Article published in "La Science et la Vie" of May 1925
If the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs wanted its own theatre, it was not for a moment that it thought of competing with the many theatres in the capital, but rather to have a sort of laboratory for the arts of the theatre, where all the latest stage and other innovations would be tested and presented to the public in an appropriate setting.
The Perret brothers, to whom we already owe the famous theatre on the Champs-Élysées, conceived the exhibition theatre in a completely different way, and one that responds admirably to the temporary nature of an exhibition. They remembered that about a year ago they had built the Palais de Bois, near the Porte Maillot. A palace was perhaps a lot to say, but they built a comfortable, well-lit gallery that perfectly met the wishes of the artists for whom it was intended. The theatre was built almost entirely of wood. This material was, in general, too much neglected at the exhibition. Its use should have been prescribed for many buildings that are too solidly built and will be very expensive to demolish. The Perret brothers have made excellent use of this material; the framework of their theatre consists of thirty-four large wooden posts, which will be recovered after the exhibition. Concrete was only used for the long-span beams, the ends of which are fixed to the wooden posts. The wooden posts are doubled to form a support point on the outside and inside of the theatre. This arrangement has a double advantage:
1° No fear of immediate collapse in case of fire;
2° Decorative effect obtained thanks to the posts taking on the appearance of a colonnade on the outside.
The stage is supported by twelve columns, which can be totally or partially hidden by the scenery. These columns can also serve as support points for the division of the stage into three independent sectors, allowing the authors of the shows the most diverse combinations. The three sectors can be used either alternately or simultaneously, or the sector forming the middle of the stage can be used, which gives an effect quite similar to the stages in other theatres. Finally, galleries placed in the auditorium can, if necessary, be put in communication with the stage to allow the scenic arrangements recommended by Gémier and consisting of bringing actors and spectators together at times by marching through the auditorium.
A service gallery communicating with the stage was installed above the amphitheatre. This happy innovation allows the electrician in charge of the organ play to completely dominate the stage, to be able to adjust his lighting effects admirably, without disturbing the audience in any way, as frequently happens with projectors placed in the halls.
Article published in "L'art vivant" in 1925
The elements participating in the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts, as far as the theatre is concerned, are divided between the group of theatre arts; the theatre itself, the new building to which all these classes, by a singular irony, are foreign, and incidentally the Letrosne staircase of the Grand Palais, used for performances, and from this effort, to organise in a new way the architecture, the staging, the sets and costumes, what has come out?
An article in the regulations rigorously excludes copies, imitations and counterfeits of old styles. From this point of view, the architecture of Messrs. Auguste and Gustave Perret appears to be a completely original attempt to adapt the ancient and modern repertoire to the current needs of an era concerned with reconstructing the past according to scientific methods and bringing it to life.
The idea of this theatre was to provide the most suitable material for the performance of the plays of medieval and modern ancient theatre.
For the ancient world, although the audience seating and the orchestra are designed in a very different way from the Greek and Roman hemicycles, the stage at least gives the illusion of those of Athens and Rome. Conceived as a triptych and divided into three parts, the two sides of which can be removed, supported by twelve visible columns, in the middle of which a play without scenery can be represented, of a simple character, it allows the actors to move without difficulty, while being under different points of the room.
The mysteries of the Middle Ages, if the idea came to present them in the twentieth century as in the past, would find a stage in three parts, well suited to the plurality of subjects played at the same time. Instead of successive changes of scenery, it is possible, thanks to the two side bays, to represent simultaneously different places where the action takes place. The unity of place required by a single set can be replaced by the juxtaposition of different scenes, side by side. One could even add a floor to divide the scene into two parts at the top to increase its scope. These numerous juxtaposed or superimposed places can affect different shapes, round, crescent, and the stage lends itself to all these contours.
For the modern theatre, whose first important attempts date back to the middle of the 18th century, especially since the theatre of the architect Louis in Bordeaux, several problems still arise, which we are trying to solve taking into account the progress of science. It was necessary to find an arrangement in a limited space so that all the spectators could see, hear and move around, and on the other side of the curtain, sufficient space had to be provided to facilitate the placement of scenery, to build dressing rooms for the artists and to allow them to move around without hindrance. The ventilation of the room and its lighting must also be taken into account.
It is to all these requirements that the construction of Messrs. Perret responds, which has been called a sort of dramatic laboratory, for it is a test, in wood, concrete and steel, a temporary work intended to serve as a model for a more important building. Its framework is made up of thirty-four large fir columns, on which rests a clinker concrete frame.
On the outside, there is a long-span colonnade that is not an imitation of anything ancient, but is very modern and whose elements are intended to ensure the solidity of the assembly of the beams. Inside, after passing through a peristyle, one enters the hall through an atrium, from which low staircases lead off. A series of doors protects against draughts.
