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Shakespeare Theatre, Gdańsk, Poland, by Renato Rizzi

A brooding black box with a roof that can be dramatically flung open to the elements makes for a versatile theatre

The Shakespeare Theatre in Gdańsk, the first new-build theatre in Poland since 1989, is one of two new major cultural venues which have opened in the city in the last six months, with a third due to open in 2016. Across town, the Solidarity Centre, library and archive, has just opened, commemorating the 1980 dockyard workers’ strike - an event that, after first provoking a martial law crackdown in Poland, helped to pave the way for the collapse of Communism across Eastern Europe nine years later. Next year, a Museum of the Second World War is scheduled to open, appropriate for a place where the starting gun of the war was fired when the Germans attacked the city on 1 September 1939.

While these new buildings tectonically commemorate major events in the dramatic 20th-century history of the city, across town the dark brick silhouette of the new Shakespeare Theatre is a much more low-slung, introverted affair. Its name and design seem to nod to a global theatrical history rather than carrying any local connection. But in fact the name delves into a deeper past: when actors from England over a period of 60 years in the 17th century regularly travelled to Gdańsk and performed plays there (including those of William Shakespeare) in a building on the exact same site. Called ‘The Fencing School’, it was, despite its name, specifically designed as a theatre space, in form looking like a version of London’s Fortune Theatre of 1600: an open square courtyard containing a stage, surrounded on three sides by storeyed galleries - evidenced by an etching dated 1661-64. This was constructed in 1635, the date found on an invoice from its builder Jacob van den Block and confirmed by subsequent analysis of timber foundation samples.

‘In a coup de théâtre, the whole roof, consisting of two gigantic flaps, each weighing 46 tonnes, can be opened up to the heavens in less than three minutes’

The builder’s Flemish surname, as well as this international theatre exchange, commemorate the fascinating cultural mix that Gdańsk had become by the 17th century, as a major trading city, especially in amber, and a member of the Hanseatic League. Indeed as a place variously under the rule of the Teutonic Knights, Polish, Prussians and Germans, and a brief spell as a Free Trade city, almost too much history seems to have been funnelled through these streets.

But the cosmopolitan nature of the city came to a dead halt in the 1930s, a fact that the theatre location also marks, for it stands on the site of the city’s Great Synagogue which was demolished by the Nazi-dominated city council barely a month after its last service in 1939, when the majority of the local Jewish population were forced to emigrate.

The desire to reestablish the city as a cultural hub and revive historic international links led to the founding of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Trust in 1991 under the patronage of Prince Charles, and led finally in 2007 to a competition for a new building. Renato Rizzi’s scheme was selected, which ingeniously combined ‘Elizabethan’ in-the-round, and so-called ‘Italian’ staging in one, the latter being the default Western model, with its separation of the stage from the auditorium by a proscenium arch.

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Renato Rizzi Shakespeare Theatre Section

On approach, the building gives off a sense of massive, blank stasis. The central block which contains the main theatre space has no openings visible at the upper level and is heavily buttressed, serving to emphasise its importance. Its internalised emphasis is inspired in part by the sheer boarded timber walls and supports of the original theatre seen in the 17th-century etching. The block steps up at its eastern end to a fly tower and cuts in at its western end, indicating lobby and circulation space. The effect is vaguely church-like: like a squashed version of Arthur Shoosmith’s austere Garrison Church in New Delhi.

But then the building’s mute form provides a blank canvas to conjure up a host of architectural references, the clearest being Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach’s famous etching of his reconstruction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, with its massive plinth-like buttressed base. Rizzi is a Professor of Architecture at Venice University, and it feels like architectural history is writ large with this building.

To the east of the main block, a much lower one containing two storeys of offices, back-stage areas and dressing rooms (en-suite so they can be used as hotel rooms by touring groups) is hidden behind a massive wall of equal height. This wraps around three-quarters of the building, creating a series of courtyard spaces - some no more than attenuated, oppressively narrow pochés - around the skirt of the main block. This gives a sense of a defensive structure, like a motte and bailey castle. Indeed, with the site running alongside the now fragmented city walls, Rizzi has talked of wanting to reinforce a sense of enclosure and edge for the city, as practical as physiological here, with the site’s southern flank facing a six-lane highway and 1960s concrete flyover.

