Evolution of an Unusual Playhouse

Upon being asked, by the University, to design the proposed Loeb Drama Center, I was given a program entitled, "What the Building Should Be and Do." The purpose and requirements were so clearly stated and such a challenge that they could not fail to excite any architect. For me, it was probably even more exciting, as for many years, I had been interested in theaters and buildings for similar purposes.

What interested me most in the Harvard theater program was the incompatibility of the types of "staging" desired in the main theater. To quote the program:

The stage should be adaptable enough to accomodate a classical or modern play, and to present it in a manner consistent with the style in which it is written. This means a platform or "open" stage will be required as well as a proscenium stage, and that the proscenium opening should be flexible. The two units should be capable of use together or separately. Part, if not all, of the platform, should be hydraulically controlled so that several levels may be provided...

As is well known, the open stage had to be diametrically opposed to a proscenium arrangement. The open stage presupposes seating on three sides, (sketch No. 1) while the proscenium is a picture frame arrangement, with the audience seated as though watching a movie (sketch No. 2).

Since the site lines, use of scenery, seating arrangement--in fact, the whole philosophy of the two kinds of theater--are just opposite from each other, the main functional problem to solve was: How could they be synchronized in one practical design.

Theaters have been built which accomodate these opposite forms of staging, such as the large theater in Malmo, Sweden. But in making this possible, large sections of seating are unused (sketch No. 3). Others designs for the "total" theater have been proposed from time to time. Since the seating capacity of out theater was purposely limited, it seemed illogical to abandon seats in order to accommodate flexibility. In other words, the theater should be truly convertible.

At an early stage of the design, Bob Chapman and I consulted several well known stage designers and critics in New York. One, after listening to the proposal, said that architects in Europe and America have tried unsuccessfully to solve this problem for many years. He advised us to abandon the open stage and make a good design for proscenium productions. This advice made the challenge even greater.

The only encouragement that day came from John Mason Brown, who thought the idea possible and worth pursuing. It must be kept in mind that our problem was a University theater, not Broadway, or "off Broadway."

Ideas change with the years and this theater should not be a straightjacket, as so many Broadway houses are, but should allow future Harvard generations a certain freedom of choice in arrangement and staging.

It was not thought of as a house of novelties, a "list of firsts," but rather as a tool, to allow students more possibilities than they now have to develop their ideas and extend their talents.

In the design process, many possibilities were tried and abandoned. Eventually, a seemingly simple idea evolved: the room would be a simple rectangle, half of the seats set in stadium fashion, the other half on elevators capable of being shifted from proscenium style into a second position, making space for the open platform stage (sketch No. 4). Shortly after this breakthrough, Bob Chapman introduced M. Michel St. Denis, noted French producer and theater expert whom the University had asked to advise on the design concept. We spent many profitable hours exchanging theories and ideas. St. Denis was sympathetic with our views, but emphasized "concentration of the audience toward the place of action." We came to the conclusion that the straight rows of seating, as in the first concept, tended to destroy focus and concentration.

After this meeting, it was decided to include a curved seating arrangement, but this decision seemingly complicated the idea for using lifts to convert the normal proscenium seating to an open stage projecting into the audience, with seats on three sides. A number of different ways of converting the theater and moving some of the seats as well as the stage were considered.

The simplest solution--using the hydraulic lifts, which were essential to the "open stage"--appeared to be the rotation of banks of forward seating. It seemed that the only problems here (sketch No. 5) were matters of mechanics, engineering and cost.

A scheme based on this premise was presented to the Building Committee (consisting of Professor MacLeish, Professor Levin, Dean Bundy, Dean Sert and Professor Chapman) which gave a green light to go ahead full steam.

The site was at the limit of the commercial development on residential Brattle Street. The building was very large in area and intrinsically of great bulk--bigger than anything else around it. The problem was how to make it a good neighbor, how to make it in scale and, at the same time, fulfil its purposes.

Many experts are necessary to bring any building project to realization: structural and mechanical engineers, plumbing and electrical engineers, site engineers, landscape architects, lighting experts--and in the case of a theater, acoustical engineers and stage design engineers.

For collaboration on this project, we selected, with the University's approval, some experts: Goldberg LeMessurier Associates for structure, Delbrook Engineering, Inc, for heating-ventilating and air conditioning, Thompson Engineering Company, for the electrical engineering, Bolt, Beranek and Newman for acoustics, George Izenour (who had already developed a new system for lifting scenery) for stage lighting and special engineering in connection with the stage and convertibility features. The coordination of all the collaborators made it possible to carry out the Architect's functional and aesthetic concept of this theater.

Technical accomplishments are one thing, but every building requires more than this. Architecture is much more than the mere translation of ideas into technical reality. Perhaps the most important consideration of all and the most difficult is the aesthetic environment produced by a structure. In the case of a theater, and in particular this theater on Brattle Street, this was a unique and difficult problem.

As a Guide we had the Building Committee's program which stated in very clear words, what the theater should be:

The Harvard theater should be conceived from the point of view of the audiences which will use it. It should be a building which, as building, will create the sense of excitement and expectation which most existing American theaters so flatly fall to give--"severe, uncomfortable, ill-ventilated, dull undecorated or dustily over-glided barns" as Bob Chapman calls them. It should be, to quote Chapman again: "A magical, delightful, stimulating experience to attend the theater; and this means architecturally, a departure from almost every playhouse in America."

But though the theater must be beautiful, its builders must also remember that the play's the thing. The building should not be so architecturally exciting and excited, as building, that the plays produced in it will be overshadowed by their frame. On the contrary, the auditorium should please the imagination in such a way as to release it, not captivate it. Certain museums and art galleries recently erected as monuments to their architects, not as houses for their contents, make the reminder necessary.

This has been our "Profession de Foil" The building will speak for itself. Only those who use the building, those who pass it every day, those who will come to Cambridge in future years will be the judges of whether the work, the thought, the ingenuity and devotion of so many people to produce this building have been worth while