Raising the Roof
Kauffmann Theilig & Partner wins resounding acclaim for the renovated municipal theater in Mainz, Germany
Ian Phillips -- Interior Design, 8/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Historically, Mainz's greatest claim to artistic fame has belonged not to the realms of music or drama but to literature, the German city's most famous son being Johannes Gutenberg. That's not to imply, however, that concerts and plays never took place there. On the very square named for the inventor of the printing press stands the Staatstheater Mainz, constructed in 1833 by architect Georg Moller. In 1910, the city extended the building forward to make room for a foyer and stairs, adding a Wilhelminian facade in the process. Then, after World War II attacks set the theater ablaze, it was shoddily patched up in the 1950's.
As if all of that weren't bad enough, the theater's acoustics were lousy. Moller had conceived the auditorium in the form of an upturned drum, a "pure form" that suited his architectural philosophy but produced a reverberation time of just 1 to 1.2 seconds. (The prescribed norm is 1.5 to 1.8 seconds.) The hall's cylindrical shape also left singers, actors, and audience alike struggling with an extremely poor distribution of sound. "It either went round and round or simply stayed in the middle," recalls Kauffmann Theilig & Partner business manager Andreas Theilig, principal in charge on the theater project. The need for a complete overhaul, however, was loud and clear.
Originally hired to come up solely with a solution to the theater's sonic problems, Kauffmann Theilig & Partner teamed up with acoustics researchers to rip out the existing balconies, which followed the curve of the drum. The angled replacements optimize acoustics for every seat in the house. "The new structures disrupt the cylindrical form of the theater, so sound reflects better," says Theilig. Panels of neon-backlit fiberglass-reinforced plastic adds visual drama.
One drawback, however, was the balconies' weight, which the drum's double walls were unable to support. Accordingly, Kauffmann Theilig & Partner replaced two thirds of the original brick with concrete and built another wall inside. This new wall is covered in rough dark-blue plaster, contrasting with the ruddy glow of the red-painted original wall, seen through multiple doorways.
As for prolonging the paltry reverberation time—so a symphony by Beethoven sounds less ear-wrenching and more Eroica—the architects had few alternatives. "The only real way to tackle the situation was to increase the acoustic volume of the auditorium," says Theilig. This the firm achieved by raising the roof 8 feet, which not only upped the reverberation time (1.6 to 1.7 seconds) but also took the project into a completely different realm. "At first, the idea was simply to renovate the auditorium," explains Theilig. "But when we decided to raise the roof, the exterior of the theater also came into play."
The focal point of the new design is a 33-foot-high circular glass enclosure that sits on the flat front section of the building's roof. Similar in concept to Norman Foster's dome for the Reichstag in Berlin, the glass makes a statement of newness in addition to offering a marvelous close-up view of the city's Romanesque cathedral.
Inside the new enclosure, a glass partition separates a restaurant from a set-making studio, allowing diners to watch resident artists at work. "It's very complicated to transport materials for the sets up to the studio and bring them down again," admits Theilig, "but there was no other place for us to put it." In the restaurant, meanwhile, the architects had to cope with solar gain. Fitting the windows with louvers would have obstructed the view, so Kaufmann Theilig & Partner used low-emissivity glass. To regulate temperature in the restaurant and studio, the architects ran hot and cold water pipes inside the concrete walls and below the terrazzo floor. The two new steel staircases leading from the foyer to the restaurant are half-wrapped in 2 1/2-foot-wide strips of perforated steel painted in eye-catching red and yellow.
In sprucing up the theater foyer, Kauffmann Theilig & Partner carefully respected what was already there. As much as possible of the terrazzo floor was salvaged, 1950's glass sconces and a gigantic chandelier restored. Innovation played its role as well. Because part of the drum's original inner wall is visible from the foyer, the architects glazed the curved structure, backlighting the glass with fluorescent tubes to produce a dozen different effects. "The atmosphere can be varied according to the season or the type of performance being staged," says Theilig.
Displayed on the same glazed surface are photos of actors in the resident company—a nice touch. How better to adorn an illuminated wall than with theatrical leading lights?