A total theatre — a theatre without architecture

An interview with Vladimir Somov, the Russian modernist architect, who built «The Novgorod Spaceship».

Photo: Anastasia Tsayder

In the beginning of the 1970s two ambitious projects by Peter Brook and Robert Wilson, the masters of theatre, were implemented on the Shiraz Arts Festival in Iran. They rejected the «theater box» in favour of a natural architectural landscape, giving their plays outdoors for several days and changing points on the map like decorations. These were one of the first practices of such work with «theater space». The 1960s were marked by a revolution in art, which was titled «a performative turn» by Erika Fischer-Lichte, one of the modern researchers of the theatre. The theatre found itself in the centre of cultural transformations, associated with the reconsideration of the viewer’s role and of the very status «work of art» in different practices. The changes did not just affect the artistic process, but also, as a result, influenced the architecture of theatre buildings and scenography.

The project of the Drama Theater in Novgorod. The 1971 version / the photo from Vladimir Somov’s archives
A layout of the theatre in Blagoveshchensk, 1973 / the photo from Vladimir Somov’s archives
The project of the Drama Theater in Novgorod. The 1971 version / the photo from Vladimir Somov’s archives

That subject became key for «The world is a theatre. Architecture and scenography in Russia» exhibition at the Shchusev Museum of Architecture, where Alexandra Stepina, the curator, attempted to analyse the connection between the architecture of theatre and entertainment buildings and the action, happening inside the buildings — on the stage. The architecture and scenography were presented, starting with the age of baroque to classicism and avant-garde and up to the 1980s projects. The projects of the last third of the century refer to modernist and postmodernist experiments of Russian architects when the boldest concepts were being implemented in the existing urban development. Among them are the works of an architect Vladimir Somov. Strelka Magazine had a conversation with the architect, who built two cosmic, in shape and scale, theatre buildings in Veliky Novgorod and Blagoveshchensk and who still thinks that modern theatre doesn’t need architecture.

— Tell us, how did you get involved in architecture?

— I was born in Kherson, Ukraine. I became an architect only after graduating from MArchI (Moscow Architectural Institute), I had a lot of hobbies before that. My mother worked as a cook in a canteen. When I was little, she would buy me paints, and so I started painting at seven years old: I liked repainting the postcards with the works of Sylvester Shchedrin, the artist. He had such Neapolitan landscapes — cows, people on the coast, ruins. So I would repaint that from a small postcard and enlarge it up to about 70 centimetres. It was my hobby, no one made me do that because there were four children in the family and mother couldn’t keep track of everyone. She was probably the one who implanted me the love for drawing: she embroidered pictures her entire life, so it was transferred to me.

— How did you get into a Moscow university?

— I moved to Moscow right after my graduation from school in 1947. I wanted to apply to become a cameraman — that’s, basically, the same thing as an artist, because their works are based on the same laws of art. However, I wasn’t allowed to take the exams as a portfolio was needed and I had never even held a camera. That is why I enrolled in Moscow State University of Railway Engineering (MIIT), the construction faculty. I studied there for a year, I looked about, I understood Moscow lifestyle. I decided to enrol in MArchI the following year. I think I got really lucky with the admission, I’ve always been quite lucky. When I came there for the first time, I didn’t even reach the admission committee: I was walking along the corridor and couldn’t take my eyes off of the walls — there were so many theses hanging on them — layouts, graphics, portraits of the professors. I got scared, I thought that I would never be able to do that, so I left. Then I came for the second time — there were no theses in the corridor, — I reached the admission committee and I got in.

— What was happening in MArchI?

— When I was in my first year, a competition for Armenian hydroelectric power station was announced. All the prominent Moscow architects were invited to participate, including out professors from the faculty of architecture of industrial buildings. And I lived in the University for one semester because I was a good student and there was no campus. So the following happened: four days before presenting his project Pyotr Revyakin, who was the head of the painting faculty at the time, was supposed to finish painting the perspective, but a problem with paints occurred — all the perspective got covered in stains. It was hard to find decorative paints back then: there was one factory in Saint Petersburg, «Chernaya rechka» («Black River») — and nothing else. However, there was one old man, who lived in Moscow, he used to make paints and mix them, so he had more than 60 tones of watercolour. I’ve painted since I was a kid, so I was quite familiar with the principles of colour reproduction. One evening I painted that ruined perspective. My professors saw it and they offered me, a first-year student, to not just finish painting that works, but to finish the architectural perspective. Our project won the competition — the hydroelectric power station was built 70 km from Yerevan. That was my first competition.

