Despite the recent economic shake-up in Brazil, Latin America still offers fertile ground for the implantation of new projects. Old opera houses are basking in the gilded glory of restoration, abandoned train stations are chugging back to life redesigned as symphony halls or the hubs of urban entertainment centers. Classic theatres are getting contemporary rigging and lighting systems while innovative new spaces are taking shape on the drawing boards. From Puerto Rico down to South America, the following is a small sampling of architectural projects throughout this vast area of the globe.
It's worth taking note of a major cultural renaissance taking place in Puerto Rico. "There is a huge theatre and film-going tradition on the island," says Ted Ohl of the New York-based firm Pook Diemont & Ohl, which is involved in several projects there. "Lots of municipalities are renovating or building. It seems like every town wants to have a theatre."
The epicenter of this cultural revival is in the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan. One of the major renovations here is the Spanish Revival-style Teatro Universidad de Puerto Rico, which was built in 1939, after the original wooden buildings of the university were swept away by major hurricanes. This stucco and terra-cotta structure is part of alandmarked quadrangle of historic buildings that form the heart of the University, which was founded in 1903.
"This was the main house on the island for opera, dance, and theatre," explained San Juan-based lighting designer/theatre consultant Enrique Benet, on a recent tour of the facility. The Pablo Casals Festival was founded here in 1956, and many of Puerto Rico's leading actors trained in the drama department. Jose Ferrar's Oscar for the title role in Cyrano de Bergerac stands proudly in the lobby. Badly in need of a face-lift, the theatre closed last winter after 60 years of continuous operation.
The first phase of the anticipated $14 million renovation is tackling the infrastructure of the building. "Cracks in the roof and the red clay tiles need to be repaired, new electrical wiring is needed, and new acoustical panels need to be put on the walls. The rigging and lighting systems will also be updated, and there will be a new stage floor," says Luis Gutierrez, the project architect, who was interviewed onsite. His San Juan-based firm made a complete set of drawings, right down to the hand railings. In fact, his 300-page presentation for the project won an award for historic preservation studies.
Additional consultants, including Pook Diemont & Ohl, worked on feasibility studies to replace the original 1939 rigging and lighting and to improve the acoustics. The dimmers will be updated from an old patch panel to a new dimmer-per-circuit system with a new console. The lighting booth will be relocated from the balcony level to the main floor behind the back rows of seats. The old manual orchestra pit lift will also be replaced with a hydraulic lift.
A lighting cove over the audience, added in the 1960s, has just a narrow wooden catwalk for focusing, and will be improved. A new stage apron will provide better access to the side boom boxes. There will also be new audio reinforcement equipment, plus a LARES acoustical enhancement system. The new seats (a total of 2,160) will be more comfortable versions of the theatre's original red ones and will also allow for handicapped seating areas. "This will be the most state-of-the-art facility in Puerto Rico when finished, even more so than the Centro de Bellas Artes," says Gutierrez, referring to San Juan's 1980s performing arts center. "This place has charisma, something the other places don't have." The reopening is planned for 2003, and will coincide with the centennial of the university.
Benet and Gutierrez are also collaborating with another San Juan architect, Otto Reyes, on a small theatre space in Puerto Rico's new national art museum, the Museo del Arte, which will open in January 2000. Also located in Santurce, the museum is housed in a building that combines an abandoned 1920s municipal hospital with a soaring five-story contemporary addition on seven acres of land. The multi-use, 420-seat theatre has a sleek, contemporary design in terra-cotta and golden hues.
The theatre is designed with a sprung wooden floor for dance performances, and the stage apron projects past the curtain line. The stage is actually level with the front row of seats, with a loading dock stage left and dressing rooms below the stage. "The theatre is a means to generate revenue," says Adlin Rios Rigau, executive director of the project. She is planning a mixed menu of jazz, chamber music, lectures, and film screenings. To meet the various musical needs of the space, RPG (Peter D'Antonio Diffusion Systems) sound diffusion and flutter-free acoustical materials and rolling orchestra towers will be used. The RPG diffusion materials will be on frames built by PD&O.
An unusual feature is the house curtain, designed by Puerto Rican artist Antonio Martorell, with a 15' x 30' lace panel depicting two hands holding a map of the world with Puerto Rico in the center. (Actually there are 18 panels of lace, each measuring 5' x 5' and made in traditional lace-making fashion by local women in the countryside.) The lace will be mounted onto a translucent fabric and hung on a one-way draw that pullsto stage left.
The curtain will be installed by Pook Diemont & Ohl, which will also furnish and install the rigging (a simple pipe grid system) and lighting system, which will include 96 digital EDI dimmers, one EDI Bijou console, and a small package of Altman luminaires, including Shakespeares and fresnels. Upstairs in the museum, a 5,000-sq.-ft. black box space will have 24 channels of EDI dimming, a Bijou console, and Altman luminaires.
Re-using and reinventing landmarked space is also an option elsewhere in Latin America, specifically in Brazil. In Sao Paulo, the circa-1920s Estacao Sorrocabana Ferrovial Julio Prestes train station and an adjoining administrative building are being converted to a performance venue.
Within the administrative building is a large, unenclosed courtyard waiting room, which for many years has been the location for orchestral and other musical events. In 1996, Artec Consultants, Inc. of New York was invited by John Neschling, conductor of the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, and Mario Covos, the governor of the state of Sao Paulo, to determine the feasibility of a more permanent arrangement and facility for performances. "This project is an adaptive re-use of the space, not just a redesign of a theatre," says Michael Mell, who served as project manager. Other Artec team members included: Damien Doria, Chris Blair, Tom Young, Edward Arenius, Alan Teplitzky, and Dr. Joel E. Rubin.
Working with local architect Dupre Arquitetura, local acoustician Acustica & Sonica, and general contractor Acciona Triunfo, Artec set to work on the basic room design, and theatre, acoustics, and sound and communications system consulting. The goal was to transform the space into a world-class concert hall--the Sala Concertos Julio Prestes.
Although the building is no longer used as a railway station, active rail lines still run within a few feet of the facility. To prevent rumbling trains from intruding on performances, Artec proposed that the main floor be excavated and a floating slab be installed to prevent any vibration-borne noise from entering the building. The new balconies and balcony boxes were isolated as well. "The balconies were added for two reasons: to increase the seat count--we were given a target of 1,600 seats--and to improve the room acoustics," Mell says. "Originally, we proposed a single side balcony for acoustic reasons, but we weren't able to do this because CONDEPHAT (the local historical society and landmark preservation ministry) didn't wish the base of the columns to be obscured. The solution to this conflict was the creation of balcony boxes between the columns." Window and door treatments completed the noise-isolation process.
Artec also designed an adjustable ceiling, divided into 15 motorized and individually controlled panels, which allow the volume of the room to be adjusted. This feature allows the acoustics of the room to be fine-tuned.
The main floor of the space is a flat seating area with removable seating surrounded by a parterre of fixed seating. The new rear balcony and balcony boxes were installed in the audience chamber. A fixed chorus seating area and portable chorus risers were included behind the concert platform. The portable risers ride on a stage elevator to the trap room when not in use. A second level of balcony seating boxes was created from the existing first-floor corridor. The facility will seat 1,600 persons when completed.
The Sala Julio Prestes will feature ETC lighting equipment, including dimmers and fixtures, provided by telem (Tecnicas Eletro Mecanicas). Hall Stage of Porto Alegre, Brazil constructed and installed the stage elevator, piano lift, and the adjustable acoustic ceiling panels. The Sala Concertos Julio Prestes is scheduled to open in the late spring of this year.
They're thinking big in Uruguay, too. In Montevideo, SODRE, the Servicio Oficial de Difusion Radiotelevision y Espectaculos, is building a large theatre space for local symphony orchestra, opera, and ballet companies as well as visiting performance groups. A multi-purpose proscenium stage theatre will seat 1,850; a second, 400-seat theatre space located under the main stage will open first on the site.
A team from Theatre Projects Consultants of Ridgefield, CT, headed by Brian Hall, principal-in-charge, worked with the project's architects on the space. "We had been tracking this project for some time," says Hall. "There was an architectural competition in the mid-80s to replace a theatre that burned down on the site." Construction began, then halted, then began again. "They brought in a French theatre consulting firm at the outset; they wrote a report and then walked away," Hall continues. "The architects [Jorge DiPolito, Diego Magnone, Isidoro Singer, and Juan Carlos Vanini] were left to do the best they could."
Enter TPC, who met the architects at a convention in Caracas in the mid-90s. TPC retooled and reformatted the main theatre space, increasing the seating from just under 1,700 to 1,850, installing boxes on the side walls, and improving the acoustics of the space by reforming and shaping the side walls, putting in a canopy, and putting a shell on the stage. Norwalk, CT-based Jaffe Holden Scarbrough was the acoustic consultant on the project. "They also didn't have an orchestra pit," Hall says. "We managed to create one using Gala's Spiralift. That technology rescued the project in some ways, and we're grateful for it."
Hall says that TPC also made the smaller theatre space more "usable and flexible," so that it could be used sometimes as a TV broadcasting studio, other times as a drama theatre with moving towers. "The rest of the project is just extraordinary," Hall says. "There's a big program of opera, musical, and theatre rehearsal rooms backstage on the site."
Currently in construction phase, the space is scheduled to open in 2000. The equipment needs were sorted into seven separate "packages," including seating, lights, rigging, etc., by TPC and are currently out to bid.
TPC is working with the same team of architects on a theatre just blocks away from the SODRE site. "It's an old teatro municipal, like every South American town has," Hall says. "It was built in the middle of the 19th century, and it's absolutely beautiful, but it's been neglected.
"We work differently when we're down in South America," he continues. "We try not to sell them things that they don't need, things that they can get locally. We use our expertise to look at what they have and give them a plan for the future."
Last but certainly not least is the Via Funchal, a former car dealership that was recently transformed into a multi-purpose performance space in Sao Paulo. The venue's massive lighting rig includes 300 PAR-64s, and 24 moving lights positions, which Brazilian company Lighting Productions Ltd. (LPL) can fill with High End Systems Cyberlights(R), Studio Colors(R), and Technobeams(R), Martin MAC500s and MAC600s, or any combination thereof. "When touring lighting designers come here, we offer them many options," says Cesio Lima of LPL. "We're just 15 minutes away from the venue; we can supply everything they might need. "
The house has three Avolites consoles--a Sapphire for the conventional lights, a Pearl 2000 for the moving fixtures, and a Diamond 3 for large shows--all installed by LPL, Avolites' Brazilian rep, under the supervision of Chris Steel. The sound system, installed by Gabi Son, consists of a Meyer Labs PA system, Clair Brothers monitors, and a Midas XL4 board. But, says Lima, flexibility is still an option: visiting sound designers can opt for an EAW PA and monitor system and any number of control boards, including a Yamaha PM4000. The venue's resident lighting designer is Oswaldo Herrero; resident sound designer is Gabi Ferreira, owner of Gabi Son.