Open to the outside, up to the sky, and 24 hours

In January 2020, Professor Jörg Friedrich, and his Hamburg firm of architects, pfp, won the architectural competition for an extension to the Stuttgart Theaterhaus. With the cost of building currently estimated at 40 million Euros, it seems an almost humble addition to the string of major conversion and renovation projects launched in recent years. We talked to Professor Friedrich about his ideas on the shape of the theatre to come.

Bühnentechnische Rundschau

BTR: Mr Friedrich, your design for the extension of Theaterhaus Stuttgart appears relatively unassuming. In 2018 your firm conducted the feasibility study for the renovation of Frankfurt’s municipal theatre and calculated a cost of 900 million Euros. Rebuilding would probably cost far less. You are known to be an outspoken critic of burgeoning building costs.

Jörg Friedrich: True. With this study we launched a wave in Frankfurt that spilled over all the way to Stuttgart, Düsseldorf, Zurich, and Berlin.

We had been asked by the city to evaluate the renovation of the existing structure of the Städtische Bühnen. That’s exactly what we did, in the light of the council’s and the theatre personnel’s requirements. It wasn’t even about the architectural design of the whole thing. Some politicians were not aware that merely restoring, making the necessary improvements to, and installing up-to-date technology in Frankfurt’s 1960s-built dual theatre would cost almost a billion Euros. And none of that would even be visible from outside. That of course raises the question of how sustainable buildings like that are. And do we want to conserve outdated theatre types at a huge expense or rather develop new theatre concepts for the 21st century?


What conclusions have you drawn from the debate surrounding the Frankfurt study?

It’s interesting to see how contemporary performance practice is influenced by the architectural surroundings. Most theatre buildings have an inward orientation, are shut off from the urban space. But does it really have to be like that? Why shouldn’t theatres be open to the outside? One example is the Manchester Factory’s festival theatre, a transparent building with reconfigurable halls. It doesn’t bother anyone if they hear a noise from a side room or the street outside. In other words, the less importance is placed on soundproofing, the more you can do with the space. In Germany that is hard to imagine. Here, there’s uproar if you hear a police siren during a performance of Tosca. Consequently, we are asked to make the doors and walls ever thicker, which – combined with new technology and contemporary fire precautions – is extremely complicated and expensive. Our renovation study for the Frankfurt theatres spelled that out. On the other hand, some theatre buildings of the 1960s were also designed to be multi-functional and we should build on those concepts. 


Nicholas Payne, director of the Opera Europa association, recently called on architects to do their part to ensure opera and theatre are updated for the 21st century – with variable spaces that allow diverse, multidirectional usage and seating. But many spectacular new buildings are still designed with the kind of interiors that have been the norm for 200 years. What are the chances for alternative concepts?

Because of all the work we do with young theatre people, we are designing ever more spaces that can be easily changed, and I mean not only the dimensions and cubatures but also the acoustics. You can’t, of course, change the structural elements in existing buildings at will – for instance, create reconfigurable stalls or tear down the galleries. But with new buildings it’s different. Especially as a young generation is now reaching maturity that has grown up with smartphones and earphones. Those young people are not your classic theatre audience. But they might like to use the theatre during the day, to sit in the foyer café and meet friends or read, go online, or study. And then they might get interested in going to a performance in the evening. An open house could arouse their curiosity, on their own terms, about what happens on the stage. The concept of theatre is changing, too, getting broader, more open, and diverse. The theatre of the future should be open to everybody from morning to night – to dream, watch, play, dance, have fun, talk, and work. 


Which new architectural styles do you have in mind?

New theatres should, for instance, allow audiences to move around freely during performances. The classic stalls-and-circles arrangement is too static; it should be possible to mechanically flatten the rakes to ensure the flexible use of the auditorium. We need to put more imagination into designing variable areas for the public; flexibility shouldn’t be limited to the stage technology! In past decades, the audience has often been disregarded during planning. I am in favour of more transparency between inside and outside, more sight lines between foyers, auditoriums, and urban spaces, and for areas like rehearsal stages, workshops, foyers and even stage towers to be made usable for performances. And new buildings could even be designed to combine theatre and homes, for a new residential concept.  


What do you pay special attention to when planning workshops, and rehearsal and service rooms?

My top priority is ensuring the right working conditions. That means optimal functionality. And very importantly, there should be windows to let in daylight all over. I often attend rehearsals in my free time and have seen orchestra musicians forced to spend hours in the dark – and quietly suffering. But the ‘blackness’ is still part of the artistic myth, the idea of absolute concentration and seclusion. I proposed naturally lit rehearsal rooms for Kulturkraftwerk Mitte in Dresden. A lot of people there were initially against it. But afterwards we got a lot of positive feedback and were even told that fewer people called off sick. They’ve all got used to it now. Ideally, we would like to flood the stage towers with natural light and restyle them as additional stages. You would, of course, still need to be able to darken them, which has been done in Holland with great success. 


Back to building costs. Do you agree that it is mainly fire prevention and stage technology that causes them to rise so exorbitantly? 

Unfortunately, yes. In our view that is partly also because theatres, under the pressure to compete, come up with crazy technological requirements that nobody questions. We do our best to point out to the building contractors the complexity of calculating costs and where you could make moderate reductions.


BTR Ausgabe 3 2020
Rubrik: English texts, Seite 162
von Karin Winkelsesser