Bengt Sjostrom / Starlight Theatre
Folding and unfolding like origami,
Studio/Gang Architects? theater brings flexible opportunities
to its audiences
© Greg Murphey
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& drawings' above.
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behind this project click on 'people & products.'
Moving roofs typically shelter massive
sports stadiums, but rarely do they play a leading role in
the design of small-scale, outdoor theaters. At the $8.5 million
Starlight Theatre in Rockford, Illinois, Chicago architect
Jeanne Gang, AIA, incorporated this technology into a relatively
inexpensive, yet elegantly sculptural, design in which the
drama begins long before the stage doors slide open.
Starlight Theatre, a 36-year-old outdoor community theater
on the undistinguished suburban campus of Rock Valley College,
wanted to increase the quality and scope of its programs.
But its ticket sales and revenues were limited because it
was at the mercy of the weather. Gang and her firm, Studio/Gang
ODonnell (now Studio/Gang Architects), were charged
with expanding and improving Starlights old home: an
amphitheaterlike, concrete bowl with a small stage that seated
600. According to Mike Webb, director of the theater, "We
wanted to maintain a tradition of open-air performances, yet
we sought new flexibility that would enable us to expand the
season and allow performances even when it rained." Like
most nonprofits, however, it had big dreams but little money.
Recognizing that its client had limited
resources, Studio Gang/ODonnell devised a three-phase
plan that allowed Starlight to expand gradually and gracefully.
Phase one, completed in 2001, expanded the seating bowl to
1,050 seats and created a curving, 18-foot-high concrete structure
at the back of the theater to house toilet rooms and ticket
booths [Record, December 2001, page 82]. Gang dematerialized
the concrete mass with portholelike windows set in the pattern
of constellations. When backlit at night, they provide a marqueelike
element of fantasy. The concrete wall also endowed the theater
with a sense of procession, forcing patrons to enter from
the side and teasing them along rather than revealing the
buildings drama all at once.
In the 2001 plan, concession stands are
tucked within a new lower level, which was clad in a local,
rough-hewn stonethe lone contextual gesture to the buildings
of the Rock Valley College campus. The second phase, finished
in 2002, shows
how Gang successfully emphasized the sensuality of other materials.
Consisting of a 50-foot-tall, copper-clad fly tower, the addition
shelters a full proscenium stage house and fly equipment that
vastly expands Starlights ability to display multiple
sets. Instead of velvet curtains, the stage has sliding, translucent
weather doors adapted from airplane hangers. Because it is
indoors, it also doubles as a rehearsal space.
For the third phase, Gang worked with
Uni-Systems, a Minneapolis firm that specializes in moving
structures, to create the theaters crowning touch: a
moving roof that opens like the petals of a flower. The faceted
roof consists of triangular, stainless-steel-clad panels supported
by steel columns and trusses. The panels on the perimeter
are fixed; some fold down to provide a sense of enclosure
for the audience, turning ceiling into wall. The real visual
drama, however, lies in the center of the roof: With the click
of a computer mouse, six panels rise in succession, with one
lifting just before the one alongside it. Seen from directly
below, the resulting void is, appropriately for the Starlight
Theatre, shaped like a star.
While patrons invariably look upward
with a sense of wonder, they dont see or hear the electric
motors that Uni-Systems carefully hid within the roof. At
the same time, the 15-ton weight of all the roof panels is
masked by a structural solution that marries elegance and
cost savings. Gang designed the roof panels so they could
be built off-site, saving on scaffolding costs. The steel
panels were built first, and then self-supporting Douglas
fir infill panels strong enough to be lifted by a crane were
plugged into them. The arrangement allows remarkably thin
steel panels and their supporting columns to appear more like
the underside of an umbrella than a massive bridge pylon.
See the October 2003 issue of Architectural
Record for full coverage of this project. Plus, see additional
coverage of this firm from our Design
Vanguard 2001 issue (December 2001).
Bengt Sjostrom / Starlight Theatre
135,000 sq. ft.
Rock Valley College
(now called Studio/Gang Architects)
1212 N. Ashland Ave. Suite 212
Chicago, IL 60622