When the National Theatre opened on London’s South Bank in 1976/7, the building, Denys Lasdun’s ode to concrete, was fairly universally disliked, being described by a leading architectural writer as “an aesthetic of broken forms” and by Prince Charles as “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting”. Maybe surprisingly, Sir John Betjeman, the rejoicer of all things British, all things traditional, rather liked it, saying he “gasped with delight at the cube of your theatre in the pale blue sky and a glimpse of St. Paul’s to the south of it. It is a lovely work and so good from so many angles . . . “
Designing theatres/opera houses, along with sports stadiums, has become the must-do job for architects in the past few years and while we were in Cologne recently we took the opportunity of seeing the exhibition All the World’s a Stage? Comparing European Theatres, Operas and Concert Halls at the MAKK Museum. Theatres always have been places of wonder and excitement but if Sir John gasped at the NT in London, heaven knows what his reaction would be to the new theatres presented in this show.
The UK’s National Theatre is of course among the nineteen featured buildings and is, I think, the earliest. Most of the criticism was levelled at its exterior appearance and its dominance of the London landscape. It is perhaps difficult to argue with that but the fact is the theatre was designed from the inside out and the foyer and two main auditoria, while still a symphony to undressed concrete, are warm, friendly and comfortable without a bad seat in the house. Nowadays as much consideration, maybe more so all the world can see, is given to the outside of the new theatres.
It is no coincidence that this exhibition is taking place in Cologne whose own opera house is in the process of being rebuilt, but this wide ranging, comprehensive and impressive exhibition includes well established theatres like the NT in London as well as buildings which are still on the drawing board. Most, of course, are all brand new but old theatres have been reborn, the most notable being in Lyon whose fine traditional opera house has been enhanced and enlarged by a spectacular new roof which accommodates an equally spectacular auditorium.
All of the buildings are truly amazing from the outside but I rather got the feeling some of the interiors were a bit over the top, especially as it’s the stage that should be the centre of attention – still, I suppose it gives you something to look at if you are not enjoying the show. What the interiors do have in common is consideration for the audience. Gone are the good old days of theatres where you often saw more of the heads in front of you than those of the performers or, if you were really unlucky, you’d be behind a pillar or craning your neck from a euphemistically called “restricted view” seat for two hours. Now everyone gets a good, though often distant, view of the stage.
Some of the buildings are breath-taking in their audacity like the Philharmonie de Paris concert hall or some even a little odd like the Oslo Concert Hall with what seems to be incorporated artificial ski slopes. Each of the theatres is represented by photos, plans, data and facts so it is possible to really get a feel and insight into their design and use.
Also in the MAKK is a small exhibition by sculptress and stage designer Marianne Ahlfeld-Heymann and her cousin, another Cologne-based Jewish artist, avant-garde ceramic artist Margarete Heymann-Loebenstein. This is one of numerous exhibitions around at the moment, marking the centenary of Bauhaus. But there is the added significance in this show because of the precarious position of artists, let alone Jewish ones in Germany in the 1930s.
The excellent theatre costume and set designs by Ms. Ahlfeld-Heymann nicely complement the architectural exhibition downstairs. Michael Hasted 22nd May 2019