The Theaters of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates
If architecture at its most ambitious has a way of being too serious, too self-righteous, the theater is the perfect antidote, for it forces architecture to engage at an experiential level, to come to terms with feeling and emotion.
Great architecture always excites our emotions, of course, even as it pretends to be doing something else, but the pleasing thing about theaters is that they do not have to pretend to be doing anything else at all — they can openly solicit our emotions, and the forms can play to them.
I don't mean to say that architecture is an intellectual exercise, and the theater something else. I do mean to say, however, that architecture often purports to be an intellectual exercise, and that the theater, even at its most profound, is more inclined to admit to emotional experience, and that the combination of the two is a wonderful thing for architecture.
There are moments when I wonder whether the problem of designing a theater or a concert hall or a performing arts center isn't more like designing a church than a civic assembly hall, since it is an instance of giving concrete form to what is, at bottom, a spiritual experience.
Both the theater and the house of worship exist, paradoxically, to symbolize at once community and privacy; they are places in which people come together, and celebrate the fact of their coming together, yet they are there to experience things that are very much their own.
In most of the world, reality imposes itself upon us, and we escape into private fantasies. In the theater, the construct that surrounds us is, in part, itself a fantasy, an architectural environment made to symbolize a kind of magic. If it is working, a great piece of theater architecture, like the theater itself, uses this fantasy to help us escape into a more knowing and wise reality.
So it can be said, I think, of most of the work of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, which has emerged from the belief that the values of the theater and the values of architecture need not be inconsistent — indeed, that they can come together and enrich one another profoundly.
These architects have always valued fantasy, but never at the expense of tectonic truths. Their architecture is not frivolous, and neither is it weighed down by abstract theory. For all that it takes enthusiastic note of the past, it is committed to being of this time and this place. It is emotional, but it is not sentimental.
The theaters of HHPA represent a kind of architecture that embraces experience and honors real life. Fantasy here is used in much the way that Picasso had in mind when he spoke of art as a lie that leads us to truth: such is the make believe of HHPA's theater architecture, a set of illusions designed to heighten actuality. Like the theater itself, this is architecture that celebrates imagination above all.
Paul Goldberger is a Pullitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the New Yorker.
Awaken the Spirit
I remember how people reacted when they first saw the Brooklyn Academy of Music Majestic Theater. Many were surprised and some even shocked by its unfinished look. Others, used to "new" theaters, were put off by it. A New York Times critic thought it was "precious."
Others got it. I remember Teresa Stratas asking me when it was going to be finished, and when I told her that it was finished, she breathed a sigh of relief.
I used to think only of what was on the stage. But it is a two-way street. Coming to the theater is not easy. Everything conspires to make you feel disconnected or distracted; sometimes you are just plain tired. The theater exists to awaken the spirit, and that process should begin as soon as you enter.
What I love about the Majestic Theater is how alive it feels when you walk in; how your interest is awakened as you scan the walls, the pillars, the ceiling, the boxes. There is a palpable energy and vibration.
I enjoy looking at the stage and the back wall of the stages but, more importantly, performers tell me how connected they feel to the audience. A theater that facilitates and intensifies that coming together of performer and audience is what you want.
Harvey Lichtenstein was executive director and then president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music for 32 years and is recipient of the 1999 National Medal of Arts.
This article is excerpted from "Theaters," by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates. Copyright © 2000 by The Images Publishing Group Pty Ltd. Originally published by The Images Publishing Group. Used by arrangement with Back Stage Books, an imprint of Watson-Guptill Publications (New York). It is available where books are sold including at Amazon.com.