On the Cutting Edge
UNStudio's razor-sharp Agora Theater takes center stage in the Dutch city of Lelystad
Maria Shollenbarger -- Interior Design, 11/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
Lelystad, northeast of Amsterdam, is an archetype of Dutch urban planning. Founded in the not-so-venerable year of 1967, the city demonstrates all the hallmarks of the polder municipalities of post–World War II: built on land reclaimed from the Zuiderzee, with a surfeit of drab brown brick and a population largely enticed from other parts of the region. (Jobs were included in the deal.) Whether this experiment has been entirely successful is a matter of some contention but, 40 years later, all eyes are back on Lelystad for the unveiling of the Agora Theater. Designed as part of an ambitious master plan to reinvigorate the city center—spearheaded by Adriaan Geuze of the urban-planning powerhouse West 8—the Agora is everything that staid, ordered, predictable Lelystad is not: outrageous, colorful, wildly asymmetrical, and hard to categorize as typically Dutch.
Lelystad has UNStudio to thank for this bold new 75,000-square-foot landmark. The firm, with its global résumé, had both the experience and a penchant for the fluid, creative thinking the job required. Principal Ben van Berkel's primary ambition for the theater was that it reflect the vibrancy, drama, and interactivity inherent in the art of performing. "Most theater buildings have blind façades or, in any case, don't show like a theater," he says. "Performance is a kaleidoscopic experience, and the space it takes place in should reflect that."
The brief was to unite three primary components: a 750-seat theater, a smaller venue of 200 seats, and a stage tower. Dressing rooms, a handful of offices, a café and restaurant, and a common foyer all needed space as well. For acoustical reasons, the two theaters would be positioned at opposite ends of the building; the tower, meanwhile, would still have to service both. UNStudio's ingenious solution involved enclosing what would have been jarring, disharmonic elements in a soaring envelope composed of flat steel panels, corrugated aluminum, and aluminum mesh painted orange and yellow. "The Dutch skies are famous for their mutability, and the light constantly interacts with this exterior, changing its colors from bright yellow and orange to shades of red and pink, even violet," Van Berkel notes. Strategically placed windows allow for some of that storied light to spill inside.
The metal-clad volume of the building tilts up in front to allow for a glassed-in foyer that soars upward while simultaneously flowing horizontally all the way to the building's opposite end—affording one view of the sky and one of the city. In the spotlight, as it were, is an achievement that makes Van Berkel especially proud: an undulating staircase crowned by a pink ribbon of a handrail. From the upstairs landing, the handrail flows down to the ground level to curve halfway around the foyer before shooting straight up the opposite wall to the ceiling. As the architect puts it, "When you hold the handrail, you interact with the whole building. You're essentially holding it." Why pink? "The Lelystad municipality had the same question. To me, pink is almost a noncolor. It's many colors, white in one kind of light and violet in another. It performs in the light. Besides, if the foyer is where the audience has its moment to perform and watch others performing, better to have lots of pink, which casts the most flattering glow."
Red is decidedly not a noncolor, but it's the one UNStudio deployed to great effect in the large theater, where the walls bulge and collapse in grand curves and angles. "We did many, many computerized sound-effect simulations to determine how these shapes would affect the quality of the acoustics in here," Van Berkel says. "It turns out they actually enhance them." Fully upholstered seats and full carpet further guarantee the quality of the sound. UNStudio also pushed the audience closer to the stage, with a minimum of space for the orchestra. "Performers comment on how immediate and intimate the experience is," he says.
Any concerns about the building overwhelming the performances themselves? No, Van Berkel says: "The time for the architecture to make an impression is when people are being seated. Upstaging what's onstage isn't the point." Once the lights go down, it's all about the show.
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