Arla Breithel visits Lewerentz’s 1944 functionalist masterpiece
Originally published in AR April 1947, this piece was republished online in May 2015
Malmö is Sweden’s third largest city with about 170,000 inhabitants. It is also the seat of the provincial Government of fertile, wealthy Scania, which is one of the most densely populated parts of the country. When designing the new theatre, therefore, the promoters have not only taken Malmö’s own population into account but the entire province’s – one might even say the whole of south Sweden’s population.
The question of providing Malmö with a new theatre had long been a burning one when the decision to start building was finally reached in February 1941. For various reasons it took three-and-a-half years for the new theatre – which is also to serve as a concert hall – to be completed. In front of the building there is a wide open space, paved with white marble; in the pool at one side of it there will finally be a fountain in bronze representing figures from famous plays. Both the lower storeys of the facade are faced with grey marble, the entire panels between the stanchions being of plate-glass. The doors of the main entrance are of glass and stainless steel, and the floors of the booking hall and the vestibule of black marble.
The outer vestibule is separated from the inner by large swing-doors of glass. In the inner vestibule are the cloakrooms, the counters of which have a total length of nearly 400 feet. In the middle of the vestibule, flanked by two broad marble stairs, which lead up to the foyer, stands Thalia, a work by Bror Marklund; he presents her full of life and, in deliberate contrast to convention, as slightly vulgar. The staircases leading up to the foyer are bounded by a white wrought-metal railing, which also runs round the foyer. This balustrade is repeated in the balcony. Along the inner wall of the foyer, beneath the balcony, runs a long series of concertina-doors which lead to the auditorium, while four doors in the inner vestibule lead to the lower stalls. Another three doors connect the foyer with a terrace communicating with the restaurant terrace, which seats 200 guests.
Many donations have been given towards the decoration of the theatre. Along the walls of the foyer runs a great terracotta relief – Theatre Cavalcade, and a mural decoration of painted faience tiles; both of these have been executed by Rörstrand Pottery Works. Two statuettes and a bust of Strindberg sculptured by Carl Eldh have also been set up in the foyer, and, finally, the Malmö Museum has donated a large number of paintings from its rich collections. In spite of its size, the auditorium has an air of intimacy. Walls and ceiling are panelled in pale maple, and the seats are covered with rose-coloured upholstery in a carnival design. The famous Elsa Gullberg Textile Studio in Stockholm has supplied the great hand-printed curtain, on which figures from the world of the theatre and of music frolic in black-and-white disorder against a rose-coloured background. The acoustics in the theatre have been found to be excellent. The chandelier, which hangs from the ceiling, was designed by the sculptor Edvin Öhrström and executed by the Orrefors Glass Works. It consists of 48 sheets of relief glass, 40 millimetres thick. The theatre can accommodate 1,700, and room can be found for a further 500 when the concertina doors, which separate the auditorium from the foyer, are drawn aside.
It is true that the 500 have to stand, but as the auditorium is built in the shape of half an amphitheatre they are able, from their elevated position, to see everything that goes on on the stage. By drawing forward some laminated screens which run suspended in tracks in the ceiling, the theatre can be made to accommodate an audience of 1,200, 800 or only 400. This gives the actors a chance of always playing to a full house – a factor which is stimulating to both the actors and the audience. In addition to a workshop and large equipment storage space, there is a rehearsing room for the Malmö Concert Hall Foundation’s Symphony Orchestra, which shares the main auditorium with the dramatic and lyric departments of the theatre, green rooms for actors and musicians, many dressing rooms, studios of various kinds, and offices for the financial manager and the heads of the three artistic departments.
The stage is a particularly interesting part of the theatre, for it comprises both an unusually large revolving stage and an apron stage projecting into the auditorium by as much as 29ft 6in. This stage, which gives the closest possible connection between actors and audience, is claimed to be something new in Europe, and has made great demands, hitherto inexperienced in Sweden, on both actors and ballet; for when performing on it they have to work ‘sculpturally’ right in the middle of the audience, and it has been necessary to devise an entirely new method for the purpose. The proscenium is divided into four sections, each of which can be raised or lowered independently of the others. When the proscenium is elevated, the ordinary footlights can be lowered into the floor, and the lighting is then supplied by beamlights inset in the roof of the auditorium. The base of the proscenium is 39ft wide and the diameter of the revolving stage is 66ft. The revolving stage runs on rails, and rails also lead from the wings to the stage proper. This allows the plastic scenery to be transported complete onto the stage on trolleys, the longest of which is 79ft.
The great cyclorama (the largest backcloth in Sweden) is lifted instead of being rolled up for a change of scenery. Above the stage, which is 105ft high, are suspended 48 yards of material which need 25 miles of steel wire to hoist them up and down. The building also houses a smaller theatre, known as the Repertory Theatre, which accommodates an audience of 204. Plays are acted here when the main theatre is being used for lyrical plays or by the symphony orchestra. The walls are a soft blue and the seats upholstered in blue cloth with the same pattern as the seats in the main theatre. In the little theatre the Management plans to produce a repertory of plays intended mainly for an elite few, but it is hoped soon to be able to attract a wider public as well. The theatre has cost about £350,000. After this sum has been paid, there will be a balance of funded capital of about £175,000, the yield from which will cover the theatre’s and the orchestra’s rentals in the building. In addition the theatre will receive certain annual grants from the Swedish State and from the City of Malmö.
Theatre at Malmö
Originally published: AR April 1947, p72-76
Architects: Sigurd Lewerentz, Erik Lallerstedt and David Helldén