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Significant Modern Theatres: Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre: Completed in 2004, the MPAC's highly usable, attractive building offers beautiful public spaces on a constrained site.

TD&T discusses the Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre in Matsumoto, Japan, in this issue as part of its multi-year research collaboration with Buhnentechnische Rundschau, the journal of the Deutsche Theatertechnische Gesellschaft (Germany's Theatre Technical Society) and Sightline, the journal of the Association of British Theatre technicians. Under the auspices of this project, noted specialists in theatrical architecture are producing an ongoing series of articles celebrating and re-examining some of the most significant theatres that opened between 1950 and 2010. The project is led by David Staples, theatre consultant. The research informed the International Theatre Engineering and Architecture Conference (ITEAC) held in London in 2018. The articles will be published in a book entitled Modern Theatres 1950 to 2020.

Matsumoto is a mid-sized Japanese city of around 240,000 people located in Nagano Prefecture about 220 kilometers east of Tokyo. It is perhaps best known for the extraordinary Matsumoto Castle, one of five castles designated as National Treasures of Japan and with the oldest remaining castle tower (called a donjon). Construction commenced in 1592 and the city developed around it as a "Castle Town." Matsumoto has a rich cultural and music heritage that was poorly served by the inadequate civic auditorium, and a competition was launched to provide a venue worthy of the city's history. Ten practices entered the architectural competition. Toyo Ito won with a bold plan that reconciled both the brief and the site by adopting a highly creative approach.

With many famous summer resorts and hot springs nearby, the town has always been proud of its rich culture. One of the first community schools developed in the region was the Kyu-Kaichi gakko, established in 1876 with contributions from the local people. Matsumoto is also the birthplace for the Suzuki Method of music education. Invented by Shinichi Suzuki, the method encourages music education from the earliest age and has taught millions to play musical instruments. The Saito Kinen Festival Masumoto was started in 1992 by renowned conductor Seiji Ozawa as a tribute to the magnificent musician and educator Hideo Saito. Saito had been a close friend of Shinichi Suzuki since their school days in Germany and was the teacher of Seiji Ozawa. Operas and various concerts are performed at facilities throughout the city during this festival, which lasts about one month each summer. In 2015, the festival was renamed the Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival (OMF), to mark a new stage in its evolution.

The civic auditorium, which had opened in 1985 with a concert hall seating 693 with pipe organ and various teaching rooms, was no longer meeting the needs of the community, nor did it honor the musical heritage. The hall had poor facilities, a small stage, unsatisfactory acoustics, and poor dressing and rehearsal rooms. The inadequacies of the hall and the needs of the festival increased pressure for a new hall.

The Prefecture decided to construct a new building and an architectural competition was planned. The brief was for a flexible theatre able to accommodate staged performances of opera, ballet, or other events, along with the capability to present classical music and symphony concerts. The brief also required a second, smaller theatre and ancillary spaces for rehearsal and opera production and to support the performance spaces.

Toyo Ito's winning design for the new Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre provided a creative solution to the city's artistic needs and the geographical constraints. The identified venue site was adjacent to the old civic hall. Between the hall and the street there was a small square and an old pond. However, the initial site was not large enough and it was a very odd shape. The site is more than 200 meters long and around 30 meters wide and is further constrained by a huge old tree that public pressure demanded be retained.

Theatres and opera houses have traditionally been symmetrical, axial buildings. The front entrance was typically set in the centre of the front facade. Foyers were often symmetrically arranged around a grand staircase. The foyers and staircase then gave access symmetrically to the auditorium which, with the stage, sat resolutely on the axial centre line. Post war theatres in Asia, the Americas, and Europe have largely moved away from this symmetrical and axial approach.

The site virtually precluded such a rigid axial arrangement, and Toyo Ito seized the opportunity to create a unique route into and through the building. In his initial draft, the design concept proposed lifting a large floor slab to create a new landform below the slab. He was planning to use that rolling landform to create the auditorium and other spaces where people would gather for various purposes. This multi-layered public space presented numerous performance opportunities: Any spot could become a theatre. The big upper slab would be a flat roof garden open to the sky, and the small lower ground would be full of variety and linked with the town.

