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Rotterdam's new Luxor Theatre is a rich internal landscape of interacting layers that combines contingencies of site with the rituals of theatre going.

Rotterdam is redeveloping its docklands area just south of the centre across the River Maas, a branch of the Rhine, and the city authorities saw the need to inject an element of culture into the inevitable development of offices, shops and flats. To this end, they set aside a crucial corner site to establish a new branch of the successful Luxor Theatre, whose original house (dating from the 1920s) remains in the city centre.

For the design of the building, an invited architectural competition was held in 1996 featuring such luminaries as Herman Hertzberger, Rem Koolhaas and Kees Christiaanse, but Bolles + Wilson took first prize and has built its scheme without substantial changes. It already knew the area well, as it had previously won (and built) a competition for the rehabilitation of the adjacent quayside, including the control tower for the Erasmus Bridge, which opens for passing ships. It was its handling of the context that gave it the edge in this competition. Both theatre and earlier quayside scheme show great skill in manipulating a difficult part of the city that involves huge contrasts of scale.

Sited at the crossroads just south of the Erasmus Bridge, the theatre plays a major role in creating the bridgehead. Its 36m-high fly-tower commands the junction and announces its presence to the captive traffic on the bridge with vast graphic displays and lettering in huge type. The theatre has a similar bulk and presence in the opposite direction, as its south side presents long views across the Rhine harbour. To the east, its official side fronts the bridge road with a series of offices, dressing rooms and an artists' entrance.

In plan, the building absorbs the 105[degrees] angle of the dock corner: the axis of stage and auditorium is normal to the road, and the curving foyer adopts the orientation of the quay to the south. On its less formal side, the building is shaped by the path of the trucks that deliver scenery to the stage door. These enter the building by a ramp at its western corner, turn in a projecting tongue of space at the southern corner and reverse into a loading bay beside the stage. [1]

In a piece of neat coincidental design, the movement of the foyer above follows the same path, with a stepped pedestrian ramp over the truck ramp and the largest bar with southward view over the loading area. The roof of the truck's turning space becomes a dramatic paved terrace to the foyer that juts out over the water. Most people will not notice that the promenade through the foyers follows the progress and direction of the ramp below, but it means all major patterns of movement are combined, swinging around anticlockwise. This reinforces a notion, suggested by the plan form, that the whole building is encompassed by a single spiralling wall that opens snail-like at the entrance and culminates in the stage. In a nice piece of expressive functionalism, the vehicle ramp appears on south and west sides as a heavy duty structure such as a girder bridge.

Although the seven- to eight-storey building may look modest from a distance, and has to make bold announcements to the wider world with three-storey-high letters, the immediate approach and entrance needed to be more intimate. There was also the oppressive problem of two crossing, six-lane highways. To bring the scale down, Bolles + Wilson created a kind of semi entrance court contained by a projecting flank wall. The north-facing side contains box offices, the east-facing one the battery of doors that lead to the main foyer, with large windows above so you can look out. The building gathers its crowd effortlessly and there is space enough for it to disperse easily and quickly after the show.

Site space for the whole building was rather tight, prompting an early decision to raise the auditorium off the ground, tucking the first foyer level beneath it. Members of the audience therefore turn the first corner to confront the underbelly of the hall and its various canted structural supports. Depositing their coats at the counter to the left, they turn to start on one of the three batteries of stairs rising to higher levels, going to left or right depending on destination. As they rise through the building, each new stair invites them to the next stage of the promenade until they find the appropriate level for their seat. All this is very Scharounian in principle and effect. [2] Unprecedented, however, is the delightful sloping route along the south edge on top of the lorry ramp, which is treated as a series of very long steps and lit by horizontal, slit windows close to the floor. It winds irresistibly round, gathering more stair connections as it goes, and culminates in a double-level bar and restaur ant with magnificent views over the Rhine dock. Further stairs within this volume lead to an upper bar level and to a whole additional foyer leading back the other way to another bar above the entrance.

The sequence of spaces -- every bit a contrived promenade architecturale -- is enriched by careful framing of views with various scales of window. Like the Philharmonie in Berlin -- the obvious and acknowledged model [3] -- it provides a kind of internal landscape of interacting layers where the people of Rotterdam can parade in their finery to see and be seen, creating a theatre of the interval almost as important as that of the stage.