The stage, as we have seen, is divided into three sections, one central and two lateral, one on the right and the other on the left, with trap doors and Italian curtains, independent of each other. At the back, in front of the backstage area, a white panorama for the scenery stands out; at the very front, a removable proscenium, in three parts, which can be replaced by an orchestra for the musicians. The stage communicates with the auditorium through galleries, to allow the actors to prepare their entrances and exits in the auditorium, thus making the contact with the public closer, which participates freely in the show.
An ingenious lighting system creates the illusion of daylight through a lighted ceiling. In an upper gallery, where a series of lamps, projectors and electrical equipment are installed, the same colours, the same intensity of light and shadow are given to the stage as to the hall. On the stage, a more powerful system that surrounds the performers with light up to their heads is substituted for the ramps that used to illuminate only the bottom of the characters.
Such an arrangement, dominated by numerous cubic planes, underlines the fact that theatrical architecture is based on three dimensions and cannot be limited to two, as was the case with the abuse of trompe-l'oeil.
The consequences that result from this original layout can be very important for the renovation of the staging. First of all, the painted scenery is eliminated by simulating the relief, which is achieved by skilful lighting procedures. Instead of this trickery, the truth must now be shown without alteration. A column, for example, must not be painted in trompe l'oeil: a real column must be used. This is not a principle of cubist decoration, but simple forms, not tortured as in the Italian theatres which for so long have exercised their influence in France.
One of the results obtained by this very new architecture is that it achieves perfect harmony, not only with the scenery and costumes of the actors, but also with those of the audience.
Although the building of Messrs. Auguste and Gustave Perret and André Granet is temporary, situated between the vaults of the Metropolitan and the esplanade of the Invalides, which limits its height, one is struck by the preparatory work of which it is the result: Messrs Perret showed us their various preparatory studies. They have tried to follow the history of theatres through the ages.
In order for this intelligent concept to be implemented in practice, it was necessary to choose a repertoire of interesting works, which would be enhanced by these new technical procedures. There was no need to unearth unknown authors to try to use this original construction. It was enough to rejuvenate the masterpieces of our French and foreign repertoire by adapting them to a more enlightened curiosity. The aim could be twofold: to reconstruct the past according to exact scientific data based on graphic documents, and at the same time to make it alive and current.
The French Association for Expansion and Artistic Exchange, sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Public Education and Fine Arts, had a rather ambitious plan. Its idea was, after a survey of the various members of the diplomatic corps as well as its correspondents, to host all the art events of foreigners in a room made available to them. It is not his fault that, despite the promises made to him, the various stars of the different troupes from all the countries of the world have shrunk from the cost of the means of transport and the installation and accommodation expenses that these trips entail.
It is to be hoped that during the last weeks of the Exhibition all the hopes founded on this pooling of diverse pieces constituting a true international repertoire will be fulfilled. In an article in the "Annales" of last April, Mr. Brussel indicated many of his wishes.
There is no need to add others, as these undertakings require considerable sums of money and necessitate the perpetual renewal of shows that last only a day or two.
The experience of the excellent administrator, M. Camoin, must be relied upon to solve all the difficulties which the absence of a regular troupe, of a play performed daily, may give rise to, and it is to be hoped that skilful management will succeed in directing not only the staging, but also public taste towards pure forms of art. All the elements of this renovation have been carefully studied and prepared by Class 25, who have tried to choose the most interesting models of scenery and costumes which have been submitted in large numbers and which sometimes show very personal talents. Unfortunately, the inauguration of the Theatre Arts group had to be delayed due to the delays that had to be granted to the architect in charge of this stand, the eminent Mr. Trouchet.
The Letrosne Staircase in the Grand Palais must also be considered as a stage for parties or performances as Reinhardt and Gémier understood them. It is superfluous to emphasise the now well-known usefulness of a staircase, especially when it is tiered and very high, in order to stress the advantage that can be gained from it in order to make a number of characters move about and leave an impression of grandeur and movement.
This is a wish that all theatre directors will soon express. The public, especially fond of plays with spectacle, competition from the cinematograph, the need for movement that is sought after, the critical spirit that applies itself to reconstituting, down to the smallest details, the costumes and sets of the past, the need to rely on history that has been disregarded for too long, all these signs indicate that modern theatres are going to enter into a perpetual state of flux.
Article published in "L'Illustration" of January 1925
The International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925 will bring an abundance of visitors to all Parisian attractions. All the theatres in the capital will try to put their programmes in unison with a world event. The Commissariat General nevertheless thought that the dramatic art was too closely related to all the applied arts for there not to be, within the Exposition, an official theatre, open to new discoveries in staging, decor, costume and the lively decorative plasticity of the dances and ballets.
This theatre was built under the direction of Auguste and Gustave Perret and André Granet. For a provisional enterprise, with limited funds, one could not do something huge and complicated. It was all the less necessary to think of establishing a scientific machinery with "top and bottom" as it was forbidden to go down into the ground or to extend upwards. By digging, one would have encountered the vault of the Métropolitain almost immediately. Going up, one would have destroyed the views of the Esplanade.
The architects came up with the idea of a dramatic laboratory, a test studio designed to be economical and at the same time allow for a wide variety of uses. To achieve this, they ingeniously combined wood, concrete and steel. The general structure is made of wood panels. Concrete beams are used to span large spaces when a heavy load is expected. In areas where only a small, constant weight is required, such as roofs, steel beams are used. An intelligent combination of all building systems for the construction of a temporary structure. Here, fir supports concrete. The wisdom of this apparent anomaly becomes apparent when one considers that both materials have the same compressive strength (40 kilos per square centimetre). The use of the less expensive material was indicated, since, although wood has a more limited life span, the factor is negligible in this case.
The framework of the building is made up of 34 large fir posts on which rests a clinker concrete frame - less durable perhaps, but also less expensive than ordinary concrete. This is a logical design for an exhibition, since when the building is demolished all the wood and iron will be found and only the concrete cladding will have to be sacrificed.
To give it a better chance of remaining in place in the event of fire, the concrete beam assembly is fixed to doubled posts, some on the inside and others on the outside. The result on the outside is a long-span colonnade of a very modern character, which borrows its ornamentation only from the organs of the construction itself.
Fénelon - from whom one perhaps did not expect so much, authority in matters of architecture - issued in his reception speech at the Academy a maxim that M. Auguste Perret likes to quote, conforming his work to it: "One must not admit into a building any part destined for ornament alone; but, aiming always at beautiful proportions, one must turn into ornament all the parts necessary to support an edifice. "
The Exhibition theatre will illustrate this principle. On the façades, a lithogen coating, which has the appearance and grain of stone, will remain completely plain. Only the window frames, doors, ventilation frieze and cornice will be used to harmoniously break the monotony.
From the peristyle, where the rental offices and washrooms will be housed, one will enter the theatre through six drums allowing access to an atrium onto which will open a vestibule containing the cloakrooms and from which the staircases will emerge. In this place, low landings will lend themselves to the display of elegance. This type of foyer will be preceded by three doors, an essential precaution if draughts are to be avoided. A fourth door must be passed through before reaching the hall, which is thus perfectly preserved.
The theatre is divided into two closely related parts: the stage with its outbuildings on the one hand, and the hall itself on the other.
The stage is understood as an apse of a temple. Its ceiling is supported by twelve columns that can remain visible and in the middle of which one could play without a set. These support points are distributed in such a way that it is easy to divide the large stage into three independent sectors: a central stage and two side stages. In order to increase the number of combinations that the playwrights can draw from these new arrangements, several curtains will be installed. First of all, in front of the proscenium, a straight curtain closing the three stages will be mounted in the Italian style, on a dismountable team in case the staging of certain shows requires it. In addition, each stage will be equipped with two curtains, one opening in the Italian style and the other rising. A special curtain team will be on standby for scenic or decorative inventions.
The curtains of the three stages can be raised simultaneously or alternatively. To obtain a stage similar to those on the boulevard, it will be sufficient to close the side bays.
The backdrop curtain will be a white panorama of approximately 34 metres in length, onto which scenery will be projected. This panorama will cut the stage in the middle, about 5 metres from the curtain, 10 metres from the outer edge of the proscenium. The proscenium, which can be dismantled into three parts, will make room for an orchestra pit for 50 to 60 musicians during musical events.
To conclude with the organisation of the stage, it should be added that, despite the presence of the metro in the basement, by taking into account the elevation of the stage above the lowest orchestra seats, the architects were able to create an "underside" floor of 2.60 m high.
Behind the far wall are the three-storey dressing rooms.
Communications from the stage to the galleries, which are in principle reserved for spectators, will allow actors to pass through the room. If M. Gémier wants to stage a production according to his formula, he will be able to drown the audience in his show.
The hall will include an orchestra with three masses of seats on a steeply sloping plane, one parallel to the proscenium, the other two parallel to the obliquely arranged side stages. At the back, open boxes will form a basket. Above them, the amphitheatre will extend to the top of the vessel, topped only by a service gallery extending to the stage and providing a convenient link between the stage and the hall. In this gallery all the electrical services will be centralised - a precious innovation. From this observatory, the electrician of the organ will overlook both the stage and the audience. He will be like a captain on his ship. The existence of such a gallery will avoid the deplorable installation of projectors in the middle of the audience. It will offer considerable advantages from the point of view of surveillance by the fire brigade, and in addition, on certain occasions, choirs could be massed in these heights.
On the sides, at a level slightly higher than that of the stage and communicating with it, the galleries will make it easier for the artists and the figuration to envelop part of the audience. Above this, halfway up the amphitheatre, there will be another gallery which can be accessed from the stage and which can be opened or closed to the public as required.
Ventilation is provided by a ventilation frieze placed just below the electricity gallery and composed of half-pipes nested within each other, not allowing light to filter through but allowing air to pass through. These cylindrical elements, aligned without a solution of continuity, crown with a typical motif this theatre where nothing is ornamental, where everything is decorative.