The Architecture of Theaters and Performing Arts Centers

How does the Globe compare with today's theaters?

six visible stories of a round, thatched roof building with windows at one upper level and half-timbering siding
Reconstruction of the 17th century Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London.

Germán Vogel/Getty Images (cropped)


Architects who design for the performing arts face special challenges. Instrumental music calls for a different acoustical design than spoken works, like plays and lectures. Operas and musicals may require very large spaces. Experimental media presentations insist on constantly updating to the latest technologies. Some designers have turned to multi-purpose adaptable spaces, like the 2009 Wyly Theatre in Dallas that can be reconfigured at will by the artistic directors — a literal As You Like It.

The stages in this picture gallery are among the world's most interesting designs. As Shakespeare said, all the world's a stage, but not all theaters look alike! How does the Globe compare with today's theaters?

Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles

Gehry's twirly metal Disney Concert Hall in front of traditional office buildings in Los Angeles
Theaters and Performing Arts Centers: Disney Concert Hall Walt Disney Concert Hall Complex (2005) by Frank O. Gehry. Photo © Walter Bibikow / Getty Images

The Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry is now a Los Angeles landmark, but neighbors complained about the shiny steel structure when it was built. Critics said the sun's reflection from the metal skin created nearby hot spots, visual hazards for neighbors, and dangerous glare for traffic.

EMPAC at RPI in Troy, NY

Balcony entrance to the main theater at EMPAC in Troy, NY
Theaters and Performing Arts Centers: EMPAC at RPI in Troy, NY Balcony entrance to the main theater at EMPAC in Troy, NY. Photo © Jackie Craven

The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute merges art with science.

The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) is designed to explore new technologies in the performing arts. Located on the campus of America's oldest technological university, RPI, the EMPAC building is a marriage of art and science.

A glass box straddles a 45-degree precipice. Inside the box, a wooden sphere holds a 1,200 seat concert hall with gangways from the glass-walled lobby. A smaller theater and two black-box studios provide flexible spaces for artists and researchers. Each space is as finely-tuned as a musical instrument, and completely isolated acoustically.

The entire facility is linked to a supercomputer, the Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations (CCNI) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The computer makes it possible for scholars and artists from around the world to experiment with complex modeling and visualization projects.

Key Designers for EMPAC:

More About EMPAC:

Sydney Opera House, Australia

Overhead view of the Sydney Opera House, Australia
Jorn Utzon's Organic Design Sydney Opera House, Australia. Photo by Cameron Spencer / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Completed in 1973, the Sydney Opera House has evolved to meet the demands of modern theater-goers. Designed by Jørn Utzon but completed by Peter Hall, the story behind the design is fascinating. How did a Danish architect's idea become an Australian reality?

Remembering JFK - The Kennedy Center

Low rise building, white with dark posts evenly distributed around the venue
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts seen from the Potomac River in Washington, DC. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Archive Photos Collection/Getty Images

The Kennedy Center serves as a "Living Memorial," honoring the slain US President John F. Kennedy with music and theater.

Can one venue accommodate orchestras, operas, and theater/dance? The mid-20th century solution seemed simple—design three theaters with one connecting lobby. The rectangular Kennedy Center is divided almost evenly into thirds, with a Concert Hall, Opera House, and the Eisenhower Theater located side-by-side. This design—multiple stages in one building—was soon copied by every multiplex movie house in shopping malls across America.

About the Kennedy Center:

Location: 2700 F Street, NW, on the banks of the Potomac River, Washington, DC,
Original Name: National Cultural Center, the 1958 idea of President Dwight D. Eisenhower was to be independent, self-sustaining, and privately funded
The John F. Kennedy Center Act: Signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on January 23, 1964, this legislation provided federal funding to complete and rename the building project, creating a living memorial to President Kennedy. The Kennedy Center is now a public/private enterprise—the building is owned and maintained by the federal government, but the programming is privately administered.
Opened: September 8, 1971
Architect: Edward Durell Stone
Height: approximately 150 feet
Construction Materials: white marble facade; steel frame construction
Style: Modernist / New Formalism

Building by a River:

Because the soil near the Potomac River is challenging at best and unstable at worst, the Kennedy Center was built with a caisson foundation. A caisson is a box-like structure that can be put into place as a work area, perhaps creating bored piles, and then filled with concrete. The steel frame rests on the foundation. This type of engineering has been used for many years in the construction of bridges, including under the Brooklyn Bridge. For an interesting demonstration of how caisson (pile) foundations are created, watch the YouTube video by Chicago Professor Jim Janossy.

