Culture and Leisure under one Roof
At the opening of the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts, it was proudly proclaimed to be the largest cultural centre of the world under one roof. Three to four venues under one roof are exist rather often Asia, but this roof is special: Mecanoo Architects from Delft have been inspired by the large Banyan trees of the area and the shipbuilding industry in Kaoshiung. The author from Theateradvies Consultants presents the project with a focus on its functionality.
The theatre is built in a corner of the Weiwuying Metropolitan Park, a former military base in Kaohsiung and even though the size of the building is quite impressive, it still blends in nicely with the surroundings. Francine Houben, architect of Wei Wu Ying found the inspiration for the shape of the building in the banyan trees that can be found in the park. This tropical tree has a very distinct form. From the branches of the tree, air-roots are formed. When these roots touch the ground, they grow into the soil, thus forming new branches and trunks. An old specimen may look like a group of trees, but is actually only one single tree with several trunks. Kaohsiung has a very warm climate and the banyan tree offers a welcoming shade that is used by the people of Kaohsiung for tai chi lessons or maybe a siesta. The architect used the idea of the banyan tree to create a similar space that offers shade and a nice sea breeze. The auditoria are the big tree trunks and the crowned space in between, called Banyan Plaza can be enjoyed by the public, whether in possession of a ticket or not. This space is always part of the public space and has already been discovered by the people of Kaohsiung as a place for street music, tai chi and after lunch naps.
Banyan plaza was created with the goal to provide a comfortable and hospitable public space. But even in this public area, there are provisions for stage machinery. Lifting eyes in the ceiling allow for the use of chain hoists and at several places there are power and data outlets for lighting and sound equipment. Whereas the inspiration for the building was found in the park, the material to build the theatre was found in the nearby harbor with its shipbuilding industry. The organic forms of the building posed no obstacle for the ship builders.
The design team of the theatre was led by Mecanoo Architects from Delft, Netherlands, who worked together with theatre consultant Louis Janssen of Theateradvies in Amsterdam. What convinced the jury in the competition phase, apart from the architectural qualities, was the simple and effective organization of the logistics. This theatre has clearly been designed with a strong focus on functionality. All the stages and loading docks are on one and the same level, with three loading bays on one side of the building, two loading bays on the other side and a very wide corridor in between, functioning as the logistic backbone of the building. From this corridor, there are loading doors to each stage. Distances between trucks and stages are short and even very large productions can get in or out quickly. This setup has consequences for the public space. On one side of the building the roof touches the ground. At this side we find the open-air theater. From this side, the public space inside the building slopes up to a height of 5 meters, which is the height that is needed for the loading docks.
The height of each stage is thereby determined by the technical logistics of stage equipment. This level determines the depth of the elevator pit of the stage elevators of the opera and the height of the stage tower of the theatre and the opera. The curved metal roof connects all spaces and effectively hides the stage towers of these two spaces. The two concert halls are situated on one side of the building. The theatre is placed at the other side and the opera, a mix between theatre and music, is in the middle.
The vineyard-style concert hall seats 2.000 people. The main focus for the concert hall was to achieve excellent acoustics, a goal that was reached by acoustic consultant Albert Xu from Paris. The second goal was user-friendliness and functionality. To reach that goal, Janssen designed a range of stage equipment that enables the technical staff to facilitate the different kinds of concerts being performed in this auditorium. The stage is divided into fifteen elevators, enabling the technicians to bring every platform to the ideal height for all instruments at the touch of a button. A large acoustic canopy above the stage improves the acoustic quality, both for the musicians and the audience. The canopy can be raised or lowered to give the best possible acoustics for every different kind of concert. Above the canopy, a series of 24 chain-hoists allow for quick and efficient change-overs of additional set pieces
The orchestra lighting is built into the canopy. Additional stage lighting is hidden behind large trapdoors in the ceiling around the stage. During classical concerts, these doors are closed, but when extra lighting is needed, it is easily accessible for the technicians. An installation to enhance speech is well hidden, but always available. Speeches and short announcements do not need visible loudspeakers to be heard by the audience. This is just another example of how the stage equipment is available and accessible but not visible when not in use.The organ of the concert hall with its 9,085 pipes was built by the German Company Johannes Klais Orgelbau
The recital hall is a small auditorium with 450 seats. The walls of this auditorium are fitted with wooden elements that can be turned around to influence the acoustics. One side of the element reflects the sound, the other side absorbs the sound. Additional curtains can further influence the acoustics, making this auditorium suitable for most acoustic chamber music concerts.
The 1250 seats-Playhouse is a combination of a traditional proscenium-style theatre and a classic thrust stage. The combination is achieved by making an elevator of each row in the pit. The rows can be staggered to make a proscenium style auditorium, but they can also be raised to stage level to make a thrust. The seats on these elevators are fitted with wheels. Positioning or storing these seats is a matter of minutes. With a thrust stage, sightlines are different. Good sightlines on stage are not automatically good sightlines on the thrust. However, the balconies are quite steep to solve that question. An added plus of these steep balconies is the fact that sightlines are short. The audience is close to the actors, which gives this auditorium a high degree of intimacy. Since the theatre is built in Taiwan it was important to incorporate a stage for the orchestra of the Chinese Opera.
