Although performing arts centers worldwide today hire the globe’s top architects to design their theaters, the trend actually dates back long before the 21st century. “If you look at the history of theater in New York, designs in the early part of the 20th century were all by well-known architects, like Thomas Lamb and the Eidlitz brothers,” says Laurie Beckelman, president of Beckelman + Capalino, a New York–based arts consulting firm, and former chair of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. “More recently, Eero Saarinen, who did the TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport, also designed the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. It’s not a new phenomenon.”
Many winners of the Pritzker Prize—the most prestigious award in architecture—have designed a number of these new theaters, receiving accolades for their work. Theaters by prize winners include Jean Nouvel’s Guthrie Theater complex in Minneapolis (his first completed project in North America) and Frank Gehry and Hugh Hardy’s Pershing Square Signature Center, the new home of the Signature Theatre Company on West 42nd Street in Manhattan. The Shanghai Poly Theater, by Tadao Ando, is now under construction in Jiading, China, next to a man-made lake in the center of a large park.
These architects “think as artists,” says Beckelman. For example, Gehry—who also designed the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York—is also a sculptor, and therefore “he has an incredible range, a lifetime of experiences and a passion for all types of arts,” she says.
Cathleen McGuigan, editor in chief of Architectural Record, the oldest professional magazine for architects in the United States, describes well-known architects commissioned to design theaters as “architects of drama, and these are spaces for drama.” That includes the work of Moshe Safdie, who designed the Muriel Kauffman Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri, and Gehry. “[Their work is] very much about the flow of people moving in space,” she says, adding, “What’s the interesting challenge about theater is they have to have space where an enormous number of people converge and circulate to their seats. These are architects who think about how people move and enter a theater, and they do so in a dramatic and elegant way.”