Although the foyer is irregular and asymmetrical in response to site and route, the stage and 1500-seat auditorium are conventionally axial, with radial seating and an orthodox proscenium. A symmetrical theatre was requested by the competition brief, [4] and experiments in staging were hardly appropriate because the theatre is used by travelling companies that bring in sets. Also, performers moving from venue to venue apparently prefer the predictability of a symmetrical auditorium, finding the audience where they expect it. [5]

The theatre serves for music, musicals, opera and all kinds of popular entertainment, so different reverberation times are needed. These are produced by raising and lowering ceiling panels with a complex surface shape that resembles crumpled paper at an inflated scale. There are also numerous acoustic resonators built into the auditorium sides, although a simpler visual wall is presented by horizontal strips of red wood (actually wood veneer on aluminium sections left open enough to be acoustically transparent). The festive red seating was designed by Bolles + Wilson. The one unusually dramatic element added to the otherwise sober and efficient space is a lighting device like a huge domino suspended from the ceiling that is lifted away as the performance starts.

In plan, the main entrance lines up with the proscenium, prompting comparison between the two kinds of threshold. Generally speaking, this line also divides front and back of house, although with imperceptible exceptions such as the lavatories to either side of the upper stage. The north-east side and eastern corner house a multi-storey tract of rooms for administrative offices, dressing rooms, bar for staff and players and so on, all straightforwardly and modestly done, with daylighting to all habitable rooms and efficiently short circulation. Detailed planning takes ingenious advantage of irregular shapes.

To some extent, this is a building worked from inside out, articulating forms of fly-tower, auditorium, flowing foyer and lorry ramp. This policy continues with the fenestration, with horizontal bands of windows marking the office and dressing-room windows on the east side, while huge areas of glazing to north and south reveal the main foyer areas, the latter with horizontal sunscreens. Upper parts of the building are covered with a skin of red horizontal fibrecement panels. At ground floor level, the wall is set back to let the building float on pilotis, making it permeable and creating shelter on the eastern street side. Metaphorically, this floating represents the suspension of the theatre within the internal space rather than a solid grounding of it.

Beyond these considerations, much work was done to shape the building from the outside in. Making the fly-tower continue as a frame for the main entrance was a key idea, as was the decision not to have four facades but one, rounding off the corners. This celebrates the corner site, conforms with the spiralling notion of Wilson's competition sketches and echoes Erich Mendelsohn's Modernist notions about fluidity of movement in the modern city. [6] Now dominated by the car, such city landscapes are more thinly spread, if also more highly concentrated in their nodes of accommodation. Buildings are free-standing and yet engaged. Classical rules no longer apply: we do not make simple wall-like facades but rather islands of buildings obliged to nod in several directions, creating a kind of visual force field of interaction with neighbours. They need to turn corners and change scale, to vary in the message they give according to how far away you are. In this context, views of corners become as important as those on axis.

Bolles + Wilson's theatre changes, chameleon-like, as you move around it, pass inside and through it, and the experience gets richer as you understand it better. Unlike its neighbours, Luxor is no bland block or dead sculptural object, but a complex sequence of spaces and relationships advantageously combining the contingencies of site with the ritual of theatre. It is difficult to photograph and so three-dimensional that it can scarcely be envisaged through the elegant plans and sections. You really have to go and see it.

(1.) Hugely appreciated by stage managers, who usually have to put up with much more tortuous arrangements. This tuming of a preblem into a virtue is typical of Wilson's ingenuity.

(2.) Scharoun began such explorations with his unrealized project for Kassel Theatre of 1952, whose plans have much in common with this building, see my Hens Schereun, Phaidon 1995, p152-157.

(3.) As a Scharoun devotee, I might be expected to read it this way, but the debt is freely acknowledged by Peter Wilson.

(4.) But at least one competitor -- Herman Hertzberger -- tried at asymmetrical terraced arrangement.

(5.) Verbal information from Peter Wilson. This is particularly the case with solo song or comedy acts, where the performer needs to establish a quick rapport with the audience.

(6.) In a lecture in Amsterdum, Mendelsohn wrote of his Berliner Tageblatt building (1921) that 'it is not a disinterested spectator of the rushing curs and of the advancing and receding flow of traffic; rather, it has become an absorbing co-operating element of the motion;. Erich Mendelsohn, Complete works of the architect, first published Mouse Berlin 1930, English edition Triangle Publishing London 1992 p28.
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Article Details
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Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Sep 1, 2001

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