Gathering on the Ground: Experiencing Landscape in American Outdoor Theaters
Most contemporary outdoor theaters are erected by institutions and entrepreneurs who view the landscape merely as real estate. However, the motivations for locating a theater outside were quite different during the early 20th century when theatrical professionals, naturalists and designers led a movement to present music and drama to the American public in improvised outdoor locations. Seeing outdoor events as both a democratic antidote to the elitism of interior theaters and an opportunity to bring audiences into contact with nature, these drama enthusiasts constructed permanent theaters for performances to occur within a frame of nature and the landscape. This deliberate emphasis on experiencing the landscape while viewing music and drama influenced theater design into the 1930s when the New Deal built hundreds of outdoor theaters in the nation's public parks and civic spaces.
But priorities in outdoor theater design shifted after World War II. Emphasis changed to large capacities, comfortable seats, concessions and the sound and lighting technologies available in interior theaters. Today, with a few exceptions, the design of new theaters is dominated by such concerns. Nevertheless, many older theaters without these amenities continue as popular venues. In fact, Denver's Red Rocks Theater, built between 1937 and 1941, remains the country’s most prestigious outdoor venue despite less capacity and technical facilities than newer structures. As the emphasis on amenities increased in new theaters, so too did the tendency to ignore the unique qualities of a landscape. This unfortunate trend was not limited to outdoor theaters, but dominated most architectural environments.
It is easy to attribute this diminished interest in the landscape to the commercialism and codes initiated after World War II, but the influence of modern architecture also played a role. Modernist architects typically regarded the landscape as a homogenous green background to their buildings rather than as a complex geography with distinct variations. On the other hand, landscape architects joined hands with environmentalists to create a milieu mobilized around where not to build. Both positions supported the land developer’s view of the landscape as a spatial commodity. During the past decade publicity for iconic landscape projects and a concern for sustainability have prompted a fresh look at the landscape. Nevertheless, the legacy of designing structures separately from their landscapes still haunts design practice. Consequently, too few contemporary projects by either discipline result in formally memorable structures that also respond to the particulars of a landscape.
Investigators: Linda Jewell
University of California, Berkeley
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection