The Modern Theatre


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By Meredith Arms Bzdak
The twentieth century brought new forms of drama and successive waves of technological advancement to the world of theatre. Architecturally, by mid-century, it also brought experimentation. The theatres and performing arts spaces designed and built in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s represent a range of Modern styles, from Neo-Expressionism to Brutalism. By definition, many of these theatres are now historic, having reached fifty years of age. Some have been recognized for their outstanding historical or architectural significance (Jorn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House, completed in 1973, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007) and a handful are world renowned as important cultural landscapes (New York City’s own Lincoln Center), but many more are misunderstood or underappreciated. In fact, pieces of this heritage are increasingly threatened. 
Photo (left): The Morris Mechanic Theater in Baltimore, Maryland
In general, the 1950s, 60s, and 70s did not witness a high volume of theatre construction. The postwar years reflected a shift from live performance viewed collectively to recorded drama experienced more personally via the family television. A simultaneous population shift from urban to suburban not only left earlier movie palaces with decreased audiences, but also slowed the growth of new venues. 
Theatres from the 1950s that survive today with a high degree of architectural integrity are becoming increasingly rare. Stylistically, these theatres did not break much new ground, but they did exhibit some experimentation in terms of materials, lighting, and structural systems. (Economically, they also faced growing competition from a new building type, the drive-in theatre, not discussed here, which was developed in the 1930s but began to reach a critical mass in the 1950s.)
Photo (right): Cape May's Beach Theatre. Courtesy of the Beach Theatre Foundation
Cape May, NJ’s Beach Theatre (1950), designed by architect William Harold Lee, was recently demolished. While the Beach was designed in a rather simple interpretation of the Colonial Revival style, it was novel in the fact that it appeared as the focal point of a strip shopping center, a reasonably new building type, and certainly one that had little relationship to the well preserved Victorian-era structures that served as the theatre’s backdrop.  
A surviving example from the 1950s, the Hyart Theater, in Lovell, Wyoming, was built by Hyrum "Hy" Bischoff in 1950. Essentially a traditional rectangular plan, two-story theatre, the Hyart also incorporated new design concepts that were being seen across a range of building types during this period. Intended to catch the eye of the motorist, the Hyart’s façade relied on bold forms and color. A lattice screen in turquoise stretches across a pink metal façade; a multi-story, neon pylon (the mid-century version of a blade sign) announces “HYART.” For over sixty years, the Hyart has served as an important commercial presence on Lovell’s Main Street.
Photo (right): Hyart Theater. Credit: Gary A. Rich

Arthur L. Troutner’s Boise Little Theatre, completed in 1957, was a clear departure from the theatre-as-downtown-centerpiece model that prevailed in the late 19thand early 20thcenturies. Located outside of the urban core of the city, it is situated at the edge of Fort Boise Park, surrounded by open land. Freed from having to accommodate adjacent neighbors, the theatre features an octagonal floor plan. Its saucer-shaped dome is supported on curved, laminated beams, considered innovative at the time.

The centralized plan type, as seen at the Boise Little Theatre, seems to have attained considerable popularity by the early 1960s. One of the most prominent performance spaces in the country, Arena Stage, in Washington DC, was completed in 1961, and its Fichandler Stage, designed by architect Harry Weese, became known as the first permanent “in the round” theatre in North America. The circular plan began to be regularly relied upon for the design of college and university performance spaces, which were growing in number during this period. Three outstanding examples of this type – each the work of a prominent Modern architect – can be found on the campuses of Arizona State University, Goucher College, and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

Photo (above): Fichandler Stage. Courtesy of Arena Stage

Goucher College’s Kraushaar Auditorium (housed within the larger Rhoda M. Dorsey College Center), was designed by Pietro Belluschi (with Rogers, Taliferro, Kestritsky and Lamb) and completed in 1962. The building has always occupied a key campus location, supporting myriad administrative functions in addition to its music and theatre offerings.  Architecturally, Belluschi sought to tie the building to its immediate context (a hallmark of his work) by utilizing a mix of materials that included fieldstone, wood, and copper.

Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium, completed in 1964, was one of the last projects designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Located on the edge of the Arizona State University campus in Tempe, AZ, the building demonstrates Wright’s preoccupation with geometric form that dominated his late work.  It is intriguing in both plan and elevation, featuring two interlocking circular forms, with pedestrian ramps emerging from each side and leading into a manicured and carefully orchestrated parking lot. A series of spare columns supports much of the roof, linked by an expressive curtain of stuccoed capitals. Currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, the Gammage is thriving, and its audience is not limited to the campus precinct but rather extends across the state. 

Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium in Pasadena, CA, was dedicated in the same year that the Gammage was being completed, 1964. Its designer, Edward Durell Stone, also made use of a centralized plan. The circular auditorium is ringed by delicate white columns capped by diamond shaped capitals; the roof is a shallow, cone shape.  The Los Angeles Conservancy notes “This little gem of a building plays on light, form, and pattern to create a modern interpretation of a circular Roman temple.” 

Photo (right): Caltech's Beckman Auditorium. 
A number of theatres were either focal points or significant components of large-scale urban renewal projects during the 1960s. These projects were designed not only to clear and repopulate areas of their respective cities that were seen as aging and/or failing, but also to attract tourists and bring life to otherwise underappreciated areas.
Although planning for New York City’s Lincoln Center, envisioned by master developer Robert Moses to replace the former Lincoln Square Neighborhood, began in the mid-1950s, groundbreaking for the complex did not take place until 1959. The first building of the new cultural center to be completed was;Max Abramovitz’s Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall). This building, along with those that followed, was designed in a Modern Classical vein and set within a largely axial composition around a plaza defined by a central fountain, which was dramatically lighted at night. The Center, accessed via stairs and placed on a podium, stood apart from its surroundings, a serene cultural island amid the chaos of an Upper West Side neighborhood. Despite the fact that various components of the Center as it was initially completed were designed by some of the leading Modernists of the time – including Philip Johnson, Eero Saarinen, Gordon Bunshaft, Pietro Belluschi, and Wallace K. Harrison – the stylistic restraint that was employed led critics to deem it conservative.
Photo (above): Los Angeles Music Center, Mark Taper Forum. Credit: Andreas Praefcke
The west coast responded to New York with its own version of Lincoln Center, known as the Los Angeles Music Center, which similarly transformed much of the Bunker Hill neighborhood. Currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, its three-building music and theatre complex (incorporating the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Mark Taper Forum, and the Ahmanson Theatre) was designed by Los Angeles-based architect Welton Becket and opened in phases between 1964 and 1967. As at Lincoln Center, the Modern Classical design did not break new stylistic ground, but signaled a new era of the urban “cultural complex” that not only served as a model for other cities around the country but also pointed to the expansive role that the performing arts had achieved within our communities. Not long after the initial phases of the LA Music Center were complete, Houston, Texas responded with Caudill Rowlett Scott’s Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts (1966) and Ulrich Franzen’s Alley Theatre (1968), which became the most prominent components of their new downtown Theater District.
Photo (above): Jones Hall in Houston, Texas. Credit: Liz Waytkus
Harrison & Abramovitz’s Empire State Plaza in Albany, NY, had much in common with both Lincoln Center and the LA Music Center: its new buildings replaced 40 square blocks, remaking an entire neighborhood. Although Empire State Plaza began construction in 1966, its performing arts center, known as the Egg, was the final component of the complex to be completed, in 1978. The Egg’s pure, simple form and its material – concrete – ties it stylistically to theatre design trends of the late 1960s 1970s.

Photo (right): Albany's "The Egg". Credit: Liz Waytkus 

Many of the Modern theatres designed in this later period were constructed of concrete in a Brutalist style. Ulrich Franzen’s 1968 Alley Theatre in Houston (noted above) is one example; John Johansen’s Morris Mechanic Theater in Baltimore (1967) is another. In some ways a response to the lighter, more delicate Modernism that had preceded it (see Jones Hall or Beckman Auditorium, above), Brutalist buildings are defined by a reliance on concrete (much of it left in an exposed/raw state) and a blocky, muscular arrangement of their various components.

A general public dissatisfaction with Brutalist design in general, combined with the fact that many buildings of this era are in need of significant upgrades (particularly in terms of systems and accessibility), has placed Brutalist buildings across the country in peril in the last several years. Theatres designed in this style are no exception. Ralph Rapson’s 1963 Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN, considered an innovative regional theatre, was demolished in 2006 and replaced by a new Guthrie, designed by Atelier Jean Nouvel. Recently, two Brutalist works by New Canaan Modernist Johansen were also lost: the aforementioned Morris Mechanic Theater, and the Mummers Theater (Stage Center) in Oklahoma City (1970). 
Photo (right): The Alley Theater in Houston, Texas. Credit: Benjamin Hill
While DOCOMOMO works to promote and protect Modern architecture, landscape, and design across the country and beyond, it becomes clear that the organization must also continue to educate. Many of the buildings of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s – and particularly those that encompass a significant program of public accommodation – are at risk. Theatres, auditoria, and other performance venues are a special building type with very specific requirements for sound, sight, and circulation. They are central to our cities, towns, and campuses, and the activities they contain are at the core of our understanding of ourselves as human beings. 

Meredith Arms Bzdak is an architectural historian and a Partner in the Princeton, NJ firm Mills + Schnoering Architects, LLC. She has over twenty years of experience in the field of historic preservation, and has produced numerous documents pertaining to historic architecture. She currently serves on the board of Docomomo US.