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Italian Theater Features ‘Open’ Acoustic Design

A rendering of a multipurpose theater which features a cantilevered roof frame and a fly tower that is illuminated at night, resembling a lantern
The theater features a cantilevered roof frame and a fly tower that is illuminated at night, resembling a lantern. © Pietro Savorelli

A multipurpose theater in Montalto di Castro was designed to be open from end to end, only partial walls and velvet curtains dividing the spaces and manipulating acoustics.

November 6, 2012—A new multipurpose theater in the Italian city of Montalto di Castro, roughly 90 km northwest of Rome, features an innovative open configuration inspired by the design of classical Italian theaters, according to written comments and press material provided to Civil Engineering by the architects, MDU Architetti, of Prato, Tuscany. Designed to hold theatrical performances, conferences, and other recreational activities, the concrete-and-steel-framed, 963 sq m structure is topped by a fly tower that is clad in alveolar polycarbonate and houses the building’s theatrical rigging and other stage equipment. The signature fly tower “dematerializes by day becoming indistinguishable from the sky,” according to the press material. By night, the tower is illuminated from within, “transforming into a large ‘lantern’ on a territorial scale.”

Shaped in plan as a parallelepiped—a six-side polyhedron—the theater features a 7 m long cantilevered roof frame that covers and surrounds a portion of the glazed entrance, providing shelter and protection from the weather to people who might gather on the entrance’s stone piazza. Within the building, the entrance foyer flows directly into the 400-seat auditorium, an arrangement that essentially creates a single, long room within the one-story building, divided only partially by a series of vertical wood-clad walls and spaces. 

 A cross section rendering of the Montalto di Castro theater which features an open configuration  

The Montalto di Castro theater features an open configuration.
MDU Architetti

“The spatial hierarchies become loose,” the press material noted, and this “fluid journey … does not stop at the stage” but instead continues to the outside, via a large door in the back wall of the stage that can be opened so that spectators in a 500-seat outdoor arena can also view the performances or events. The theater space is thus “understood as the entire area designed and not only the building.”

In their written response to Civil Engineering, the MDU architects explained: “From an acoustic stance, the auditorium is designed to optimize speech during performances and was built as a box-shaped space with a [sound] reflecting floor made of industrial cement, walls entirely covered in wood planks, and a partially reflective ceiling with … a characteristic sequence of protruding beams … approximately three meters in height.” The wall cladding is designed to “soften” speech “and in reality renders homogeneous, at least from an architectonic point of view, the technical decisions in the design,” the architects stated. The walls to which this cladding is anchored are composed of a lower portion, approximately 3 m in height, made from a smooth, sound-reflective reinforced concrete, and an upper portion, approximately 4 m in height, made from prefabricated “super absorbing soundproofing panels,” the architects said.

 A second exterior rendering of the multipurpose theater  

Clad in alveolar polycarbonate, the fly tower practically disappears
against the sky during the day. MDU Architetti/photo by
Pietro Savorelli

The theater’s shallow foundations feature reinforced-concrete beams and the roof is supported by a series of steel trusses.

Constructed on a 10,888 sq m former industrial site at the edge of the city, the theater is located adjacent to a highway, the Via Aurelia Tarquinia, which leads to Montaltoi di Castro’s historical center. Thus, the setting “offers the city a new entrance, positioning itself as a permeable gate … like a flow that guides its visitors towards the urban landscape,” according to the press material.

At the same time, the proximity of the road and the open interior design posed several acoustical challenges. A service area helps to buffer the auditorium from the road noise, the architects told Civil Engineering , while the 80 mm thick panels of wooden fiberboard within the walls also help to acoustically isolate the performance space. During performances, a broad, double-layered curtain—measuring 12 by 8 m and made from velvet, a material known for its superior noise-absorbance qualities—is used to divide the space between the foyer and the auditorium. Moreover, all of the electrical, heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems are hidden from view above the auditorium by polycarbonate panels that feature an antivibration elastic material designed to provide additional acoustical isolation.

 An interior rendering of the walls which feature wood cladding designed to soften sound  

The interior walls feature wood cladding designed to soften sound,
as well as other sound-reflecting and sound-absorbing materials.
MDU Architetti/photo by Pietro Savorelli

The €2.4 million (U.S.$3.1 million) theater was constructed as the result of an international design competition launched by the municipality of Montalto di Castro in 2002. Prato-based ACS ingegneri was responsible for the structural engineering.

The design of the structure took place between 2004 and 2005. In addition to classical Italian theaters, the design was also influenced by two local features—an ancient temple and other nearby ruins that date to Italy’s Etruscan period, and the Alessandro Volta power plant, one of the largest power-generating facilities in Italy. While the base of the temple helped to suggest the parallelepiped form of the auditorium and foyer, the modernity and verticality of the power plant contributed to the design of the fly tower. MDU’s “unique architectural moment” can be described as “archaic Etruscan versus the aesthetics of the machine,” the press material explained.

The ground breaking occurred in 2006, followed by a six-year construction period. The theater opened for its first performance in July.  



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