For quite some time now, theatre has been seeking to expand outside of the traditional stages of theatre houses into old industrial facilities, boiler rooms or any other spaces that could support a new form of expression. Everything has already been seen, even restrooms have been used for performances. What will theatre be in the future and where will it be performed? Will old theatre buildings still be able to meet the changing needs of performing arts?
The institution of theatre is strong in Finland. It is part of the Nordic democracy that everyone should have an opportunity to enjoy theatre. In terms of population, Finland has an exceptionally large number of publicly funded theatres, more than any other European country. There are only twenty cities with over 50,000 residents but almost 50 city theatres – as many as in Germany which has 15 times the population of Finland. Finns also use their theatres; among Europeans, only Estonians are more active theatre-goers.
The home of Finnish theatre
The crown jewel of our theatre institution is the Finnish National Theatre located by the Railway Square in the heart of Helsinki. Completed in 1902, the national romantic stone castle designed by architect Onni Tarjanne was extended in the 1950s with the small stage which has its entrance at the back of the block, on the Kaisaniemi Park side. The old theatre represents the historical continental theatre tradition, while the extension designed by Heikki and Kaija Siren represents the modern theatre of its time. The old part was last renovated in the early 2000s, but the small stage side is still primarily in its original 1954 shape and in need of refurbishment.
Over the years, two more experimental performance spaces have been built for the National Theatre and in addition, the theatre rents a room from the adjacent Railway Station, mainly for the purposes of monologues. Mika Myllyaho, who has been the director of the theatre for almost six years, dreams of having two more new, entirely different performance spaces under one roof. “The National Theatre could be a real ‘House of Theatre’, enabling a wide variety of activities.” He told about his plans in October at the National Theatre’s Lavaklubi where the Helsinki division of the Finnish Association of Architects held a discussion event about theatre and architecture. The establishment of Lavaklubi, an unofficial stage and lounge space in the theatre’s old basement restaurant is only one of the 48-year-old director’s innovations. The theatre’s repertoire has become more diverse and the entire building is utilized with an open-minded attitude. “Now there is someone rehearsing in every corner. My philosophy is that the National Theatre should be a living and breathing space that serves citizens in many ways.”
The architect of the future renovation project, Jukka Siren – the son of the architect couple behind the 1950s extension – showed at Lavaklubi how the new spaces would be built in the old paint shop and carpenter’s shop above the small stage. “In a traditional theatre the sets, costumes and props were all made on site. Now workshops can be placed elsewhere, for example in an industrial building outside of the city and these fantastic centrally located facilities can be used as public spaces. Why should plywood be cut in such a prominent place?” Siren and Myllyaho’s plan would open up the theatre block more towards the city and liven up the dark alleyways on the two sides. There is, however, no funding for the project yet. In Finland’s current financial situation, the 50 million euros needed by the theatre will be hard to come by and the centre-right government’s key projects are most likely something entirely different. Nevertheless, the plan is an indication that even an old theatre can change and seek new forms.
Fresh expression with respect for traditions
The biggest professional theatre in eastern Finland, the Kuopio City Theatre, has already been reformed. Last year the theatre, which was designed by Risto-Veikko Luukkonen and Helmer Stenros and completed in 1963, was extended and given the renovation it deserved. The City of Kuopio recently granted ALA Architects an award for their work and architect Juho Grönholm flew straight from the award ceremony to Lavaklubi to tell about this project and the office’s other two theatre plans.
The office’s breakthrough project was the Kilden theatre and concert hall in Kristiansand, Norway, which was inaugurated in 2012. Juho Grönholm explained how ten years ago he and the other partners, Antti Nousjoki, Janne Teräsvirta and Samuli Woolston, put everything on the line for their competition entry. Back then the young architects even had to take out a loan to pay the model maker’s bill – and also in the end to pay their air tickets to attend the award ceremony in Norway.
The winning entry and the resulting building have had good coverage by the international architectural media. Opening towards the fjord, the most characteristic feature of the theatre is the massive undulating wooden “curtain” which separates the public foyer from the closed performance spaces and protrudes over the harbour as an expressive awning. A similar style of expression will also be seen in Helsinki once ALA Architects’ Central Library is completed in a couple of years.
Kilden’s wooden wall is an essential part of creating the illusion of theatre. Behind the wall, both in performance spaces as well as rehearsal rooms and workshops, is where art is being created and the public becomes involved once they walk through the wall. Grönholm states, however, that when designing a theatre, the primary aim is to focus on the employees, not the audience. “From an artistic perspective, it is important to pay attention to the working conditions. The audience only spends a moment in the building, while the employees most of their days. A theatre must work like a factory.” In line with this view, Kilden’s street side architecture is industrially angular and metallic.
Grönholm knows what he is talking about. Due to his father’s profession, he used to spend a lot of time at the Helsinki City Theatre as a child. “Completed in 1967, the theatre designed by Timo Penttilä is fantastic, absolutely incredible. In my opinion it is the greatest building in the world, I never get bored with it.” Grönholm is also familiar with the National Theatre because he did a short internship there at the age of 15. When not running errands he tied nooses as props by the windows of the paint shop overlooking Kaisaniemi Park. He sees the national romantic part of the block as an ugly “owl castle” but the 1950s extension as radical. “Today’s architecture does not have a strong ideology or dogma. Our extension to the Kuopio City Theatre is not able to challenge the same way as the National Theatre’s small stage.”
A theatre marks the city centre
The 40-year-old architect sees theatres as a political instrument, reflected for example in the number of city theatres in Finland, but also as an instrument of city planning. “Helsinki’s old opera house, the Alexander Theatre on Bulevardi, takes its place solemnly but is in harmony with the environment. Theatres need to be in the city centre.” In Kuopio, the city theatre extension is behind the old building and out of respect for the original architecture the only visible change in the street view is the elevation of the stage tower. The foyer of the new stage protrudes from the sides of the old building and extension as a bridge-like structure. The original foyer and public spaces were also modified as little as possible.
In Lappeenranta, a city on the eastern border, ALA Architects have been given an opportunity to design a new city theatre in the heart of the city, but at street level one wouldn’t know it’s there. The theatre, which will be completed at the end of the year, has been built on the top floors of one of the new shopping centres the city builds in the hope of attracting Russian tourists and their roubles. Here the aim is to make the theatre an integral part of the living city, in a place where people are. According to Grönholm, the set-up is interesting but at the same time the theatre misses out on an opportunity to be a city landmark. Perhaps this concept is another indication of the Finnish theatre institution’s democracy and leads the way for the future.
The structures of theatre are changing. Fewer and fewer actors are being hired by professional theatres as they are increasingly using freelancers and visiting theatre groups. Sets are built elsewhere and in a way that allows the performances to tour from one place to another. Theatre facilities must adapt to all kinds of existing and future, still unknown, forms of theatre. One aspect that will remain unchanged is the fundamental nature of the encounter between the audience and art. An architect can create a good setting for a unique moment but they cannot affect the encounter itself. What happens then is the magic of theatre.
Text by Miina Blot
English translation by Tekmil