Behind the curtain

Subtle reflections on local specificities and identitary values

The modernity of the 19th century

A symbol for abstract desires in an ideal city, inspired by a nostalgia for antiquity, the Italian theatre appears in the 16th century as a bearer of social and ideological values. Gradually, its form and role become a spectacle of power and money, decorum and appearance eclipsing structural and material probity. The modernity of the 19th century brings with it the emergence of the city as a dominant political and social force in Europe: railways, electricity, telephony, mass production, the rethinking of religious and moral values and the resetting of social norms. In this context full of cultural vivaciousness, the theatres created by Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer, these prolific figures who designed over 200 buildings between 1873 – 1919, took shape.

The beginning of a historic collaboration

Following in the footsteps of his father, a respected Viennese architect anchored in the local political environment and one of the main specialists involved in the drafting of the Viennese Building Regulations, Ferdinand Fellner took over the activities of the family Studio in 1871, at the age of 24. On the other hand, Hermann Helmer, born in Germany in a family of goldsmiths and small traders, joins the office after completing his studies at the Technical University of Munich and after winning the competition for the construction of the theatre in Varazdin. Since 1873, the two young architects became partners and laid the foundations for a historic collaboration of 43 years.

A favourable context

The reputation and connections created by F. Fellner senior, the political context, the economic well-being of the moment and the technological momentum favoured the development of an impressive number of projects for the creation of theatres both on the territory of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and beyond its borders. After the 1881 fire at the Ringtheater, when new building regulations for fire safety were imposed, the office of Fellner & Helmer already had the maturity and the experience to quickly adapt to the new requirements. But what is really special about the in depth examination of the craft behind the making of the architectural project are the special connection between the two architects and the way they have been able to complement each other effectively, sensitively and practically, managing not only the work within the architectural office, with over 20 employees, but especially the close relationship with the beneficiaries.

Still standing

At the time of construction, Fellner and Helmer’s theatres and performance halls were appreciated and considered outstanding for the production efficiency, economy, quality of workmanship, attention to detail, fire safety and excellent acoustics. After two world wars, at least two major global economic crises and numerous socio- political reconfigurations, these constructions have gone through multiple transformation processes. Some of them have disappeared, others have managed to preserve even the original stage mechanisms, and among these, numerous spaces have assimilated new aesthetic imprints.

Theater today

On the other side, the theatrical performance has significantly evolved over the last hundred years. The cultural needs of the public have changed, the imagination of scenographers and the expectations of actors have acquired new meanings, technological development has opened up new horizons, and managerial logistics have been loaded with numerous ramifications.

Performance, Place, and Socio-Political Dynamics

The actual research, developed between 2020 – 2022, is based on 11 on-site visits in 4 different countries and 36 interviews, the main goal of the process being to gain a deeper understanding of the craft that structured the basis for the creation of the theatres and concert halls inherited from Fellner & Helmer. The resulted exhibition, presenting a significant variety of case studies, aims to introduce the general public into the complexity of the theatre life behind the show, from the perspective of the systemic relationship between performance, place and socio-political dynamics.