Printer Friendly

Irrational theatre.

Hans Scharoun's masterpiece, the Philharmonie in Berlin, was based on many years of development of the idea of a perspective, democratic space. The Mannheim National Theatre competition entry was a key stage in the evolution of anti-authoritarian planning.

The rebuilding of the Mannheim National Theatre was one of the most important German reconstruction projects following the Second World War. It was a chance for a new start and for a celebration of returning democracy, and although Scharoun's entry was unsuccessful in the competition of 1953,(1) it was one of the most highly regarded, occupying a crucial place in his oeuvre. The competition brief called for new ideas both in relation to the siting of the building and in the development of its performance spaces.(2) Scharoun undertook deep studies in both areas: on the contextual side he and his assistant Alfred Schinz made a 'structural investigation' of the historical growth of the city. A parallel investigation into the history and development of theatre involved discussions with Hugo Haring and culminated in a detailed paper submitted with the project by Haring's assistant Margot Aschenbrenner, who had a literary and philosophical background.(3) The care taken over these texts and over his own description demonstrates only too clearly Scharoun's concern that the social and cultural ideas driving the project - its spiritual intentions - be properly understood.

Site and context

Mannheim was founded in 1606 by Duke Friedrich IV of Pfalz at the confluence of the Rhine and the Neckar, as a grid-planned town within a radial star-like fortification system. The first bridge, over the Neckar, led to the main axial street which culminated at the Rhine in a fortified citadel, though within a century this had been replaced by the ducal Schloss. By the early nineteenth century, the fortifications were obsolete, and as so often in European cities, the wall gave way to a ring-road. Increasing river trade encouraged the building of the port and enlargement of the city. Contained to north and west by rivers, it could only expand to the south-east, where in the late nineteenth century a new grid was laid out, prolonging the cross-axis of the original city. The north-west/south-east axis then became dominant instead of the north-east/south-west one indicating that power had passed from the Duke to the bourgeois merchants. This story was summed up in city plans at century intervals selectively re-drawn by Alfred Schinz.(4)

The city had a preferred site, but competitors were invited to suggest alternatives, and to speculate on the appropriate place for the theatre. Scharoun submitted a pair of city plans showing seven possible sites, one with them ringed the larger, rings marking preferred ones the other as grids or as variants of his proposed design. The grids indicate tight sites within proposed urban blocks where the theatre might be embedded without exterior, but Scharoun felt that such placing would not give sufficient prominence to the building. He also thought it desirable for accessibility to place the building by the ring-road - the border between original city and later suburbs - between the Rhine and the Neckar. The axial site marked Mitte - middle - would have been the most prominent locally, but Scharoun felt that 'national' required connections further afield. The Neckar connected regionally to places such as Worms and Speyer, but the Rhine site would place the theatre on the historic communication axis of Germany, a truly national - and with links to France and Holland even international setting.

Although hoping to transfer to the Rhine site if allowed to develop his proposal, Scharoun prepared his competition design for the city's preferred site on Goetheplatz, and the whole building is so subtly specific that it is hard to imagine it convincingly adapted for another.(5) Goetheplatz lies just outside the east corner of the original city, laid out diagonally in the nineteenth century to maintain a perpendicular relation to the ring-road. It is thus skewed by about 35 degrees to the main grid, an angle-shift which Scharoun chose to exploit. With a stroke of genius, he set the low parts of his theatre parallel to the square, but he placed the seven-storey block linking the two fly-towers with workshops and dressing rooms diagonally in alignment with the adjacent grid. The borderline position on the old fortifications and the historic transition of geometry were dramatised in the new building form, and the transition was also ingested by the building to inform its internal spaces, the complete asymmetry which Scharoun wanted for his 'aperspective' theatre being greatly facilitated by the angle shift.

Two theatres were required, large and small, which are placed at opposite ends and on opposite sides of the diagonal central tract. The large theatre occupies the major end of the site next to the ring-road, its corner entrance and superimposed bill-board facing south-west towards the city centre. The small theatre projects at the east end, forming a dynamic corner with the skewed road from the Neckar bridge. The south of the building is its most public side, addressing the square with both theatre entrances, a restaurant and several shops. The north side in contrast is a back, with big north light windows to its workshops and an industrial-looking chimney from the underground boiler. It opens onto a sunken court for service and parking, but with an underpass to the low-lying Luisenpark beyond to the cast. The building acknowledges its context in a very detailed way, and its massing is suitably assertive in the largely five-storey context. The decision to integrate offices, dressing-rooms, workshops and other such elements into a regular multi-storey block a straight piece of Modern architecture - provides an effective foil for the wildly irregular theatre-bodies and gives the building an appropriately urban character.(6) This tract was to be crowned with a roof-top restaurant and a series of rehearsal rooms whose projecting forms reflect their internal order - little theatres, special in shape like the big ones, signalling their presence across the rooftops of the city.(7)