Above the thrust stage a tension wire grid allows for good lighting positions. Chain hoists on cranes provide extra hoisting positions above the thrust. The main stage is equipped with a fully automated power flying system, extensive stage lighting and sound installations, equipped to host most travelling international productions.
The auditorium of the opera hall has a traditional set up with three balconies and a total of 2.300 seats. What sets this opera house apart is the functionality of the stage area. This stage has been designed for the presentation of opera and ballet and functionality and user-friendliness have taken precedence. If anything strikes the visitor, it is the absence of installations, such as airducts in places they are not wanted. In many theatres around the world, it is normal to find installations that are indispensable, but still hinder the functionality of the stage. Technicians and designers have learned how to deal with these unwanted, but unavoidable obstacles. The designers of this theatre have put an immense effort in avoiding such obstacles. There are air ducts of course, but they are not in the way. Walls are not cluttered with all kinds of outlets, switches and control boards. These elements are there, but only where they are functional and practical.
The stage tower is quite impressive with a clear height of 25 m for the fly-bars above the stage and an understage with a clear height of 11m. From the bottom of the elevator pit to the top of the grid, the height is 55m. Starting from the roof, there is a grid without any steel cables. The usual curtains of steel cables of the fly-bars are not present on this grid. The winches are positioned beside the grid and the cables run under the grid floor. This is not a new solution – the consultants of Theateradvies employed it for the first time 15 year ago – but it is still a very good way to make a grid that is safe to work on. Positioning chain hoists on cranes and point hoists on the floor is very easy. Since the measurements of the stage are indicated on the grid floor, it is also easy to determine the right place to place a point hoist. In the stage tower there are bridges on 3 levels. All bridges are wide enough to walk on, with tools in your hand and without touching the side lights.
For lighting ballet, side ladders are installed. Each ladder is equipped with its own winch and can be lowered and raised individually. The lights are permanently cabled and need only be focused when in use for a performance. The flybars have been designed without gaps. From the portal bridge to the galleries in the back, there is a fly-bar every 200mm. No gaps, no specials such as a cyclorama. The idea is that the more specials there are, the less flexibility is offered. All the bars have the same capacity (750kg) and the same max. speed (1.8m/s). The only exception is the bar for the house curtain. This bar has the same capacity of 750kg but a speed of 2.4m/s. This speed was needed, because the height of the proscenium is 12m and the client wanted to be able to lift the curtain very quickly.
Lighting bars including the cyclorama are completely flexible in this theatre. The usual lighting bridges of most opera houses have been replaced by moveable lighting trusses. These trusses are pre-rigged. They can be rolled to the right position, attached to the intended fly-bar and when they hang, the wheels can be folded up. The trusses are connected to the dimmers and DMX using cable reels on the grid.
The stage is equipped with five double deck elevators with trapdoors. The total effective playing area is 16 x 16m. Passive stage wagons allow for horizontal scene changes to both side stages and the back stage. Compensator elevators are used to level the stage floor in all directions. The stage elevators run between minus 14m and plus 5m. The clear height of the understage that is situated below the back stage is 11m. Because the elevators are double decked, they have a height of 5m each and an additional 5m for the construction that was needed to bridge the length of the elevators. When the elevators are at the lowest position, they draw 10m. Including the construction of the floors, the pit depth is 25m
Side and backstages are, for acoustical reasons, closed off with sound doors of 12 x 18m which can be opened silently with a high speed of 1.8m/sec. When closed the main stage has still enough side stage for normal circulation and small scene changes.
Good working conditions – new Cultural Experience
When designing the stages, a big emphasis was put on good working conditions. The stages of the Playhouse and the Opera are not black. This is remarkable, since the walls of all the stages of every theatre in Asia have been painted black. Not painting the walls and leaving the concrete grey and the acoustical panels light yellow is most unusual. It provides, however, a much more convenient workplace. There is no actual technical need to paint the walls black. When black is needed, the curtains can make it black. Another thing everybody notices is the presence of working lights. Working in a theatre, especially in Asia, can be a very dark affair. Not in this theatre. This may seem a luxury, but if we look at the international standards for lighting levels, there is nothing luxurious about it. On the stage people have to be able to read scripts and do fine mechanical work. A level of 750 – 1.000 lux is described for such activities.
This way, the Performing Arts Center of Kaohshiung presents itself as a space to experience culture, to relax but also to work under comfortable conditions, starting from the outer spaces and then continuing to the auditoriums to the stage. „Today Kaohsiung is known for its industrial development“, said President Tai at the official opening. “In the future, it will also become a famous cultural city.“ The Artistic Director, the renowned conductor Chien Wen-Ping, who also has been the chief conductor at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, added: “ Wei-Wu-ying with its exceptional infrastructure offers us the opportunity to experiment -courageous and innovativ and to try out different things.“ The connections between Taiwan and Europe have been further reinforced with this project, and also the ambitious program shows many cooperations with Europa and the world. The Berlin Phlilharmonics were among the first guests. The Cultural Centre wants to create new impulse for the cultural life of the city. The start was very promising.
The author: Gerbrand Borgdorf is CEO of Theater Advies in Amsterdam.
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