Chicago: A centre of (theatre) architecture

An OISTAT conference-delegate reports

Bühnentechnische Rundschau

From 10 to 12 October, USITT, the American association of stage engineers, welcomed the architects of OISTAT to its annual congress – in Chicago, the US city with outstanding architecture on almost every corner. Participants learnt much about the city and visited some of its many interesting theatres. A report by the German OISTAT delegate.

More than any other city in the States, after New York – or perhaps ahead of it? – Chicago is rich in architectural treasures.

These alone are guaranteed to fascinate any architect, who will almost certainly have studied them during training. To some extent, they are German history, too: German architects who were exiled or emigrated set up new firms here in Chicago. Mies van der Rohe is one example, whose Seagram Building made architectural history. 

With prospects as enticing as this, no wonder that a large number signed up to participate in the congress. It coincided, moreover, with a meeting of ASTD, the American Society of Theater Consultants, to which the OISTAT architectural commission was invited. It went without saying that we would attend – it was a once in a lifetime chance. USITT was the perfect host. Our visit to Chicago was thoughtfully planned; Gregg Cook, principal of the 137-year-old architectural firm Holabird and Root, active in the city’s founding, was our coordinator and guide. His sense of mission to bring to life the spirit of the age – as a local witness, albeit through the history of his firm – was palpable.        

On the first evening, Gregg Cook informed us about the development of Chicago from its beginnings around 1830 up to the 20th century. At its founding in 1830, Chicago had only 4,200 residents; by 1850 the number had already risen to 100,000. A major fire in 1871 rendered many thousands homeless but released creative as well as destructive energy. By 1880 the population of the ‘reborn’ city had grown to 500,000. In 1890, it reached one million.

These developments converged in one outstanding event. The ‘World’s Columbian Exposition 1893’ was the first time the city reviewed its own settlement history. It was prepared in only two years, during which time all the exhibition buildings were built on a found pier on the floodplains of Lake Michigan – ground that had to be reclaimed from the water. 

Theatre city

On the second day, Robert Long gave us a crash course in Chicago’s theatre history. Theatre in Chicago was pure business. Everyone wanted to be entertained: the working classes in the vaudeville theatres, the finance elite in the operas. House capacities swelled: to 2,200 in the Chicago Theater and 4,000 in 1889’s Auditorium Building by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. The latter liked to be regarded as the author of the maxim ‘form follows function’, but in fact he was more radical: A building is a machine, man is a machine who controls a body with his mind, and so on. The Auditorium Building also contained a hotel and offices. 


The first theatre we visited was the Goodman Theater on Dearborn Street. A twin theatre, like its counterpart in Frankfurt am Main, it houses the Albert Theater and the Owen Theater. While the Albert is a gallery theatre seating 800, the Owen serves as a court theatre in the style of London’s original Cottesloe, now Dorfman Theatre.

After a stroll to Lakeshore East New Urban Community, an award-winning landscaped park in between the skyscrapers (which are not as overwhelming as the ones in New York, being more spaced out), the next stop was the Joan and Irving Harris Theater for Music and Dance. This basement space, somehow created during the construction of an underground car park, houses a one-gallery theatre that has a rather gloomy feel. 

Behind it, things are more cheerful. Here, the Millenium Park laid out by Frank Gehry in 2004 contains the fantastic, curving-roofed Jay Pritzker Pavilion. This outdoor music venue is a permanent structure with room for an orchestra and a choir and capacity for up to 4000 listeners. Offering rain-protected seating, it opens on to the park with giant sliding windows. Concerts here, of course, are acoustically amplified. The ‘roof’ made of bent poles makes it cohesive. 

Next, we visited the above-mentioned Auditorium Building by Adler and Sullivan, and the rest of the day was devoted to the Steppenwolf Theater in north Chicago. This has its origins in the high school theater of the mid-1970s, first performed in the North Shore Unitarian Church in Deerfield. Jeff Perry, Terry Kinney and Gary Sinise, and a changing cast of ensemble members and playwrights over the years, swung their way through various interim locations to a new construction built in 1991, which is still the home of the privately funded theatre today. 

Theatre and research 

Day two of our sightseeing programme started with a morning session in which our US colleague Bruce Sagan spoke about the development of Chicago’s downtown cultural and theater district and its later transformation into a residential and office district. Our sightseeing tour started at a part of the University of Chicago: the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. Its various rehearsal stages for music and dance are arranged within a vertical tower. Among the performance spaces is a concert hall seating 1,500, and the main area is taken up by the Jentes Family Courtyard Theatre seating approx. 500, which recalls the Globe and the Swan. In addition, there is the Yards Theater, a space that can be varied by means of nine seating towers on air cushions. Both the Reva and David Logan Center and the drama school of DePaul University have fully equipped set-building workshops – unlike German drama schools. 

Looking at the new theatre buildings here, it seems that architects are seeking the ideal space for one of two venue types: either a performance space that is variable but still oriented towards the Globe Theatre; or the prototypical Black Box. Flexible venues are converted with each new production – at regular intervals, then, ranging from twelve to three months. The mechanical effort this takes is tremendous. All the systems we viewed during the congress involve huge feats of logistics. Nothing works at the push of a button here.

But another thing that our sightseeing showed us was that theatres, past and present, always have a positive effect on their urban surroundings. Out-of-town districts become desirable places to live if they have a theatre in them; they attract restaurants and businesses. Theatre is an identity creator, a cultural and social anchor within the neighbourhood – even far out on the periphery, in the suburbs that might otherwise become totally anonymous.

BTR Ausgabe 6 2018
Rubrik: English texts, Seite 226
von Reinhold Daberto

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