The Raumtheater is Here, at Last

Ulf Meyer
10. December 2020
Photo © OMA by Chris Stowers

OMA’s long-anticipated Taipei Performing Arts Centre, nearing completion in the capital of Taiwan, aims to be a theatre for everybody and everything. Ulf Meyer explores how the novel-looking building follows from an idea born a century ago.

Walter Gropius founded the "Bühnenwerkstatt" (stage workshop) at the Bauhaus in 1921 with the goal to overcome all genre boundaries and develop theatre, design, music and dance into a "Gesamtkunstwerk," a total work of art. The influence of this idea on modern theater continues to this day. Only in the new Bauhaus building in Dessau, completed in 1925, was there a proper stage; the cafeteria behind it, separated by folding sliding walls, made the space a two-sided auditorium that offered a variety of options. Oskar Schlemmer, Master of Form at the Bauhaus theatre workshop, said, "the two fronts, not having a back cover, give the center stage heightened meaning and forces a three-dimensional play that results both in body movement and new verbal and acoustic effects."

This quote sounds like a blueprint for OMA's Taipei Performing Arts Center, designed by partners Rem Koolhaas and David Gianotten. They write the TPAC was designed to "transcend architecture’s inevitability of imposing limits on what is possible." It is the "total theater" in other words, the one Gropius once dreamt of and designed – in a strikingly similar look. The collage-like combination of egg-like and boxy forms seems to date from almost exactly one hundred years ago, when, together with Erwin Piscator, Gropius abolished the separation of auditorium and stage merging them into a "Raumtheater," or Space-Theater. 

Photo © OMA by Chris Stowers

In Taiwan’s capital, OMA’s building takes the opposite approach to traditional theatre architecture, having been designed from the inside out. The "experimentation inside produces the external presence of an icon," the architects claim. Situated right next to one of Taipei’s most used elevated subway lines and the famous Shilin night market, the TPAC is seen by tens of thousands of people every day and night. Its bold geometries catch the eyes of passersby in the hotchpotch of Taipei’s messy outer neighborhoods.

With a height of 63 meters the theatre complex is effectively a high-rise building. As usual, Koolhaas and company try hard — maybe a bit too hard — to get sparks out of the collision of program elements and somewhat crazy circulation routes. The TPAC consists of three theaters, all functioning separately but plugging into a central cube, which consolidates their stages, backstage areas and support spaces into a single whole. The black and metallic facades are a result of this diagrammatic design approach. The auditoriums protrude outward like dark elements against the illuminated, animated central cube clad in glass. This cube is raised on pilotis so that the surrounding streets can extend into the building, gradually separating into the theaters.

The “Proscenium Playhouse” seems to be docked to the cube. Inside, the audience circulates between its inner and outer shell. The intersection of the inner shell and the cube forms a unique proscenium. (Drawing © OMA)
The asymmetrical “Grand Theatre” resists the traditional shoebox-typology. Stage level, parterre and balcony are unified into a folded plane. Lastly, the “Multiform Theatre” accommodates experimental performances, while a “Super Theatre” can be created forming a massive, factory-like environment by coupling the Grand and Multiform Theatres. (Drawing © OMA)
The curious public can enter Taipei’s latest cultural attraction even without tickets. A “Public Loop” leads people past theatre, infrastructure and spaces of production to a viewing deck, revealing what is typically hidden during the performances. (Drawing © OMA)

Speaking of performance, the building’s own performance was slow to date. Despite Taiwan’s best contemporary architect, Kris Yao, helping the Dutch design become a reality, the project faced massive budget overruns and delays. It had already topped out back in 2014 (five years after OMA’s competition win) and then needed seven more years before final completion — in April 2021 per some reports. But that is fast in comparison to the speed of Gropius’ original idea finally finding materialization 100 years later.

Photo © OMA by Chris Stowers

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