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Bengt Sjostrom / Starlight Theatre
Rockford, Ill.
Studio/Gang Architects

Folding and unfolding like origami, Studio/Gang Architects? theater brings flexible opportunities to its audiences

By Blair Kamin

© Greg Murphey

For more photos click on 'photos & drawings' above.

To see the people and products 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 O’Donnell (now Studio/Gang Architects), were charged with expanding and improving Starlight’s 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/O’Donnell 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 building’s 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 stone—the 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 Starlight’s 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 theater’s 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 don’t 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).

Formal name of Project:
Bengt Sjostrom / Starlight Theatre

Rockford, Ill.

Gross square footage:
135,000 sq. ft.

Total construction cost:
$8.5 million

Rock Valley College

Studio Gang/O'Donnell
(now called Studio/Gang Architects)
1212 N. Ashland Ave. Suite 212
Chicago, IL 60622
T 773-384-1212
F 773-384-0231

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