The Drama Theater in Novgorod. Architect Vladimir Somov, constructor O.G. Smirnov, 1970-1987 / the photo from Vladimir Somov’s archives
The Drama Theater. Architect Vladimir Somov, constructor O.G. Smirnov, 1970-1987 / the photo from Vladimir Somov’s archives
The Drama Theater in Novgorod. Architect Vladimir Somov, constructor O.G. Smirnov, 1970-1987 / the photo from Vladimir Somov’s archives

There was another funny case in my studying practice, it was even reported in the magazines. It was the third year and my second project ever. The construction of VDNKH was resumed at the time, and there was a competition for each pavilion, so prominent architecture scholars participated in those. And our professors, including architects Dmitry Oltarzhevsky and Boris Barkhin, took the program of the competition and gave it to us, students, as an ordinary course project. After that, they chose top five, with mine among them, and they sent it to the competition. Some time later a rumour started spreading in Moscow that some third-year student won that competition. It was me, I was the University’s hero. No one let me build anything, of course — the project remains on the paper.

— What pavilion was that?

— The pavilion of the Republic of Moldova. Before making the project I went to the library to research the subject, but I found nothing. However, I found a book on Moldovan cellars. There used to be no refrigerators — everyone would build cold cellars and keep their food there. A construction like a storehouse. And what is a national pavilion — that’s also a storehouse. I based my work on it, but I made it several times larger — there was a pergola entwined with grapes in the foreground to demonstrate the scale.

— How did you turn to the theatre architecture?

— I realised that I want to make theatres during the last years in the University. My diploma thesis was the project of the theatre on Pushkinskaya Square, where there’s now a garden in front of McDonald’s. It’s hard to say, why I started designing theatres, I’ve probably kept that interest since my school years: I loved writing compositions, one of them — I studied lots of books — was dedicated to the serf theatres.

— Who were your teachers, what architects influenced you?

— I can’t say I was influenced by only one architect. As a student, I didn’t attend lectures very often, because I was an intern in the workshops of many famous Moscow architects, such as Alexey Shchusev, Ivan Zholtovsky, Lev Rudnev. Then, in 1953, everyone was forced to make projects in the style of Italian Renaissance, everything else was not welcomed. Although, there probably was an architect, who defined my further work. I was assigned to go to Astrakhan after my graduation from the University. I worked there for one year and three months. One of our emigrants from Yugoslavia, an architect Pavel Krat, came there at that time. And I saw a completely new modern European architecture. He was designing — I was watching and learning. When I was leaving Moscow, I had a suitcase, full of albums: classic architecture, Palladio, Vitruvius. I left it all in Astrakhan, that suitcase of knowledge, my entire education. Thus, Krat opened my eyes to the Western architecture. We didn’t have a single magazine then, there could be no trips to the West. We could just listen to «Voice of America» in the night through the jammers, there were no other connections.

— Where did you work later?

— I’ve only worked in two organisations in my life: Giprotheater (State Institute for the design of theatrical and entertainment establishments in USSR. — Editor’s note) and the Institute for medical and resort buildings. During the first few months in Giprotheater, I only helped with designing, but I wasn’t given my own projects. There was an unspoken rule, according to which any city with the population of more than 200,000 people had to have a theatre. Having worked there for several years, I received two orders — for theatres in Veliky Novgorod and Blagoveshchensk — and the status of not only the head architect of the project but also the head engineer.

— Did you study the specifics of constructing theatrical buildings in Russia and Europe before designing theatres? What did you notice?

— We had a whole team of architects: me, Vladilen Krasilnikov, Andrey Anisimov, Alexander Velikanov (all the presented architects are associated with the construction of theatrical buildings of the second half of the 20th century: Moscow Taganka theatre, Gorky Moscow Art Theater, Natalya Sats Musical Theater. — Editor’s note), — and we went to the Prague Quadrennial (an international competitive presentation of scenography and theatrical architecture, held in the capital of Czech Republic since 1967. — Editor’s note) a few times, watched the latest developments in architecture — scenography. During one of these trips we went to France specifically to observe the Greek and Roman amphitheatres, we visited two cities — Nîmes and Arles. We studied, how the acoustics was applied in theatres, and I was amazed. According to all of our rules of acoustics, one should make the lateral and top plains for sound reflection, directed to the right place, so that the whole audience hall would be evenly covered with sound, but there were no reflecting surfaces there. Those were open air theatres. We even conducted an experiment: we spread out on the perimeter of the amphitheatre and one by one we were saying different lines quietly and loudly — and everyone could hear one another quite well. I’m not sure, may be the answer lies in the size of the audience row of the amphitheater. The ratio of the height of the seats to the width of the passage between the rows — 50 on 80 centimetres — met the Golden ratio. It is possible that round columns also had something to do with that.

The design of the Drama Theater in Novgorod, the main facade, 1974 / Vladimir Somov’s personal archive
The design of the Drama Theater in Novgorod, the general plan, 1974 / Vladimir Somov’s personal archive
The design of the Drama Theater in Novgorod, the main facade, 1974 / Vladimir Somov’s personal archive

— Tell us about the theatre in Velikiy Novgorod, what are its constructive features?

— In the original version, the building was a stepped construction with a classic hall. The first design was declined, the city authorities said: «You can build „beautiful“ somewhere in Germany, not here». The second project appeared in 1971, six months after the first one, and it was approved. That design implied changes in the very heart of the theatre — in the audience hall. The hall had 850 seats, and I constructed a three-part scene here. That structure did not just allow the director to implement any of his ideas, but it also made the viewers direct participants of the action as the half of the audience hall was, basically, placed on the stage. I made up more than 16 versions of the stage’s transformation: the standard version, where only the central part is used; a version with rotary circles that gives an opportunity to show action in continuous motion; and a version with the retractable walls that engages two side stages at once. Moreover, the building has wide ramps that link the stage to the exterior space. Thus, one could get from the street to the stage even by car or a tank and then ride out to the street from the other side. However, unfortunately, nobody found it useful, so nobody uses it now. That’s an interesting example of the audience hall’s acoustics. Possibly, being under the impression of what I saw in France, I intuitively decided to use that technic in my theatre. My audience hall doesn’t have lateral plains for sound reflection, there’s only a top plain and it’s technical — a narrow gallery, where the lighting equipment is kept. As I’m not a specialist in that area, we consulted with the Institute for engineering physics and acoustics. They made us create a gigantic layout of the hall, with all the small details, including chair upholstery. For the examination of the built theatre, the students were invited. They were spread all around the hall and they were asked to write down words that were pronounced from the stage. But the task was complicated — the words were distorted. The audibility was great.

— What role did the surrounding architectural context play in the designing for you?

— It was important for me to connect the modernity and architectural traditions. Because what is in Novgorod: the churches are small, The Cathedral of St. Sophia is still the same. All the shapes of Novgorod architecture are soft, round, pliant; they were the basis. There are no columns in Novgorod tradition, only vaults and arches. They became the main shaping and decorative elements of the building. I cut the arches and by so I killed their constructive essence, I turned these sliced pieces into the decorations — it was important for creating an image of modern theatre. My building consists of these arches, placed all over the perimeter. They stand throughout the whole circle of the building, they don’t lean on anything and the glass lies on them. It’s a very important technique — turning the constructive into a decoration, because people can see them on their way to the building, and they already immerse into the theatrical atmosphere.

Theater with a free or total stage space / Vladimir Somov’s personal archive

— Judging by your graphic sheets, the theatre was supposed to be red. How did it turn out to be white?

— Yes, it was supposed to be red. But we didn’t manage to find that material. There was only one opportunity — if we used marble cement. In England and Austria, there’s a secret method of making coloured cement, just like that old man with the watercolour back in my student days. But that was very expensive. As a result, we decided to leave it as it is — white.

— The project of the theatre in Blagoveshchensk was created before the theatre in Novgorod. What ideas did you have?

— I began designing it in 1969, but the construction ended in almost 40 years, in 2006 (now it’s the building of the Social and cultural centre. — Editor’s note). When I received that order, I went to see the city, it was young, it just started being built. But it seemed too boring to me because there was no general plan — it looked like a two or three-storey construction and a square grid. My challenge was to introduce something new and fresh into this drab grid. The city authorities conceived the theatre building as a place for urban political meetings, which is why the architecture and the hall must have corresponded to that. That theatre was less important to me than the theatre in Novgorod, even though it’s more interesting architecture-wise. First of all, its seating capacity is twice bigger than in the Novgorod theatre, it has two halls. One is with 1035 seats and another is a small, experimental one — with 600 seats. The architecture was interesting because instead of the square grid, I put the theatre into the triangular one. The exterior and almost all the interior spaces — and even overlaps — are subject to such structure. I also added rounded windows on the facade, they were meant to distract visitors from the drab surroundings of the building. The whole theatre was made of plastic shapes as if I turned it to the living sculpture.

— In your opinion, what was the main difference between your two theatres?

— The theatre in Novgorod was being built like a temple of culture: rigid and symmetrical, focused on East-West, like Novgorod churches. The whole facade is asymmetrical in Blagoveshchensk; I didn’t have to correspond it to the architectural context, there were no ancient traditions, I made everything up from nothing. What’s important is that during my work on the theatre in Blagoveshchensk I mostly paid attention to the architecture: I was less interested in shape, scenography because the stage was created according to the traditional classic scheme. The stage in Novgorod was the primary concern. What’s also interesting is that both theatres stand on the riverside, but unlike in Blagoveshchensk, the visitors of the Novgorod theatre can enter the building from two sides as the Novgorod territory of the design was much larger that the one in Blagoveshchensk. The front facade in Blagoveshchensk faces the river, which is also where the observation deck is, and the back side faces the main street. Thus, there’s only one entrance.

— Tell us about the «total theater» project. How did it come to live, was it somehow connected with your Novgorod project?

— I applied some elements of «total theater» in the Novgorod theatre design. Regarding this project: the Union of Architects of Russia had an entertainment buildings division with Vladilen Krasilnikov and Yuri Gnedovskiy as its members. Due to that division we, the architects, could go abroad, observe and discuss new developments in our field. In 1972 they announced a competition for the design of «total theater». That was a theoretical design, which is why there were almost no limitations — create anything you want. My concept implied that the theatre should correspond to the spirit of the time architecture-wise and scenography-wise, it should be contemporary and ready for rapid changes and transformations.

A photo from Vladimir Somov’s personal archive

— What are the basic principles of the «total theater»?

— Viewer’s maximally possible convergence with actors and the director. It can only be achieved by complete exclusion of the architecture. Meaning, there’s no theatre volume — it is naturally disguised in another volume or in the terrain. I drew a landscape, some hill with a person, walking along it and getting into the foyer, where actors in costumes meet him, and then comes the stage — there can be many versions of its configurations and location. This entire design is completely dynamic. One can rotate the person, move seats in sections — he can’t get bored and he definitely can’t fall asleep.

Talking about the «total theater» project, I should mention the director, Yuri Lyubimov, who implemented some ideas of the theatre of the future in his Taganka theatre. He was the first person in USSR to use the principle of the viewer’s complete immersion into the theatrical process. According to his concept, everything unnecessary should be removed from the theatre, aside from the things that are needed for today’s play. There were actors in their costumes and they would meet the guests — that «half a meter» to the stage is very important for the immersion and for preparing the viewer for further action.

— Going back to your realised projects, can you characterise your style? Most consider your designs part of postmodernism with Charles Jencks and Robert Venturi as its founders. Are you familiar with their works?

— I never thought of any particular style, I tried to follow the modern concepts of the methods of architectural design. Surely, I read both Venturi and Jencks. I like Venturi very much. But what did they do? They used a method, which is considered basic in postmodernism, — they could use all the significant achievements of the previous centuries. For example, Venturi has a covered colonnade, one side is the Doric order, another one — the Ionic order. Nothing like that has ever been done before, he just took that liberty. Then he could draw a residential house with only two storeys, and the columns were two meters long, but they were flat — they were just drawn as columns. In my designs of the theatre in Novgorod I also used the classic shape — the arch, but I used it in a new way, I changed it.

— What connection do you see between the theatre and the architecture?

— I think the whole life should be colourful, bright, infinitely beautiful and unknowable, like theatre. It should inspire, not intimidate. And an architect’s goal is to encourage that. There was a story: during the World War II the Germans came close to Stalingrad and they took the Volga’s right shore. It was an uneasy time, the following happened: a theatre was being built in Novosibirsk at the time and, in spite of the war, the construction continued. And then suddenly, when the Germans were already near Stalingrad, the opera premiere in that very building of the just completed theatre was announced to the entire world. That was a sensation! It was a real turning point — the whole world was talking about it. And you know, how the battle ended. You see, what kind of power the theatre has.

Text: Anastasia Grigoryan
Translation: Olga Baltsatu