The eventual concept created a sequence of design elements: A staircase from the entrance rises to an intermediate level where a wide square called Theatre Park is open to the public for daily use. Usually, this is a quiet contemplative spot. During festivals or other special events, shops in the town open stalls, and events like street performances are held here. It is used in various ways as if it were a square in front of a church. The small hall is also located on this level. The stair continues to rise, passes the stage, and enters the foyers and thence to the main auditorium. The main auditorium and stage effectively turn their backs on the public entrance. The staircase continues to a large roof garden and a rehearsal room, which can be used for small-scale performances. The rehearsal room has an openable wall allowing it to link to the roof garden, and events can be presented in both spaces.

The audience route into the auditorium is a journey through the building unlike the linear approach of many theatres. The staircase follows the curving wall of the building around the stage and side stage to the theatre foyer from where audiences can enter the auditorium.

The logic of public circulation in this theatre is similar to that in the Sydney Opera House. The stage is located on the approach side so that audiences pass around the stage and stage side and make a detour around the auditorium to the foyer, which is found after walking up gentle stairs. Both theatres conceal from visitors the bulk and blank walls of the stages as they pass around and into the foyers. The buildings' organization are markedly different. The stage in Sydney is set about 10 meters higher than the ground level, and the rehearsal rooms, dressing rooms, etc., are arranged below the stage level. In Matsumoto (MPAC), the stage and dressing rooms are arranged on the ground level and the rehearsal rooms are located above the side stage. The location of spaces in the Sydney Opera House is severely limited by the external shapes, "sails," which taper and reduce in size as the building rises. Matsumoto has limited site dimensions but greater freedom in the placement of support spaces. By lifting the public circulation above the backstage spaces, Matsumoto solves the conflict between the two differing activities--public and stage.

The auditorium and stage return to the more conventional architectural language used in an interesting manner. They are symmetrical and axial, and the auditorium has a large stalls section with a series of narrow galleries stacked above at both the rear and down the sides of the room. The auditorium and stage are planned to accommodate a wide range of performances; not only opera, ballet, musicals, and concerts but also Japanese Kabuki theatre.

Spatial relationships in a venue are important for performers and audience members. The first thing many performers want to check in a theatre is the stage. It is quite natural for them to see the physical space on which they will act, sing, or play music, but they rapidly look out into the auditorium to check how it "feels." Similarly, as the audience moves from the foyer into the auditorium, the space should thrill and amaze them. A great auditorium should raise audience expectations and be a place where strangers meet to share a (hopefully) moving and engaging performance. This space must enable a conversation between performer and audience members and among the audience members as well; in a Japanese context, the venue needed a space where audience members can bow to each other or quietly acknowledge the other.

Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre succeeds in achieving both goals. It provides a large 1,800-seat theatre that works for both performer and audience. From the stage, a performer immediately sees and is embraced by the multiple levels of balcony seating extending down the side walls and almost reaching the stage. The performer would feel at the center and enfolded by the audience. The balconies are slightly inclined toward the stage, improving the sightlines and hiding the ceiling of the balcony seats from view. Thus, the close contact between the audience and the performers becomes more significant. The theatre successfully creates a wonderful auditorium space that does not compromise the performance and draws the audience's attention to the play, whilst providing a brilliant atmosphere before the performance starts.

From the stage, performers would notice the color gradation of the seats and walls of the auditorium. The seats are covered with polka-dotted fabric, and the colors gradually change from dark red to bright pink as it goes from the stage side to the rear side of the auditorium. Seen by the audience, the colors become darker closer to the stage, becoming almost black near the stage. Ten kinds of patterns are used for the seat fabric and arranged at random, which makes the entire appearance very natural.

Other challenges for MPAC's design included finding ways to vary the seating capacity and stage arrangement to accommodate different styles of production. The maximum capacity is 1,800 seats, with a need to occasionally reduce to about 1,000 seats for drama productions. The space and acoustic environment must also be suitable for orchestra concerts; the seating capacity can be varied by vertically moving the entire ceiling of the auditorium, effectively closing off and hiding some of the highest balcony tiers and reducing the usable seating capacity. As a result, the horseshoe-shaped auditorium with the five levels of balconies, including the seats beside the orchestra pit, were created. The maximum distance from the edge of the stage to the rearmost seats in the parquet circle is 30 meters and that to the furthermost seats are 34 meters.