Building by a river is not always a complication, however. The Kennedy Center Building Expansion Project enlisted architect Steven Holl to design an outdoor stage pavilion, originally to float on the Potomac River. The design was modified in 2015 to be three land-based pavilions connected to the river by a pedestrian bridge. The project, the first expansion since the Center opened in 1971, is expected to run from 2016 to 2018.

Kennedy Center Honors:

Since 1978, the Kennedy Center has celebrated the lifetime achievement of performing artists with its Kennedy Center Honors. The annual award has been likened to "a knighthood in Britain, or the French Legion of Honor."

Learn More:

Sources: History of the Living Memorial, Kennedy Center; The Kennedy Center, Emporis [accessed November 17, 2013]

National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing

Inside the elegant opera house in the National Grand Theater on September 18, 2007
Theaters and Performing Arts Centers: The National Grand Theater in Beijing Opera Hall in the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, 2007. Photo ©2007 China Photos/Getty Images AsiaPac

The ornate Opera House is one theater area in French architect Paul Andreu's Grand Theater building.

Built for the 2008 Olympic games, the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing is informally called The Egg. Why? Learn about the building's architecture in Modern Architecture in Beijing China.

Oslo Opera House, Norway

Nighttime view of lighted Oslo Opera House in Norway
Theaters and Performing Arts Centers: Oslo Opera House in Norway Oslo Opera House in Norway. Photo by Bard Johannessen / Moment / Getty Images

Architects from Snøhetta designed for Oslo a dramatic new opera house that reflects the landscape of Norway and also the aesthetics of its people.

The striking white marble Oslo Opera House is the foundation of a sweeping urban renewal project in the waterfront Bjørvika area of Oslo, Norway. The stark white exterior is often compared to an iceberg or a ship. In stark contrast, the interior of Oslo Opera house glows with curving oak walls.

With 1,100 rooms, including three performance spaces, Oslo Opera House has a total area of about 38,500 square meters (415,000 square feet).

Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis

The Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis, MN, Architect Jean Nouvel.
Theaters and Performing Arts Centers: Guthrie Theater The Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis, MN, Architect Jean Nouvel. Photo by Raymond Boyd / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images (cropped)

The nine-story Guthrie Theater complex is near the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. Pritzker Prize-Winning French architect Jean Nouvel designed the building, which was completed in 2006.

Three stages encompass the 250,000 square feet: a main thrust stage (1,100 seats); a proscenium theater (700 seats); and an experimental area (250 seats).

Built in an historic manufacturing area near, an iconic Gold Medal Flour sign looks over the American theater designed by a French architect. What is called the Endless Bridge connects the industrial-looking theater with the life force of Minneapolis — the Mississippi River.

The Esplanade in Singapore

Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, Singapore
Theaters and Performing Arts Centers: The Esplanade in Singapore Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, Singapore. Photo by Robin Smith/Photolibrary Collection/Getty Images

Should architecture fit in or stand out? The Esplanade performing arts center on the shore of Marina Bay made waves in Singapore when it opened in 2002.

The award-winning design by the Singapore-based DP Architects Pte Ltd. and Michael Wilford & Partners is actually a four hectare complex, including five auditoriums, several outdoor performance spaces, and a mix of offices, stores, and apartments

Press releases at the time claimed that the Esplanade design expressed harmony with nature, reflecting the balance of yin and yang. Vikas M. Gore, a director at DP Architects, called the Esplanade "a compelling contribution towards defining a new Asian architecture."

Response to the Design:

Not all response to the project was glowing, however. While the project was under construction, some Singapore residents complained that Western influences dominated. The design, said one critic, should incorporate icons that reflect Singapore's Chinese, Malay, and Indian heritage: Architects should "aim to create a national symbol."

The odd shapes of the Esplanade also stirred controversy. Critics compared the domed Concert Hall and Lyric Theatre to Chinese dumplings, copulating aardvarks, and duriens (a local fruit). And why, some critics asked, are the two theaters covered with those "ungainly shrouds"?

Because of the diversity of shapes and materials used, some critics felt that The Esplanade lacked a unifying theme. The overall design of the project has been called featureless, disharmonious, and "lacking in poetry."

Response to the Critics:

Are these fair criticisms? After all, every nation's culture is dynamic and changing. Should architects incorporate ethnic clichés into new designs? Or, is it better to define new parameters?

DP Architects believe that the curved lines, translucent surfaces, and ambiguous shapes of the Lyric Theatre and the Concert Hall reflect the complexity and dynamism of Asian attitudes and thoughts. "People may find them disturbing, but only because the result is indeed new and unusual," Gore says.

Disturbing or harmonious, yin or yang, the Esplanade is now an important Singapore landmark.

Architect's Description:

"Two rounded envelopes over the primary performance venues provide the dominating legible form. These are lightweight, curved space frames fitted with triangulated glass and a system of champagne-coloured sunshades that offer an optimised tradeoff between solar shading and panoramic outward views. The result provides filtered natural light and a dramatic transformation of shadow and texture throughout the day; at night the forms glow back onto the city as lanterns by the bay."

Source: Projects / Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, DP Architects [accessed October 23, 2014]

Nouvel Opera House, Lyon, France

Renovated Lyons Opera House by Jean Nouvel added a glass roof but kept the 1831 facade.
Nouvel Opéra in Lyon, France. Jean Nouvel, architect. Photo by Piccell ©Jac Depczyk / Getty Images

In 1993 a dramatic new theater rose from an 1831 Opera House in Lyon, France.

When Pritzker Prize-Winning Architect Jean Nouvel remodeled the the Opera House in Lyon, many of the Greek Muse statues remained on the building's facade.

Radio City Music Hall

Iconic art deco marquee of Radio City Music Hall
At Rockefeller Center in New York City Iconic art deco marquee of Radio City Music Hall. Photo by Alfred Gescheidt / Archive Photos / Getty Images

With a marquee that spans a city block, Radio City Music Hall is the largest indoor theater in the world.

Designed by prominent architect Raymond Hood, Radio City Music Hall is one of America's favorite examples of Art Deco architecture. The elegant performance center opened on December 27, 1932, when the United States was in the depths of an economic depression.

Tenerife Concert Hall, Canary Islands

Photo of bright white modern concert hall, with sweeping curved arc-wave above the roof.
Theaters and Performing Arts Centers: Tenerife Concert Hall Auditorio de Tenerife, Canary Islands, 2003. Santiago Calatrava, architect. Photo ©Gregor Schuster/Getty Images

Architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava designed a sweeping white concrete concert hall for the waterfront of Santa Cruz, the capital of Tenerife.

Bridging land and sea, the Tenerife Concert Hall by architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava is an important part of the urban landscape in Santa Cruz on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands, Spain.

The Paris Opéra in France

Theaters and Performing Arts Centers: Paris Opera House The Paris Opéra. Charles Garnier, architect
Theaters and Performing Arts Centers: Paris Opera House The Paris Opéra. Charles Garnier, Architect. Photo by Paul Almasy / Corbis Historical / VCG via Getty Images (cropped)

French architect Jean Louis Charles Garnier combined classical ideas with lavish ornamentation at the Paris Opéra on the Place de l'Opéra in Paris.

When Emperor Napoleon III launched the reconstruction of the Second Empire in Paris, the Beaux Arts architect Jean Louis Charles Garnier designed an elaborate opera house lavished with heroic sculptures and golden angels. Garnier was a young 35-year-old when he won the competition to design the new opera house; he was 50 years old when the building was inaugurated.

Fast Facts:

Other Names: Palais Garnier
Date Opened: January 5, 1875
Architect: Jean Louis Charles Garnier
Size: 173 meters long; 125 meters wide; 73.6 meters high (from the foundation to highest statuary point of Apollo's lyre)
Interior Spaces: Grand staircase is 30 meters high; Grand Foyer is 18 meters high, 54 meters long, and 13 meters wide; Auditorium is 20 meters high, 32 meters deep, and 31 meters wide
Notoriety: The 1911 book Le Fantôme de l'Opéra by Gaston Leroux takes place here.

The auditorium of the Palais Garnier has become iconic French opera house design. Shaped as a horseshoe or a large letter U, the interior is red and gold with a large crystal chandelier hanging above 1,900 plush velvet seats. Well after its opening, the auditorium ceiling was painted by artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985). The recognizable 8 ton chandelier features prominently in the stage production of The Phantom of the Opera.

Source: Palais Garnier, Opéra national de Paris at [accessed November 4, 2013]

Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts

Press photograph of Kauffman Center Hall and Terrace side, in evening, Kansas City in background.
Theaters and Performing Arts Centers: Kansas City, Missouri Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Missouri, was designed by Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie. Press/media photo by Tim Hursley ©2011 Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, All Rights Reserved.

The new home of the Kansas City Ballet, Kansas City Symphony, and Lyric Opera of Kansas was designed by Moshe Safdie.

Fast Facts About the Kauffman Center:

  • Opening Date: September 16, 2011
  • Size: 285,000 square feet (total)
  • Performance Spaces: Muriel Kauffman Theatre (18,900-square-foot house; 1,800 seats); Helzberg Hall (16,800-square-foot house; 1,600 seats); Brandmeyer Great Hall (15,000 square feet); Terrace (113,000 square feet)
  • Architect: Moshe Safdie / Safdie Architects
  • Original Vision: a sketch on a napkin
  • Southern Exposure: An open shell of glass (roof and walls) welcomes the city to artistic performance and surrounds the patrons with Kansas City weather. The Terrace, with steel cables visible, mimics a stringed instrument.
  • Northern Exposure: Arched, wave-like walls covered in stainless steel, from the ground upward.
  • Construction Materials: 40,000 square feet of glass; 10.8 million pounds of structural steel; 25,000 cubic yards of concrete; 1.93 million pounds of plaster; 27 steel cables

Who Were the Kauffmans?

Ewing M. Kauffman, founder of Marion Laboratories, married Muriel Irene McBrien in 1962. Over the years they made a ton of money in pharmaceuticals. He founded a new baseball team, the Kansas City Royals, and had a baseball stadium built. Muriel Irene founded the Kauffman performing arts center. A beautiful marriage!

Source: Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts Fact Sheet [ accessed June 20, 2012]

Fisher Center at Bard College

Frank Gehry's swirling metal exterior seen in the evening light.
Theaters and Performing Arts Centers: Fisher Center at Bard College Fisher Center for the Performing Arts by Architect Frank Gehry. Photo ©Peter Aaron/ESTO/ Bard Press Photo

The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts is a landmark theater in the Hudsdon Valley of upstate New York

The Fisher Center on the Annandale-on-Hudson campus of Bard College was designed by Pritzker prize winning architect Frank O. Gehry.

Burgtheater in Vienna, Austria

Burgtheater in Vienna, Austria
Theaters and Performing Arts Centers: Burgtheater in Vienna, Austria Burgtheater in Vienna, Austria. Photo by Guy Vanderelst/Photographer's Choice Collection/Getty Images

The original theater, in the Hofburg Palace Banqueting Hall, opened March 14, 1741 and is the second oldest theater in Europe (Comédie Francaise is older). The Burgtheater you see today epitomizes the elegance of 19th century Viennese architecture.

About Burgtheater:

Location: Vienna, Austria
Opened: October 14, 1888.
Other Names: Teutsches Nationaltheater (1776); K.K. Hoftheater nächst der Burg (1794)
Designers: Gottfried Semper und Karl Hasenauer
Seats: 1175
Main Stage: 28.5 meters wide; 23 meters deep; 28 meters high

Source: Burgtheater Vienna [accessed April 26, 2015]

Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, Russia

Neoclassical Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, Russia
Theaters and Performing Arts Centers: Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, Russia Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, Russia. Photo by José Fuste Raga/age fotostock Collection/Getty Images

Bolshoi means "great" or "large," which describes the architecture of and history behind this Russian landmark.

About the Bolshoi Theater:

Location: Theatre Square, Moscow, Russia
Opened: January 6, 1825 as the Petrovsky Theatre (theater organization started in March 1776); rebuilt in 1856 (second pediment added)
Architects: Joseph Bové after a design by Andrei Mikhailov; restored and rebuilt by Alberto Cavos after an 1853 fire
Renovation and Reconstruction: July 2005 to October 2011
Style: Neoclassical, with eight columns, portico, pediment, and sculpture of Apollo riding in a chariot drawn by three horses

Source: History, Bolshoi website [accessed April 27, 2015]

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Craven, Jackie. "The Architecture of Theaters and Performing Arts Centers." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, Craven, Jackie. (2021, September 3). The Architecture of Theaters and Performing Arts Centers. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "The Architecture of Theaters and Performing Arts Centers." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).