The new concept of theatre

Although fascinated by theatres and their social and cultural role in his expressionist years, Scharoun had no chance to build one during his pre-war career, and only returned to the type in competition designs of the late 1940s, such as the Stuttgart Liederhalle and Leipzig opera house. His ideas developed much further during the ill-fated project of the Kassel Theater of 1952, designed in partnership with landscape architect Hermann Mattern and in collaboration with theatrical consultant Wilhelm Huller.(8) Winning first prize in September 1952, they were asked to develop the design for construction, and the Mannheim project, designed during the closing months of 1952, came at just the right moment to profit from the detailed Kassel work, its open brief seeming to invite a further exploratory step. Scharoun continued his collaboration with Huller over the staging arrangements, which became extremely radical: the first truly 'aperspective' theatre.(9)

The main innovation at Kassel was a very wide stage, allowing great flexibility of use and reducing the framing effect of the proscenium, but it remained axial to the auditorium and symmetrical, the stage/auditorium axis being also the dorsal line for the whole building. In the Mannheim project there is no axis, and the stage is even wider with no proscenium. The action was to take place in changing locations and even at different heights as the play progressed, moving out of the usual three dimensions into the fourth, scene changes being enacted by turning lamps on and off rather than with a curtain. Backdrops are shown as curved screens which could be used in the concave or convex positions, and there were also stage wagons on a paternoster system set not perpendicular to the stage but on an oblique axis. Placed neither axially nor symmetrically, the scenery avoids a parallel with the stage opening.(10) The auditorium too is radically asymmetrical, with no symmetry between flank walls, no right and left entrances, and no axis.(11) The upper rows of seats run substantially askew of the lower, and batteries of lamps occupying the left flank are not repeated on the right. The defining border between stage and orchestra pit is a shallow curve swinging from convex to concave.(12)

The asymmetry was facilitated by the decision to divide the crowd between separate seating terraces, each with its own entrance. So rather than being radial and centrally focused, the seating faces a variety of directions which may be in conflict, the angle shifting as much as 30 degrees between lower and upper seats just left of centre. This varied orientation was partly in recognition that the audience would turn their heads as the action switched from one part of the stage to another, but it was also intended to stress that members of the audience were active participants with different viewpoints, metaphorically as well as literally. Scharoun spoke of 'neighbourhoods', as in town-planning.(13) The juxtaposition of terraces would make the audience more aware of itself, reducing the contrast between spectators and action, giving instead the sense of a series of groups gathering together. The act of entering the hall was related to this. Each bank of seats not only had its own entry and staircase, but also its own coats counter in the foyer beneath. This would guide people to their places as well as indicating the order of the auditorium externally, but the act of disrobing was also intended to help form the social group of the terrace, a moment of personal transition and revelation of the carefully groomed self to others of which Scharoun was acutely aware: '...already with the giving up of a coat at the counter a person unclothes his or her individuality and integrates it into an ordered grouping, whose existence and identity only endures during this unique situation of experiencing the theatre space, for even in the intervals the individual rejoins the general public'.(14)

Spatial order and political order

Nothing could have seemed more oppressive than the demonstrations at Nuremberg in the 1930s, when massed ranks of uniformed party members stood in respectful silence as Hitler walked Speer's great axis from the podium to the temple of the fallen heroes. In the new democracy it was essential to escape such blind obedience, to give everyone a voice and reduce the scale of the group to manageable proportions, to forge organic links between those trusted with power and those who bestowed trust. The hierarchy of the axis and of simple order dictated from the top had to be avoided. Scharoun's subdivision of the mass into recognisable groups of more or less equal status reflects this political mood, and is found also in the articulated classrooms of his schools. In his housing it leads to individually planned flats, mixed in size, forming irregular blocks.

Experience of Nazi order only confirmed beliefs that Scharoun and his mentor Haring had long held. Scharoun's post-war historical investigations of Berlin and other German cities showed a repeated contrast between a medieval centre and the later Baroque grid.(15) The grid military based Mannheim is a clear example - was an abstract geometrical pattern reflecting single-minded political power, and only achievable within such power. For Haring the grown town was 'organic' not just in shape, but in its complex accumulation of gestures: it represented Geschehensraum, the space generated by human actions and occurrences.(16) His lifelong opposition to what he called 'geometry', which he passed on to Scharoun, was an opposition not to geometric techniques per se (which he certainly used) but to preconceived order of the kind found in Durand's typologies, Neufert's standards, planning and construction grids, proportion systems and other abstract schemes. If allowed to dominate, such orderings repress Geschehensraum, the organic order generated by human activities and relationships, the order of route and light, of oppositions and adjacencies, of opacities and transparencies - the order understood in direct experience. Architecture must be free to develop its own raison d'etre in relation to its place and role. Order must be discovered, not imposed.

For Scharoun and Haring, perspective was the epitome of geometrical power and control, implying orthogonality, axis and symmetry. And just as the Baroque city was a demonstration of ducal power with the Duke's residence on the central axis, so in the Baroque theatre the axis ran between his box and centre stage. The neatly framed spectacle was devised for his benefit, and optimally viewed from his central seat, with the auditorium plan a diagram of the social hierarchy. This Scharoun called the perspective theatre: it was most strongly exemplified in Palladio's Teatro Olympico, but also in the theatres devised for the French Classics.(17) Not only was this no longer socially appropriate, it also set tight bounds on theatrical performance. If suitable for types of 'rational' theatre for which it had been devised, it was unsuitable for what Scharoun and Margot Aschenbrenner called the 'irrational' theatre.(18) Greek theatre, medieval mystery plays and Shakespeare belonged to the irrational type because they dealt with metaphysical themes, themes exceeding a limited time and place. Presentation took place within the world under an open sky, often with contrasting levels for representation of different realms. The Renaissance brought the discovery of perspective and the beginning of rational theatre, which set man within the everyday world of other men, no longer struggling with the powers of the Gods or the vicissitudes of fate. The stage was separated from the audience, creating a clear division of subject and object. Illusory sets were developed which further emphasised the division between play and everyday world. Scharoun's 'aperspective' theatre for Mannheim was intended to reverse all this, and to create a new and more vital relation between action and audience: 'How can we bring stage and people together again in a convincing relationship? The form of the rational theatre with its fixed stage holds actor and spectator under the spell of the axis, allowing no escape from the force of perspective. It throws the public together in an anonymous and additive mass of individuals, grouped only by social rank. The irrational theatre, which permits dialogue between heaven and earth and vice versa, is not partnered by an audience in a cumulative mass. For in the irrational theatre the "other" dimension finds verbal expression, and brings togetherness, produces community. The audience is both saturated and divided by spiritual means, and here an important fact emerges: the irrational theatre has an educational role ... The irrational theatre instructs man in a higher knowledge of himself, and towards a higher truth and wisdom ... It addresses the spiritual quality in people. It lifts them out of the perspectivist view into an aperspectivist awareness, and at the same time it delivers them from the space of the masses and of anonymous isolation, placing them in a room dedicated to emotion and feeling. The public is made a community through being moved and affected.'

'It is to the "affected" that the new auditorium is dedicated. They find their "place" not in an axial room, not in a piece of Formal Architecture, but in a spatial order which allows for their inner emotion and affectation. They are in the most personal way affected and not isolated. The aperspective view of things is by its nature an affected view. Under the power of its effect the auditorium divides itself into sector-like groups which experience the events on stage from different angles, allowing each individual to interpret the same fate-like happenings in his or her own way. The place of the spectator is the place of the affected. Thus the question of communication between stage and people is solved anew in an organ-like manner'.(19)

Reinterpretation of the axis

Scharoun started his career under the spell of Neo-Classical ordering and remained axis-conscious, but he moved increasingly away from axial routes and axes of symmetry. Early on he discovered the potential of the switch in territories between differently orientated orthogonal systems, and by 1953 he could exploit it with great refinement.(20) By placing Mannheim's spine block diagonally, he brings the axis of the old grid into the site and plays it off against the order of the square, but the building is subservient to neither order. Instead it reconciles them, a city-sized gesture rather than a mere local manipulation. The corner approach to the building again breaks with the axis of the square and with the spine, but there is an approximate alignment of approach, billboard, auditorium and stage as layers progressively encountered. The spine block forms a great wall in the plane of the stage, representing it for the city. The generous space in front - imagine spine block alone - opens towards the vital south-west corner and one can imagine this as a public gathering space, which the seating banks start to occupy. It is already a kind of landscape before the foyer elements are added. Then a seemingly natural route develops, non-axial, but a compelling visual progression. Entrances lead via box-office into the stair at the extreme west corner. This controls a turn of almost 180 degrees, leading all further movement anticlockwise around and in to the left, with running stairs carrying on up to visible galleries over, decreasing in size as they take less traffic. Stairs, walls and roof lights are directional devices to guide the members of the audience, who ascend cascading levels until each finds his or her entrance. The first upper foyer behind the billboard has an urgent narrowness punctuated by regular roof lights, while the rhythmically rising stairs beyond beckon. As one moves through, the space opens out and there are places to wait on the left, a view out to the city on the right. As the running stairs finish a spiral takes over, a static stair absorbing the last of the movement into itself. One almost forgets that there was any 'problem' and hardly notices that the usual left/right entry structure has gone.

The foyer sequence of the small hall is equally assured: here again it is the pair of prominent main stairs which catches the rearward movement of the crowd and redirects it into the back of the auditorium. The spaces are complex and irregular, yet the routes are clear and inviting. A sense of visual connections and hierarchies persists, but the Neo-Classical axis as route and centre of symmetry has disappeared. The logic lies in the flow and the experience of route, not in the imposing of measure on the earth (the original meaning of geometry), nor in the discipline of structure and construction. It is the complete opposite of London's Barbican, where the systematic logic of the plan is unreadable in experience of the spaces, robbing one of all sense of direction.


Unbuilt, the qualities of Mannheim might all be speculation, but we have a concert-hall version in the Philharmonie, designed in 1956 and completed in 1963. Its 'vineyard terraces' with their varied angles, perhaps the most important single innovation, are directly carried over from Mannheim. The foyer too follows and develops the principles of Mannheim with great success. Admired world-wide, the hall provides a new kind of concert experience for the late twentieth century, and has been widely imitated. It would not have succeeded if it did not somehow meet the unconscious needs and expectations of its users, if they were not 'affected' emotionally when coming together to make and experience music, as Aschenbrenner's paper cited above predicts. Here is clear evidence that architecture does influence the way we think and act, not in the mechanistic or deterministic way sometimes claimed, but in the way it suggests, cajoles, reinforces, substantiates. Architecture cannot work without the complicity of users, and it has to form a relationship with them, to persuade, to support and encourage, not to control and enforce. There needs to be a dialogue between architecture and life, and the magic of the Philharmonie shows that Scharoun had achieved it.


The drawings are reproduced by courtesy of the Scharoun Archive, Akademie der Kunste, and were supplied by Achim Wendschuh with copies of documentation. Other information and documents were supplied by Margot Aschenbrenner and Alfred Schinz. Sketch models were built by the Fifth Year at the School of Architectural Studies, Sheffield University, under the instruction of Peter Blundell Jones and Prue Chiles. The final ones were built by Richard Bradbury, Jonathan Brent, Maurice Friel, Andy Groarke, Mark Hancock, Chris Milan, Graham Ovenden, Guy Smith and Jo Witchell. They were photographed by Peter Lathey.

The models will be shown at a major Scharoun exhibition curated by Peter Blundell Jones which opens at the RIBA, London on 7 February.

1 It was an invited competition, with 10 firms including those of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Richard Docker. In September 1953, Mies and two others were invited to develop their ideas further, but the commission was eventually given to Gerhard Weber, whose theatre now stands on Goetheplatz. The Scharoun and the Mies, polar opposites, were widely considered the two important schemes.

2 'In the architectural solution the city of Mannheim places special value on the creation of a theatre space to serve the people of our time', briefing document in the Scharoun Archive, Akademie der Kunste, my translation.

3 Born in 1900, she studied at Hamburg in the 1920s: literature under Robert Petsch and philosophy under the Neo-Kantians Ernst Cassirer and Albert Gorland. She became an administrator at the art school Kunst und Werk in Berlin which Haring ran from 1935-43, and subsequently became Haring's assistant. She later edited his posthumous book Fragmente. Her paper Uber die Baustruktur des Theaters was written in close consultation with Scharoun, and at the end of the design period in December 1952. She comments: 'Scharoun wanted to substantiate his project with a kind of thesis-paper to clarify his idea of theatre in relation to traditional forms. He discussed this with Haring, and they decided that I should do the literary and historical research, so I received the commission. It was understood that Haring would share in the work in a supervisory way, as he was specially qualified to do' (letter to me, my translation). She was working in Biberach in daily contact with Haring, and communication with Scharoun's office was largely by post. Versions went to and fro, and included a long and apparently dictated typescript by Scharoun discussing in detail various types of theatre.

