The story appears on

Page C2

April 28, 2010

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature

Building theaters and concert halls for magical audience experience

AUDIENCES who sit engrossed in the story of a play, or the magic of an orchestra are rarely aware of their surroundings. But the venue in which they sit has a special role to play in their experience.

Theater and concert hall designers, Theatre Projects, are currently working on two theaters in Shanghai: the 1,650-seat Daguan Theater to open later next year, and the 1,200-seat Shanghai Symphony Hall to be completed in 2012. They explain how architecture with a "wow factor" is crucial to the willing suspension of disbelief.

Since their first project in 2001, the Ningbo Grand Theater, the English designers have watched the phenomenal growth of cultural venues in China. In addition to their current Shanghai projects, Theatre Projects' China portfolio also includes the Suzhou Science Culture and Art Center. Due to client confidentiality, they declined to discuss further details on the two theaters in progress.

Usually 10 years or more in the making, one large concert hall may be commissioned every year in the whole of Europe. But in China they frequently hear of 10 or more a year, says the firm's Principal Mark Stroomer.

Partly this is because China has the population to support large cultural venues. It's also because every city wants an iconic building - which opera houses have become the world over. "It seems that a city doesn't come of age until it gets a concert hall," says Stroomer. "Much like how cathedrals used to define whether an English town was a city."

But the emphasis on visually stunning buildings poses special problems for theater designers. The external look is part of a building's wow factor, but the real story of a theater unfolds from the inside out.

"Theaters are very complex places, full of wires and technology. They are also creative spaces for creative people to work in. They create a world within a world for the audience to interact with the actors," says Stroomer.

"Every cultural venue is unique," he adds. "In Europe we spend up to two years talking to all the stakeholders about what they want or need from the space. This may include everyone from actors to costumers, to set designers, and you come away with a huge list.

"Because the inside is so complex, we have to build from the inside out - the relationship between inside and outside cannot be simple. This is the opposite of an iconic building where the emphasis is on the external look," Stroomer says.

However, this emphasis is changing as a more sophisticated design culture emerges in China.

Now second-tier cities are pushing for large venues. But first-tier cities are investing in smaller, more intimate ones.

In Europe, the old, small and highly decorated theaters are the most beloved, such as those in the West End of London.

"There's a danger of theaters and concert halls these days being too modern, like a factory or conference hall," explains Stroomer. "They should be intimate - like having friends round for dinner around a table and one of them is performing. But you can't build history now. They become part of the culture as people remember going there as children."

Still the technology inside is crucial to creating the magic, though it may be hidden from view or built into the design.

The two main technical problems are visual and audio.

In terms of audio, Stroomer explains that there are two types of venues.

Where sound is amplified by microphones, it is transmitted like a torch-beaming light. The key is to design the seating and the speakers so that the "torch" - or speakers - can shine the audio stream into every spot in the theater. In this case the environment needs to be kept "dead" so that sound is not reflected.

Where sound is acoustic, the design needs to control where it goes.

It is difficult to get the entire voice range to all the people around a room, so sound needs to be bounced around the space to every seat. In this case the sound heard in every seat is different.

According to Stroomer, the best seats for sound are two-thirds of the way down from the stage, not under the balcony. Another good spot is the center of every balcony toward the front.

To design a theater for good visuals, staggering seats on different levels is the key. A concert hall space is typically 20 meters high, seating 1,500 people. The space is like several floors of a normal building. This gives designers room to arrange large pieces of seating in interesting layers.

Seating on the sides of the stage gives the best value for money. "You get spectacular views, it's almost a different show," says Stroomer. "These seats are great for younger people because it's good value. Sometimes it can seem like the actors are talking directly to you, it's even a bit unnerving."


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend