The late Guthrie Theatre is on claass HAUS today.
On May 7, 1963, Minneapolis' Tyrone Guthrie Theater opened with a production of Hamlet, an event that drew more than a thousand people to the dazzling new stage. Designed by the city's own Ralph Rapson, the cutting-edge structure helped usher in a radical era of theater design, its open, asymmetrical thrust stage offering a more egalitarian experience. But like so many modernist theaters built in the 1960s and 70s, the original Guthrie would last only a handful of decades before falling to the wrecking ball of the new millennium.
When the theater opened in 1963, Rapson's newfangled design helped put Minneapolis (and the Midwest, for that matter) on the cultural map. The brainchild of British stage director, Sir Tyrone Guthrie, the venue became a prototype for a different kind of professional theatre- one removed from the high rents and financial demands of Broadway. After the T.B. Walker Foundation donated a piece of land adjacent to the Walker Art Center, the Guthrie organization hired Rapson (who happened to be working on an auditorium for the Walker), to design a permanent home for the new theater company.
The head of the University of Minnesota's School of Architecture and the state's most influential modernist, Rapson had plenty of experience in theater design by the time the Guthrie project came across his desk. As a student at the Cranbrook Academy, Rapson teamed up with Eero Saarinen and Fred James on the prize-winning entry for the Festival Theater at William and Mary. Later, the architect, working for Eliel and Eero Saarinen, produced the drawings for Kleinhan's Music Hall in Buffalo, New York. Despite this background, Rapson was not Guthrie's first choice, and the pair would go on to have a difficult working relationship. In the end, the design proved to be a collaborative one (with help from stage designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch), and their approach would revolutionize the traditional theater experience.
Planned from the inside out, the design for the Guthrie attempted to liberate American stagecraft. Working to decentralize the more static seating of the conventional theater and dissolve the boundaries between actor and audience member, Rapson sought to open things up, designing an asymmetrical stage surrounded by seating on three sides (in a 210-degree arc). Intimacy was key, and no seat was more than 54-feet away from the stage. In order to democratize the balconies (traditionally the poorest seats of the house), the orchestra was fused with the upper level on one side, while other gallery seats were arranged in irregular boxes, some shallow, some deep. To help create excitement for the performance, Rapson (much to the dismay of Guthrie) covered the house in an array of brightly hued fabrics. This vivid "confetti"-like seating heightened the excitement of the drama on display and became one of the most iconic features of the building, appearing on the cover of Progressive Architecture magazine. Outside of the auditorium, sparkling white lobbies with bright red and orange doors acted as clear transitional spaces between the colorful auditorium and the light gray exterior.
Echoing the asymmetrical and abstract quality of the interior, the outside of the Guthrie Theater was characterized by a distinctive geometry, its double-layered facade consisting of a gridded glass curtain wall partially veiled by a freestanding screen. The screen, provocative in the way it concealed and revealed views into the building, was a composition of irregular polygons that added lively dimension to the theater's facade. Although Rapson's unconventional exterior was met with mixed reviews, it acted as a preview of the fantasy and illusion that would unfold on stage. (Unfortunately, the screen, which was made of reinforced plywood coated in Granolux instead of steel as originally intended, had to be removed in 1974 due to deterioration, severely compromising Rapson's original design.)
It didn't take long for the Guthrie theater company to outgrow their Rapson-designed venue, and on April 2, 2001, the organization announced that French-architect Jean Nouvel had been commissioned to design a new multi-stage structure on the banks of the Mississippi River. The new Tyrone Guthrie Theater opened in downtown Minneapolis in 2006, its daring, almost industrial form recalling Rapson's design only in its utilization of the thrust stage. Just as the new theater was completed, the Walker Art Center was also looking to expand and hired Herzog & de Meuron to reimagine their facilities. Sadly, the original Guthrie was not included in their final design, and despite its eligibility to the National Register of Historic Places, Rapson's theater was demolished.
The loss of the Guthrie reminds me of the era's other experimental theaters- John Johansen's Mummers Theater or his Morris A. Mechanic Theater, both misunderstood and eventually demolished. It makes me wonder- how will Nouvel's Guthrie design fare over the next few decades? Will we be calling for its preservation? Only time will tell.
You can read about the late Mummers Theater here.
Photograph at top:
Hennepin County Library, Special Collections.
This architectural historian cannot stop thinking about buildings, food, and that vintage rug she found online.