4 One of Scharoun's principal assistants at the time, and later the author of books on town-planning. He told me that these were his drawings, and clarified the content.

5 The sketches show the two theatres and spine block disposed at different angles on the various sites, and similar adaptations were later proposed for the Philharmonie for various sites in Berlin. In my view the contextual strength in each case lay with the first site, though the Philharmonie was not helped by being placed initially on a flat featureless wasteland, then not having its context developed as the architect intended.

6 Much more urban, for example, than Scharoun's earlier and more curvaceous Kassel design which tumbled out of its square down a terraced slope towards the river Fulda, a park-like setting.

7 The western rehearsal hall which projects on both sides accommodates the same staging system as used in the main theatre. The eastward one has a sloping studio end window which is trying to twist around northwards.

8 The Kassel design won the competition of 1952 with a clear lead, and was developed over 1953/54 for construction. Under somewhat scandalous circumstances it was cancelled after site works had begun, and the commission was handed to Paul Bode, who had been developing a rival scheme covertly. This was a great blow to Scharoun, as Kassel promised to be one of his best buildings: see my Hans Scharoun, Phaidon 1995.

9 Lack of space prevents a discussion of aperspectivity beyond its relation to architectural space, but Scharoun and his circle saw the transition from perspective to aperspective as part of a profound and far-reaching change of consciousness sweeping across society. The term was given definition in the book Ursprung und Gegenwart by Jean Gebser which appeared in 1949 and was avidly read in German intellectual circles.

10 A detailed report on the staging possibilities was provided by Wilhelm Huller. A copy is in the Scharoun Archive. The general principles of all the various mechanisms for introducing sets and platforms had been decided.

11 The three banks of lower seats might suggest an axis of symmetry perpendicular to and centred on the middle row, but this would not be normal to anything on stage, and insignificant in the total plan.

12 This line is a regular curve in the general plans, and only takes this more complex form in the larger scale stage plan. This probably indicates a last-minute decision furthering the bid for asymmetry.

13 Nachbarschaftlich: Hans Scharoun, in an undated typescript headed Die Grundlage des Entwurfs bildet eine theoretische Unterbauung: Sie behandelt... It was sent to Aschenbrenner in December 1952, and comes from her files.

14 Ibid, p1, my translation.

15 For example, Darmstadt and Kassel, subjected to 'structural investigations' in relation to the Darmstadt school and the Kassel Theater: see my Hans Scharoun, Phaidon 1995.

16 'The given space in which the world of creatures moves, in which their life is played out, is a Geschehensraum. Geometry builds within the Geschehensraum a geometric space. This is concerned only with the space as conceived in thought, and does not engage with the Geschehensraum.' From Geometrie und Organik, 1951, reprinted Joedicke/Lauterbach, Hugo Haring, p66, my translation.

17 For example Peyre and Wailly's Theatre-Francais, Paris, of 1770.

18 Her fascinating essay, conceived in collaboration with Scharoun and Haring, is wide-ranging and full of insights, and my summary below is necessarily something of a caricature. As often with such wide-ranging inter-disciplinary studies it is not so much the ideas as the large-scale terms and categories which have dated. She is no longer happy with the designation 'irrational', now preferring the term 'multi-dimensional' (letter to me).

19 Extract from Aschenbrenner's typescript Uber die Baustruktur des Theaters, p 12/13, in the Scharoun Archive, Akademie der Kunste Berlin, my translation.

20 It was an essential innovation of the Breslau hostel in 1929, and became important for internal space with the Schminke House of 1932, see my Hans Scharoun, Phaidon 1995.
COPYRIGHT 1995 EMAP Architecture
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Philharmonie in Berlin, Germany
Author:Jones, Peter Blundell
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Feb 1, 1995
Previous Article:Marine gateway.
Next Article:Two into one.

Related Articles
The mirror of life.
Drama and architecture.
Art centres.
Potsdamer preview.
Harbour master.
Urban orchestration: formally imaginative and technically assured, Renzo Piano's s concert hall complex in Rome is also a civic place in the city's...
Debussy: Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune; three Nocturnes; Pelleas et Melisande, concert suite.
Bolles-Wilson: national library of Luxembourg, Luxembourg.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |