Reporting from the ground

Notes from the land of play, drama and plenty of socio-economic power dynamics in between
text: Loredana STASISIN

Negotiating freedoms, time and complexity

It all started with a phone call from Andrei POPOV, Deputy Director at the Austrian Cultural Forum Bucharest, in august, 2020, after the first wave of COVID19. He asked me if I am interested in curating a ‘facelift’ for an older exhibition on Fellner & Helmer, in order to prepare it for Timișoara – European Capital of Culture, in 2022.

It followed the first meeting with Thomas KLOIBER, the Director at the time at the Austrian Cultural Forum Bucharest. We spoke briefly about theaters, heritage, research methods, personal experiences, motivations and meanings. The outcome of that: the FREEDOM to reconceptualize the whole research, from scratch.

One matter of concern that I felt important to be addressed: it is true that I am an architect and a heritage specialist, but I have no prior experience related to theater life beyond that of a regular consumer of performative acts. It was Andrei who reassured me : “I know how you work, I trust you”. And from the other side of table, Thomas added: “a fresh look can actually be even more interesting”.

So, this is how our deal was set, based on TRUST and OPENNESS.

Another important talk was about the title and the subtitle of the proposed project. Somehow, despite the clarity of it, it felt that my proposal had a pretentious tone, with some academic vibe, non-related to large audiences that we are our main focus. It was Thomas who reassured me that it was nothing wrong about that. Actually, his argument was something like “perhaps, every once in a while, we need this sort of complexity, with a more in-depth take on the topic”. And it was also the matter of TIME. Yet again, it was Thomas who set the rhythm: “let’s not rush with this one.. “.

In this regard, a big THANK YOU goes to Andrei, for his inspiration, courage and emotion to push things forward, for his perseverance, stubbornness, rigour, and most of all, his friendship. And to Thomas, most of all, for the wisdom of looking beyond the short-term constraints.

None of what you explore here, now, would have not been possible without the kindest support of these two outstanding masterminds.

In memoriam Dr Gerhard M. DIENES

Born in Graz, in 1953, Gerhard M. Dienes was a historian, head of the Graz City Museum until 2005 and since then responsible for projects at the Universalmuseum Joanneum. He curated over 90 exhibitions in Germany and abroad, and was involved in projects for the European Capital of Culture Rijeka. His written work counts over 150 publications about the history of Graz and the Alps-Adriatic region, culture and mentalities.

Marking the 100th anniversary of Graz Opera, in 1999, he conducted one of the most important studies on the theaters and concert halls designed by Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer. This resulted in the book “Die architekten der illusion. Theaterbau und Bühnenbild in Europa” [The Architects of Illusion. Theater building and stage design in Europe] and an associated exhibition, the one that opened the discussions for the current research.

He strongly believed that political culture is essentially human culture and that culture must not be misused as a mean for polishing one’s image.

He died in February, 2020.

It is our hope that this project, that walks on his footsteps, shares his values and honours his work by pursuing his progressive approach on culture, history, and the need for theater in our daily lives.

A closer look, in the quietest of times

The actual research started from the grassroots, with on-site visits, at the beginning of the second wave of COVID19.

Planning the filed trips, the interviews, and the general logistics for moving from one place to another was a delicate process to navigate through. Initially, the on-site visits, were planned to be covered in two distinct travels, between October – December of 2020, for 17 days, one to Iasi, between October, 27th – 30th, and the other one between November 04th – 27th, covering Zagreb, Graz, Vienna, Budapest, Oradea, Cluj-Napoca, Timisoara.

With a new COVID wave hitting Europe in the fall, the process stopped abruptly while being in Zagreb, as the theaters in Austria and Hungary completely shut down for a non-determined period of time. During the travel in Croatia, there was an opportunity to extend the field research with three days and check the theatres in Rijeka and Varazdin, as well as deepening the study with a visit to the National Library for getting more acquainted with the local literature available on the subject.

Another distinct travel was conducted in December, in Oradea and Cluj Napoca, between the 02nd – 07th. Timișoara followed in May, next year, between 17th – 19th, once the pandemic restrictions were eased. In October, between the 02nd – 07th, another travel focused on Budapest, where the main case study was VIG Theater, with a brief visit to the Oprett and the Old National Theatre Memorial. The last visit of the year was in Austria, between the 13th – 16th of October, with a focus on Graz Oper and a brief visit of the Ronacher, in Vienna.

