other channels of perception
are given only token attention: sight lines
violated, ventilation skimped, acoustics poor,
seating uncomfortable, etc.
A bias in favor of the visual world is not
the only characteristic which the architect
shares with the painter and sculptor. Like
them, he aspires to the creation of formal
order. Like them, he hopes to resolve the
contradiction between form and function,
content and context, in such a fashion as
to produce a work of independent esthetic
value. The parallel ends here, however, for
unlike the artist, the architect aspires to an
artistic validity above and beyond the basic
need which called his building into being.
This dual ambition makes his task if not of
a higher order than that of painter and
sculptor, then certainly of a greater complexity. For though his building may, like a
piece of sculpture, be susceptible of plastic
manipulation for purely formal ends, his
acutal material is not clay but social process
and living tissue, each with its own ineluctably non-esthetic ends. Hence the contradiction between the formal and the functional is imminent in every design and
never completely resolved in any completed
building. But all too often, conflicts between
the formal requirements of the container
and the functional requirements of the contained are adjudicated in favor of the former.
The occupant is simply forced to fit.
The theatre seems to encourage this sort of
"solution," perhaps because of the BaroqueRococo tradition of its being a kind of antechamber to the world of make-believe. In
any case, it often leads the architect into
imposing upon the theatre (and especially
the auditorium proper) forms, colors and
decorative devices which constitute a hostile action against playwright, cast and audience alike. This is the tendency against
which Walter Gropius warned in The Total
Theatre, a prescient and too-little known
paper of the 1930's:
The task of the architect today. as I see it. is to
create a great and flexible instrument which can respond in terms of light and space to every requirement of the theatre producer; an instrument so impersonal that it never restrains him from giving his
Vision and imagination full play.

Here Gropius is demanding the sublimation
of the architect's own ambitions as a creative artist, a demand which most of his colleagues have found unacceptable. He himself had designed such a theatre for Berlin
in 1927, though it was never built. It had
many movable elements which would have
permitted the orthodox deep stage or a wide
apron before the proscenium or a central
arena-type arrangement. Instead of conventional walls around the bowl-shaped auditorium, he proposed an annular extension of
the stage, behind which there were movable
screens upon which lights, transparencies or
movies could be projected.



In this remarkable anticipation of modern
theatres, Gropius pointed out that "these
ingenious devices" had no value of themselves. They were aimed at "the supreme
goal-to draw the spectator into the drama."
The central purpose of his impersonal instrument was to "abolish the separation between the 'fictitious world' of the stage
and the 'real world' of the audience by
erasing the distinction between 'this side'
and 'that side' of the footlights." His theatre was thus to produce an environment
specially designed at maximizing communication between actors and audience. No expression of the architect's own virtuosity
was to be permitted to obtrude between
the two. His aim, he wrote, was the mobilization of all the technical means at his
disposal in order "to rouse the spectator from his intellectual apathy, to assault
and overwhelm him, to coerce him into participation in the play." The architect's con·
tribution to this participation would be avessel which would take every extraneous environmental load off the shoulders of actors
and playgoers alike. Modern technology
would be employed to actors and playgoers
alike. Modern technology would be employed
to banish all impediments to communication
between them; to afford the director every
facil ity for any sort of production; to create
th ereby the objective conditions in which
the special emotional climate could flourish.
Precisely because the raw materials of the
theatrical performance were make-believe
and illusion, and architecture of perfect
truth was required.
An architecture of perfect truth, then, would
derive from an understanding of and respect
for the experiential nature uf the theatre in
both its socio-cultural and psycho-somatic
aspects. The success or fail ure .of many
recent theatre buildings can be understood
in these terms. If we apply such criteria
to the four new theatres at Lincoln Center,
it will be easy to understand why the
Vivian Beaumont is the best from an allround experiential point of view. Some of
this is obvious from visual evidence alone
(even allowing for the inherent limitations of
th e photographic facsimile). The geometry of
the Beaumont is the purest, most consistent and least idiosyncratic of the four.
These qualities derive from its having followed quite closely the Greek parameters
(diameter 130 It.' seating 1059 to 1140;
shall ow, semi-circular auditorium). Nor does
it make any use of pseudo-historical decora·
tive devices (e.g., the chandeliers, swags,
cartouches and upholstered walls of the
Metropolitan and Philharmonic.) But these
visually-conspicuous characteristics are only
the visible surfaces of an experientially satisfactory behavior. By all odds. the Beaumont is the best vessel in the Center for
the projection of its particular theatrical


The mixed reaction of the critics to the
four theatres has been revealing. The architectural critics have tended to discuss
in almost completely formal or
"esthetic" terms-i.e., as visual phenomena. At this level, there has been some disagreement (mostly over the patent vulgarity
of the Metropolitan Opera) but, generally
speaking, all four got a favorable reaction
in the architectural press. The response of
music and drama critics, on the other hand,
has been much sharper. The Philharmonic
and the State have become notorious for
their acoustical malfunction. As a result,
the 'Philharmonic has been completely redone internally for a th ird time (at a cost of
just under one million dollars). The State
will apparently be only used for operatic and
balletic performances-i.e., for those forms
in wh ich optimal aural acuity is not essential.
The acoustical behavior of the Metropolitan,
on the other hand, has struck qualified
critics as being very good, whatever reser·
vations they may have expressed about its
appearance (or atrocious sight-lines from
the boxes and upper balconies). Only the
Vivian Beaumont got high marks from everybody.
The architect of the Philharmonic, Max
Abromowitz, is reported to have said: "if
we have learned anything from all this, it
is that acoustics is still an inexact science."
But this is to place the reasons for failure
on too narrow a basis: it would seem,
rather, that the hall failed because of funda·
mentally architectural misconceptions. For
example, the acoustical engineer had him·
self visited all the world's leading concert
halls. He had found their average seating
capacity to be around 1,400, their average
volume under 600,000 cu. ft. Yet for
economic reasons, the architects agreed to
double the capacity (almost 3000) and
greatly increase the volume(850,000). And
the engineers went along, obviously feeling
that such a change in scale was merely
quantitative and hence subject to purely
technical manipulation. In experiential real·
ity, the miscalculation proved disastrous.
These four theatres thus make a good laboratory demonstration of the main thesis of
this paper. To have built them at all is, of
course, a boon to the whole world of performing arts, artists and audience alike. To
have built them better would have required
not more technology but closer attention to
the real constants in the complex equation
of human experience-our own unchanging
metabol ic and perceptual capacities, our
unalterable requirements for esthetic satisfaction.



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