Who's afraid of red, orange and pink? Well, not Mr Ben van Berkel en Ms Caroline Bos of UNStudio, that's for sure. The remarkable choice of colours in the façade, the lobby and the major hall of the Agoratheatre in Lelystad, The Netherlands, is only one of the architectural features they used to create a building that is not just a stage for the performing arts, but a work of art in itself.
As the train enters the station of Lelystad, the orange diamond – a recognisable beacon for everyone – sparkles as a clear signal to the visitor: this is where it all happens. Not just here in this theatre, but also: here in Lelystad. This building is more than a stage, it is part of the extensive renovation of the city centre which should give the city a stronger presence.
The urban plan for this renovation was designed by West 8 in 1999 and entails a densification of the area around the train station and the city hall with a mixture of residential, office, retail and entertainment facilities. The new design, then, abandons the modernist principles of the original design from the 1960s. The heart of the city will be clearly defined by a border, a 'green square' consisting of 3,000 lime trees. The raised street levels will disappear, and in 2010 the new city centre should look as if it grew to that stage over time: compact and differentiated, with offices like warehouses and a homogeneous tissue of squares, streets and alleys. The purpose of the new lay-out is to introduce the recognisability and the intimacy that the city currently lacks. It should give the city centre a stronger identity.
On a smaller scale, these matters play a role in UNStudio's theatre, built in the same location as the 1976 theatre Agora which was demolished in 2004. Recognisability is not an issue for the new building: its shape, colours and height make it stand out in every way, not just from the greyish buildings that surround it but also from every other theatre in The Netherlands and beyond. Identity, however, is a different matter. How do you give presence to a city best known for its lack of personality?
Mr Van Berkel took his inspiration from the surroundings: the sunset on the Markermeer: a nearby lake. Whether the inhabitants of Lelystad recognise a sunset in the saturated tones of red, yellow and orange remains to be seen, but it is a fact that the changes in colour that characterise a sunset and make it so fascinating, have been successfully interpreted in the layered sheets of steel and expanded aluminium that make up the faceted façades. As you look at the multifaceted building, the image changes with the light and the angle. This variable exterior creates a spectacle that continues to fascinate.
If the orange colour on the exterior seems excessive, the spectacle continues on the interior. The façade that faces the square folds in to lead the visitor indoors, past the ticket desk and the wardrobe, through the glass artists' lobby into the public lobby. This is the second act of the play, so to speak: Again, you are overwhelmed by the colour, but even more so by the height and the light that comes in through an enormous skylight. The white room, which stretches out over three floors, is organised by the pink handrail which connects the different staircases. It forms a single ribbon all the way up to the atrium where it passes into the roof structure.
The vertical lobby is a theatre in its own right, but one where the visitors are the actors – a new place to meet in Lelystad. According to Mr Van Berkel “everyone will look good in this lobby” and indeed, it is very entertaining to watch the crowds that parade between the different bars and theatres. Although the building looks complicated the lay-out is fairly simple, which is mostly due to the compact set up. The large 750-seat theatre is situated at the centre. It is linked directly to the expedition input. The smaller level-floor theatre, with 200 seats on a retractable platform, is situated in the corner over the entrance. All the way at the top of the building are three multifunctional rooms which are connected to a lobby with a view of the square. As a result of their flexible lay-out, these rooms are suitable for performances as well as conferences or parties.
Here again, colour marks the function of the rooms. Artists' rooms are always behind the yellow doors, and visitors recognise the entrances to the rooms in a similar way: the public rooms and the multifunctional room on the second floor have blue doors while a yellow door leads to the small theatre. The red door takes you to the main theatre. This so-called Scarlet theatre is an appropriate climax to a series of spectacular rooms: a ruby inside a diamond. Like the façades, the walls and balconies are composed of facets in different tones, which suggest shadows. Just like the play on perspective, created by tapering the theatre towards the stage, the shadow effect is an old trick that was already applied by the Italian masters.
But these visual elements are used for practical reasons as well. The faceted walls have an acoustic purpose as there was no 'idle' space to spare to adjust the acoustics. The facets, which open up in places, hide installations, and the tapered walls leave room for the stairs to the technical rooms.
The integral solutions which merge shape, purpose and technique, are characteristic of way the whole theatre was constructed. Like a snail-shell the façades, the pink handrails and the roof are folded together so that visually dominant elements have become load-bearing elements. As a result, the lobby and the theatres are entirely free of pillars. Although this type of design is unthinkable and impossible to create without 3D computer models, it was mainly the almost mathematical method that characterises UNStudio that made these 'superlogic' solutions possible.
It is a method that commands respect for its integral and economical approach which allowed the construction of an extraordinary theatre for a limited budget (approx. twenty million euro’s). However, the budget was insufficient to accomplish a true diamond on all sides. In contrast to the theatre tower and the installation rooms, the expedition is just too squat to fit into the cut diamond shape. And in the lobby on the top floor, where the façade comes in through the large window, the orange steel changes into a basic dropped ceiling which looks rather shoddy because of the faceted construction which made it necessary to cut up the square panels in many places.
However, these are merely slight imperfections in what should rightfully be called a jewel and a landmark for the city of Lelystad. Not everyone may like the orange building, but at least everyone has some opinion on it. In 1943, the American abstract-expressionist painters Barnett Newman (‘Who’s afraid of red, yellow and blue’), Mark Rothko and Adolf Gottlieb made the following statement: “To us art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risks”. UNStudio took the risks.
Tekst : Kirsten Hannema