With the support of Kulturvermittlung Steiermark and Österreichisch-Rumänische Gesellschaft, another trip to Austria was organised in April 2022, between 03rd -09th, to deepen the research on Graz Opera, Ronacher and the available documents and literature at the local archives in Graz and Wien.

Short-term planning, minding social distancing, keeping track of disinfecting routines, befriending the face-masks and the overall continuous health concerns increased the level of difficulty for the on-site experience and significantly impacted the data collection from the ground and the interactions with the people involved in the process.

But it was only in this particular context of restrictions, incertitude, and solitude that intense emotions could emerge and structure the solid foundation for this particular research. By seeing what a world without theater looks like, we learned together why having performative art happening in our life is important, today. Therefore, SILENCE became the main companion along the journey, and the leading act in articulating the specificity of the conceptual framework.

So, THANK YOU to all of you who made possible these on-site visits, who guided me through the hidden corners of this magical universe, who helped overcoming the linguistic barriers and gave up personal time for interviews and for providing access to valuable historical information, to those of you who opened the doors and hearts to share knowledge and wisdom, and taught us about the MEANINGS and CORE VALUES on which the theater life is relying today.

It was the quietest of times. Yet, it was, perhaps, the best for learning about the necessity of the performative art in bettering the human kind.

6 travels in 26 days, 11 theaters in 4 countries, 36 interviews… so far

From the information gathered so far, it appears that Fellner & Helmer designed 24 theater projects that remained on paper, they built 62, out of which 8 were demolished, and contributed to building and remodelling other two. During the 43 years of activity, they produced over 80 different designs for which can be found documented proof. And this is just the work they have done related to this type of architectural program.

Within the given resources, time and budget, we have managed to document less than a quarter of these case studies. The selection, that carefully balanced a wide spread of geographical locations and architectural diversity, aimed to illustrate not only the quality of their craft but also to portray the context in which this kind of work was possible, a time when investing in culture was a political act meant to reach the hearts of the local communities, and a drive for modernity and socio-economic progress. And most importantly, to check the relevance of these built structures today, facing different contextual dynamics more than a century later.

Between 2020 – 2022, 11 theatres were visited and documented with up-to-date information. But there are many more others waiting to share their learnings.

A quadri-dimensional approach

The conceptual framework revolves around the significance of the craft that underline the practice of the architectural office of Fellner and Helmer.

. TIME: defining significant temporalities from the Antiquity, through the Modernity of the 20th century, to the anticipation of future dynamics
. SCALE: tackle theatre in general [considering both, performance and physical shape], zoom in on the work of the architects Fellner & Helmer, focus on 5- 7 comparative cases, among which the National Opera in Timisoara will stand as centre piece, and dive into individual introspection.
. EMOTION: stands as a ‘trigger’ and generates some context to the study, with value driven socio-economic / political and cultural factors to be considered.
. HUMAN PRINT: decision making – regards the factual transformations, consequences of the emotional triggers identified.

The game of power

Theater, as we know it from the perspective of the public, auditor or participant in an artistic performance, means light, sound, color, rigor, grandeur, tension, illusion, it means show, a complex system of creative visions, technique, ethics, aesthetics and political strategies. The show is the engine that fuels the imaginative and provokes reason. It is the heart that pumps life into a spatial structure that fuses social, economic and cultural sensibilities.

But the show lasts 2 – 3 hours. What happens when all the hustle and bustle goes out, when the audience disappears, when the light goes out, and the show ends? What happens to all the silence without tension, without magic, without grandeur, without structure? When the theatre is empty, what happens to the silence in it?

The theaters of Fellner & Helmer were built as new urban poles and hubs for modernity. They were carefully designed to integrate meaningful particularities specific for the local identities and the structural framework was articulated in such way to harmonise a strong connection between the stage and audiences. Within the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire they were a political statement meant to bring together different cultures under the same governance. In other places, their reputation for safety and efficient construction mechanisms surpassed nationalistic views and made possible foreign cultural marks, despite local political intrigues, simply because they were the best to have.

Under the official statement of the authorities at the time, the People’s Theatre of Budapest was demolished, in 1963, in order to make room for a new metro line. Initially designed by Ferdinand Fellner Sr. in 1871, the construction of what is now known as the Palace of Culture in Timisoara was conducted by his son in association with Hermann Helmer, and concluded in 1874. After two fires that significantly impacted the building, in 1880 and in 1920, the main facade and the interior spaces were redesigned in 1923 by the Romanian arch. Duiliu Marcu, therefore achieving the symbiotic look that today became the emblematic image of the 1989 Romanian Revolution at Timisoara. In Rijeka, in the context of recent socio-economic struggles, the team behind the National Theater, bearer of the signature of the two Austrian architects, is developing creative strategies to attract new audiences and construct new meanings to support the continuity of the fragile historical monument. Meanwhile, in 2020, in the context of the restrictive conditions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, people continued to gather and meet around the National Theater in Zagreb, as the Fellner & Helmer building remained up to this day one of the main hotspots in the city.

Despite their age, these monumental places continue to be the living storytellers of the socio-economic power dynamics. Transcending across generations, they stand as solid bearings for the seesaws that support the continuous play between community and stakeholders.

Our hope

The stories of these theaters, taken individually, are strong enough to be historically relevant and to stand as intriguing subjects of analysis for urban development studies. However, their main strength in terms of historical values resides in their ensemble, when they are regarded all together as one solid group. Therefore, extending this research to including as many Fellner & Helmer theaters as possible is considered extremely important.

In terms of architectural conservation, sharing learnings from one building to another, exchanging knowledge regarding different restorative practices on same types of structures, or building arguments for supporting certain policies relying on prior experiences in different cases, can be crucial at times in preserving the authenticity of the historical traces. For example, as one can observe scrolling through the database of images, it can be easily observed how some decorations, joinery details, or patterns for the spatial configuration can be found replicated in a multitude of case studies, some better preserved than others. This data can be useful for future restorative interventions.

As for the performances to be created within these spaces, it is worth noting how a Fellner & Helmer network can be the ground for shared experiences, itinerary plays, or the mark for a specific kind of shows that can be set only in a certain type of context. While Ronacher is equipped with state-of-the-art stage technology, the theater in Cluj-Napoca still preserves most of the original stage mechanisms in operation. Somewhere between these extremes, there is room for plenty innovative solutions to support creative acts in close dialogue with the existing historical framework as well as for building new narratives for the heritage values to be further created.

Considered one of the most beautiful buildings created by Fellner & Helmer, the theater in Odessa was recently used as one of the main backdrops for the news announcing the imminent threats related to the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine…

Despite their apparent monumental physicality, these living archives of cultural practices and shelters for collective memories are heartbreakingly vulnerable in facing human maleficence.

Documenting their stories is the least that we can do in preserving their memory for the generations to come. Therefore, this show must go on.

Your tool

This online platform was co-designed with a team of PhD students at the Faculty of Arts and Design from the Timisoara University having in mind as a main objective the development of a visual structure for the collected data in such way that it becomes accessible and attractive for large audiences and young generations of consumers of performative acts in general and theater in particular.

It is primarily meant to share insightful information about the life of the classical theaters behind the curtain and beyond the frame of a contemporary show.

On the other hand, the information is meant to provide open access to scientific data for research purposes. During the months to come, the content of the platform will continue to be constantly populated with new information and types of data.

The main objective is to build this tool FOR YOU all, and co-design with you throughout the process in such way that it serves you better, so that you can better enjoy the experience of (re)discovering these places of culture filled with such complex layers of memories and meanings.

So, feel free to reach back to us, share your feedback, your thoughts about the findings, your curiosities, and ask for more 😉

From F&H, with love

Above all, beyond presenting the systemic socio-economic power dynamics between stakeholders and local community articulated through monumental architectures, the traveling exhibition, as well as the online platform, hope to provoke you to question the historical narrative to be further developed: how can we, people of today, pass to next generations, in a regenerative way, the richness of the cultural knowledge that was so gracefully offered to us?