Architecture is the art and the technique of the building, employed to fulfill the practical and expressive requirements of civilized people. Almost every settled society that possesses the techniques for building produces architecture. It is necessary in all but the simplest cultures. Without it, man is confined to a primitive struggle with the elements; with it, he has not only a defense against the natural environment but also the benefits of a human environment, a prerequisite for and a symbol of the development of civilized institutions.
The characteristics that distinguish a work of architecture from other man-made structures are: (1) Its suitability to use by human beings in general and its adaptability to particular human activities. (2) The stability and permanence of its construction. (3) Its communication of experience and ideas through form.
All these conditions must be met in architecture. The second is a constant, while the first and third vary in relative importance according to the social function of the buildings.
In considering the form of the modern theater building and its physical aspect, and in tracing the origins and development of that form from the earliest known theatres of Europe, is it well to keep in mind the basic meaning of the word “theatre.” From the Greek translation, it means roughly “a place for seeing.” Today theater is a building or a place furnished with seating for the audience, and a stage or space where plays, musicals or dramatic spectacles are performed.
Theaters originated in Greece with the rites of the God Dionysus, first as temporary installations and later as outdoor architecture using the natural slopes and curves of the hillsides to bring the spectacle closer to the stage and to avoid the need for substructures. The Greek theatre was monumentalized and modified by the Romans, whose arches and vaults allowed construction of sloping seats from level foundations. In the middle ages churches and temporary structures were used for dramatic purposes, and in the Renaissance Roman theatres were occasionally revived. The 17th century development of opera, drama and ballet in Europe brought about a revival of theatre building, but in a new form conceived to satisfy class and economic distinctions. A flat or inclined pit accommodating standing patrons, tiers of boxes rose vertically above in a horseshoe plan and permanent covering for both acoustics and comfort made artificial lighting an important feature in theatrical performances. The modern theatre, while greatly improved in efficiency by new acoustical methods and materials, has kept much of the baroque form, though it provides seating throughout. In spite of its cultural importance, the motion picture has had little impact on the effect of theater design.
The auditorium is distinguished by the absence of stage machinery and by its greater size. The development of large symphony orchestras and choirs, and of the institution of lectures, symposiums, and mass meetings, combined with growing urban populations produced modification of the theatre.
The first Greek theatres were little more than marked-out dancing circles, each around an altar, at the foot of hillsides on which spectators stood or sat. From this natural form the first built theatres took their main outlines: a circle of orchestra for the chorus and actor or actors, and rising tiers of wooden seats, built against a hillside for the spectators. These seats extended usually around two thirds or more of the orchestra, since at this time dancing or movement was more important than acting, and there was no stage for the spectators to face. The one actual theatre that has survived is the magnificent theatre at Epidaurus, although archaeologists have uncovered foundations of theatres of this stageless type under several Greek-Roman or Roman theatres surviving in partial ruin. It should be kept in mind that in no period were any two Greek theatres exactly alike.
One conjecture is that the architectural form of the 6th century temple helped determine the shape of the stage building, which was later to be added at the edge of the circle opposite the seats. But the more widely accepted theory is that out of necessity a hut or tent was added at the edge of the orchestra as a retiring room for the actors, for changing of masks or costume, and that the stage building was in all later ages an elaboration of this shelterdressed, in the later Greek period, with those beautiful Architectural forms with which the Athenians adorned all their important structures.
Just when it truly became a stage building with studied relationship to orchestra and auditorium is a matter of conjecture. Here one sees the accretion of the three theatre features that characterize theatre building through many succeeding centuries: (1) auditorium; (2) orchestra; and (3) scene; names which persist even today. But at this time players and chorus appeared only in the orchestra, the scene remaining an architectural background to the action and a practical retiring house for the actors, structurally separated from the auditorium by entrances or runways.
Such was the theatre form when the 5th century B.C. dawned, and such it remained, with only slight changes. The architectural features and the height of the scene are still only to be conjectured, though excavation foundations at Athens indicate clearly the plan and limits of an early stage building, wider than the dancing circle and with ends projecting forward toward the auditorium.
Archaeologists have waged one of their bitterest battles over the question as to when the raised stage made it first appearance, but it is now almost unanimously agreed that in the “high” period of Greek drama there was no platform stage.
In Greece the theatres were regularly built in hillside hollows, thus avoiding need to build supporting framework for the tiers of seats, except at the ends of the rings. The auditorium was broken by up-and-down aisles with steps into a number of wedge-shaped segments of seats, and sometimes by one or more lateral aisles.
Architecture in France was controlled by the state; however, theatre architecture became imminent when a newly created Institute de France, an academy of fine arts, was established.
In America, as well as in other countries, architecture was controlled and basically copied from one country to the next.
Since the Renaissance the design and construction of theatres, their auditoriums and their stages, have been determined by three factors: (1) the relation of the actors to the stage and the stage setting; (2) the relation of the actors to their audience, as influenced by methods of acting and stage setting; and (3) the size and social status of audiences which patronize theatres and make then popular and potentially profitable.
As these factors change, the essential parts of the theatre change with them, namely the stage itself, including its apron or forestage, the dimensions of the stage house or backstage, the plan and seating arrangements of the auditorium.
No innovation, modern in its own day, has ever been wholly original. Each in turn has revived and modified theatre structures of earlier epochs and periods.