When it comes to theatrical institutions, architectural style has been relatively slow to shirk tradition. Part of the reason for that, of course, is the demands of a theatre’s utility; since its earliest origins, performance spaces have required, without exception, an audience and a stage.
While directors have been known to reimagine this configuration in historic, groundbreaking productions or forgo the theatre altogether in favor of found spaces, the theatres themselves have changed only gradually over the past 2,000 years. Some of the most iconic stages — the Colosseum in Rome (built c. 80 A.D.) and Shakespeare’s Globe (c. 1599), for instance, are certainly different, but perhaps not that different if you consider the length of time and cultural, political, and economic changes that took place between them.
However, cultural institutions have increasingly become an opportunity for regions to celebrate their art and history, not only through the work they house, but also in the form the buildings themselves. There are many theatres around the world that have become renowned for their architectural innovation, serving as landmarks to engage locals in their own cultural fabric and entice visitors and artists from afar.
Here are some of the most stunning:
Walt Disney Concert Hall (Los Angeles)
Designed by the prolific Frank Gehry, the Walt Disney Concert Hall is home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Its acoustics were designed by Yasuhisa Toyota, a world-renowned acoustician with a project portfolio that also includes the Sydney Opera House and the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv.
Construction began on the project in December of 1999 and was completed in 2003. In an article for the Los Angeles Times, music critic Mark Swed recounted how the acoustics in this new concert hall were so perfect that the Philarmonic’s Music Director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, was able to hear incorrect notes in the printed score of Ravel’s ballet, Daphnis and Chloé, for the first time. The mistakes have previously gone unnoticed for decades.
Wuxi Grand Theatre (Wuxi, China)
The Wuxi Grand Theatre sits on a manmade peninsula that juts from the shores of Wu-Li Lake. Designed by Finnish architect Pekka Salminen of PES Architects, the building is a marriage of tradition and innovation. Bamboo, a traditional Chinese building material, is used in large-scale proportions throughout; on the exterior, thousands of LED lights flank the structure’s steel wings, and can change colour to suit the mood and tone of the performances within.
PES earned the honours of designing the Wuxi Grand by placing first in an international competition for the job in 2008. The firm impressed judges with its daring structure that would be harmonious with the landscape, its eight steel wings stretching outwards like a butterfly alighting on the banks of the Wu-Li.
Oslo Opera House (Norway)
Located on the Oslofjord inlet in Central Oslo, this building was designed by Snøhetta, an architectural firm that beat out 350 entries in a design competition for the job in 2003. Upon completion, it became the largest cultural building to be constructed in Norway since Nidaros Cathedral, circa 1300.
The exterior of the building is designed with sloping ramps that invite pedestrians to ascend to the rooftop, which offers breathtaking, panoramic views of Oslo’s cityscape and the Skagerrak strait. Artists Monica Bonvicini, Kristian Blystad, Jorunn Sannes, Kalle Grude, and Olafur Eliasson were commissioned to provide permanent installations and decorative elements to both the interior and exterior. Highlights include Eliasson’s perforated wall panel in the lobby and Monica Bonvicini’s She Lies, a three-dimensional interpretation of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting The Sea of Ice. It floats on the fjord beside the Opera House and shifts with the tide and changing winds.
Guangzhou Opera House (China)
Located in the Guangdong province of the People’s Republic of China, Guangzhou was designed by Iraqi-born British architect Dame Zaha Mohammad Hadid. It opened in 2010 and quickly became the cultural backbone of southern China, serving as the region’s largest theatre.
The concept for the structure was that of twin boulders, placed side by side to overlook the Pearl River. Known during her lifetime as the world’s top female architect, Hadid was honoured for her work on the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as a lifetime of other innovative projects, by being named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2012.
Sydney Opera House (Australia)
We would be remiss to omit the Sydney Opera House, one of the most iconic theatres in the world. Designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, the building’s architecture still appears to be a futuristic marvel, decades after its completion in 1973. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007, the building houses multiple performance venues and is home to resident companies that practice a range of art forms: Opera Australia, the Australian Ballet, the Sydney Theatre Company, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
An international design competition was held in 1955 to choose the new building’s architects. Utzon’s designs were rumored to have been nearly rejected; Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, one of the competition’s four jury members, supposedly fought for Utzon’s concept relentlessly until the jury was unanimous.