Three rows of stage lighting bridges are attached to the ceiling of the auditorium. At the center of the third row, a follow spot room is incorporated. The lighting bridges in the auditorium and side lighting positions are exposed to the auditorium to form part of the acoustic environment.

The orchestra pit can be raised to stage level to extend the stage/platform into the auditorium for classical music concerts, and the first lighting bridge in the auditorium is used as an acoustic reflector. This makes the atmosphere more intimate. The orchestra pit lift can also be used as a forestage or lowered to create an orchestra pit. If positioned at auditorium floor level, it can carry additional audience seating. The sight lines from the stalls and balconies work to this forward stage edge.

This flexibility works well for western operas and concerts and is also suitable for Japan's traditional Kabuki performances. For Kabuki, about 300 seats in the front area, including the orchestra pit, are removed and the visitors are seated on floor cushions. Removing the seats considerably expands the performing area and allows the performers to move into the audience. Although this theatre is large, the audiences are brought close to the stage.

The stage is generous, and the theatre has both a left side stage and rear stage, which allows an additional "fit-up" theatre to be created by utilizing the generous on-stage space. A set of retractable seats are housed in the rear wall of the rear stage. By sliding and pulling them out, a theatre with about 400 seats that uses the main stage from the opposite side appears. All the stage facilities--lighting, flying, sound, etc., can be used in this smaller theatre. On this occasion, the wall in the back of the stage left and the technical gallery contained therein laterally move to surround the auditorium so that a wall surface symmetric to the fixed wall surface on the stage right side can be framed.

To reach the seats in this theatre on the stage, generally, the audience can enter from the main lobby on the second floor and go down the auditorium tiers. For some performances in this on-stage theatre, it isn't possible to enter through the auditorium and audience members are asked to enter from the delivery entrance and go up temporary stairs to the stage level. Some performances are even held in the foyers. The concept of "any place becomes a theatre" is thus cleverly planned and executed.

The exterior of the building appears transparent. Toyo Ito explored structural transparency in another project, Sendai Mediatheque (2001), built three years before Matsumoto. In that building, the concept was realized by weaving tube steel frames into nets to form multi-layered floors and cover them with the glass ffacade. In designing MPAC, Ito pursued a different route to achieve transparency. Panels made of Glass-fiber Reinforced Cement (GRC) are used to cover almost the entire building. The GRC panels are inlaid with glass glazing in seven sizes and shapes. Owing to the variety of size and density of the inlaid glass, it appears as if ground water is bubbling, or sunlight filtering through trees. It is just amazing to witness. This appearance seems to be representing the region, which is rich with water, or the place blessed by the trees of a shrine next to the theatre.

The design of Matsumoto places the stage at the center of the site. Thus, the old tree was preserved and a water-front space was created on the south side where the original pond was located. Great public spaces were created, all linked by a gentle sinuous stair lit by glass panels set into the facade. Functionally, the scheme has multiple loading docks with good access and circulation is well integrated into the neighborhood.

MPAC was completed in 2004 and is a highly usable, attractive building with great public spaces achieved on an incredibly constrained site. It departs radically from the traditional formal symmetry of older theatre buildings and instead creates unique public spaces internally and externally; many of these can be used as temporary, improvised theatres or meeting places. An extraordinary sinuous wall provides both a sensual external elevation and one wall of the internal staircase penetrated by small irregular windows. It is amazing all this has been successfully realized on such a challenging site.


Shozo Motosugi is Prof. Dr. of Nihon University, Tokyo. He studied at the Free University of Berlin, Institute of Theatre Studies, and researched at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Schaubuhne am Lehniner Platz. Motosugi has served as a juror for architectural competitions and has designed many cultural facilities in collaboration with various architects, including the New National Theatre in Japan, Nara Centennial Hall in Japan, Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre in Japan, Kunstlinie Almere Flevoland in The Netherlands, Taichung Metropolitan Opera in Taiwan, and Suzhou Shishan Art Theater in China. Reach him at
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Author:Motosugi, Shozo
Publication:TD&T (Theatre Design & Technology)
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Mar 22, 2019
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