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Renato Rizzi Shakespeare Theatre Floor Plan

The main entrances are punctured through the wall to the north side: the main public lobby entrance at its western end, vehicle entrances in the middle, and at the east, the backstage and office entrance. Strangely it is the latter that signals itself as the primary one, as it opens into a large courtyard, like a cour d’honneur, with the block of offices at its centre. It is planned, however, that this will in time gain a more public function with the facilities built in for a café to function, which should animate a space that at present is more like a prison courtyard. From inside this courtyard, the depth of the enveloping wall is revealed as hollow, containing fire escape routes from upper floors, as well as steps up to rampart-like walkways along the top. These routes are permanently open to the public, and provide generous vantage points to view the surroundings, revealing an unexpected generosity in the otherwise closed-looking building fabric. This transforming of the building into a theatrical platform for the public to view and be viewed from, chimes with Rizzi’s perhaps inevitable quoting of that over-used but apposite line from As You Like It: ‘All the world’s a stage.’

However, the materiality of the building’s fabric is problematic. The use of brick could be seen as contextual in a city where the main public buildings, most noticeably the churches, are brick. (St Mary’s Church in Gdańsk is said to be the largest brick church in the world.) But the dark anthracite colour which Rizzi chose to deliberately contrast with the city’s warm reds seems an odd choice. It is apparently meant to be coal-like, speaking metaphorically of having risen through the earth, but the brick selected has a grim deadness - more cold artifice than brute nature. It’s a bum note: an idea unsuccessfully calibrated in its effect.

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Renato Rizzi Shakespeare Theatre Mechanism Detail

The main entrance at the north-west, located off a smaller courtyard, is strangely unemphasised. It has all the stage presence (or rather facade presence) of the outside of a fire exit. On entering the building, however, the lobby, though small, is clear to read, with tickets and cloakroom ahead, stairs to the upper levels to the right, and the main theatre entrance centre left.

The internal colour palette, in contrast to the dark exterior, is vividly light and white - perhaps in oblique reference to the strikingly chilly whitewashed interiors inside the rich red of local churches - but this warms up to a yellow blondness on entering the dramatic main theatre space, lined by tiers of birch wood balconies rising up on three sides. This is a recreation but not exact replica of the original square Elizabethan theatre space, in which the stage backed against a far wall, jutting out into the ‘pit’ of standing audience with a seated audience in the balconies enveloping it on three sides.

And in a coup de théâtre, the whole ceiling of the space, consisting of two gigantic flaps, each weighing 46 tonnes, can be opened up to the heavens (looking nothing so much as the Ark of the Covenant from outside) in less than three minutes, meaning the open-air staging of the Elizabethan original is possible. Conversely, the three-storey high back wall can also be peeled back to reveal a full ‘Italian’ raised stage through a proscenium arch, while from cupboards below the lowest balconies, concealed rows of seating can be brought out to create ‘stalls’ of around 200 seats. These can be stepped progressively up to ensure sightlines by means  of the ingenious floor mechanism, divided into a grid of platforms adjustable at 50 different levels, up to 1.2 metres high. This enables a myriad of staging formats, from in-the-round to fashion catwalks, to a flat moshpit for concerts.

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Renato Rizzi, Shakespeare Theatre, Matteo Piazza

So while the whole space appears squarely static, it is highly mobile: from floor to wall, to the almost perversely extravagant element of the roof - the sort of move that, if a student proposed it in a project, would be critiqued as simplistic and excessive. The intensity of this space with its audience as theatre extends out to the generous promenade-like circulation spaces that serve like an extruded lobby, making some sense of keeping the main entrance so small. The whole is articulated in thoughtful if pricey looking detailing: with stairs of marble sourced from Egypt and China, and stone door handles.

One design trope here is that all the material faces are articulated as separate elements: from the use of thick shadow gaps and expressed joints, through to vertically dividing slots that cut down from level to level, feeling like the interior is wrapped in a continuous Moebius strip of space.

‘Apparently meant to be coal-like, the brick selected has a grim deadness - more cold artifice than brute nature’

A single tall timber box of a room - that like so much here is undefined in use: break-out? performance? meeting space? - dramatically hangs from the steel structure above. The conceptual logic at play seems to be that of boxes within boxes and the building, though orthogonal in plan, is difficult to comprehend fully, like a labyrinthine Chinese puzzle. Yet somehow all its elements fit together. As such, the whole seems more built academic thesis than building, if a very erudite one, challenging you to guess the references and sources it draws on and quotes.

And while it remains to be seen how it functions over a year or two, it seemed on visiting to be bedding down into a very flexible multi-use venue. Its space is hired out for events from fashion shows to rock concerts, which slot between the three set seasons of the imaginative annual programme: Flemish Week, British Week and the main Shakespeare Festival - each drawing on the site’s history.

The dry learned exercise of architectural restaging that the over-dour esoteric facade promises is not borne out, and overall the building strikes you as a very distinctive yet practical working space, one that is only just beginning to fulfil its potential.

Shakespeare Theatre

Architect: Renato Rizzi
Structural engineer: Andrzej Dabrowski
Photographs: Matteo Piazza

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