Optimum visibility: an architectural challenge

Acoustics, regulations, standards and historical traditions: the scenography of a theatre, concert hall or opera house must respond to a multitude of constraints, going beyond the strict question of visibility.

Acoustics, regulations, standards and historical traditions: the scenography of a theatre, concert hall or opera house must respond to a multitude of constraints, going beyond the strict question of visibility. Pierre Jaubert de Beaujeu, an architect who has been with dUCKS scéno for almost 20 years, shares his thoughts on the subject of optimizing visibility and redesigning performance venues, a long-standing and recurring issue. In the course of this discussion, we take a look behind the scenes of scenographic design, the challenges and questions that guide architectural choices to create spaces where art and the public meet in harmony.

Visibility: a criterion regularly called into question

“The question of optimizing visibility by rearranging venues, among other things, is one that has been raised for a long time,” explains Pierre Jaubert de Beaujeu. “We, but also our clients, regularly put the layout of performance venues back into perspective.”  In their practice, that of designing museum spaces and scenography, it’s pertinent to reexamine the visitor’s point of view, with the aim of offering the best possible service to the public. “It’s a fundamental question and one that confronts everything: what we want to do, what’s already been done, what we’re allowed to do.”

“At dUCKS, we work with adapted measuring tools”

With this in mind, dUCKS scéno has set up several processes to offer projects that are optimized in every aspect, including visibility. On the one hand, the team is committed to developing an innovative tool to evaluate the final rendering of the project. Pierre explains: “This tool will enable us to show the result of our scenography by evaluating what is ‘well seen’ on the set, in terms of direct visibility but also other points, such as the relational factor between spectators, for example. This will make it easier for the client to project himself thanks to a simulation, a floor plan.”

At the same time, dUCKS has introduced various internal tools to unify existing processes. “Previously, we would switch from one tool to another, from the classic Excel spreadsheet to AutoCAD routines. Now, the software we use allows us to mix databases and drawing. We wanted to develop a tool that would combine spreadsheets and drawing, and that would be interactive, pleasant, fun and above all educational, so that the young architects who come to us can get to grips with it easily.” This tool enables them to work faster and more efficiently.

Finally, the teams regularly engage in internal reflection on visibility and even more so when thinking about the architecture of a venue, on its design but also on its purpose. “How will people see the stage? And from the actors’ point of view, what will they see from their seats?” explains Pierre.

Visibility, yes, but not just visibility!

Pierre stresses that “taking visibility alone is too sector-based, and you can’t design a venue on that basis only. To illustrate his point, he uses the example of Italian-style opera houses, “which are anything but homogeneous in terms of visibility. This homogeneity raises questions. In these halls, the layout is perfect for singing, and it works wonders in terms of sound. Just as when you want to increase a venue’s capacity, the image takes a back seat.”

Pierre goes on to talk about regulatory standards, in particular those imposed on movie theaters: “In France, to open a movie theater, you have to meet precise criteria. Globally and geometrically, it’s very simple. There’s no need to worry about proximity. For example, if the screen is 10 metres wide, the standard requires the audience to be at least six metres away. This calculation would simply be impossible for a theater, where spectators are generally installed one meter from the stage, offering a different level of visibility. This also raises the question of side seating.” Access conditions are, of course, also a factor to be borne in mind, particularly with regard to PMR (Person with Reduced Mobility) standards, which require aisles to be laid out in a way that could, in some cases, call visibility into question.

Another criterion to take into account is the actor’s point of view, and in particular the issue of room symmetry, which, among other things, would enable artists to find their way around the space more easily. But this symmetry is a tradition that has not taken root, and can also be called into question. Pierre assumes that this room layout is linked to that of the cinema: “with the rectangular screen, you obviously need to be able to see the whole screen from your seat, whereas in the theater you don’t know whether the actor is going to be in the center, on the side or at the back. Similarly, in a concert, there’s no such thing as symmetry in an orchestra. So the paradigm of the symmetrical auditorium offering a homogeneous vision is, in some cases, shattered.

He also adds: “On certain projects, we may also shift the aisles so that the actors can see something other than these large, illuminated aisles, like runways. This gives them a better view of the audience, making it easier for them to communicate and convey their emotions.

Added to this is the issue of sloping stages, previously crucial for visibility, but now less common. “At a dance show, spectators want to see the dancers’ feet, which means very steep halls,” he explains. “This is not the case for concert or theater-goers, who prefer to focus on their instruments, for musicians, or their faces, for actors”.

Finally, traditions must not be forgotten. “Theaters are often a little institutionalized. What exists is functional, and we keep it going without asking too many questions. These are often rather uncomfortable venues, but they have a historical authenticity, a prestige… Comfortable or not, the public is satisfied with them in the name of tradition”.

In conclusion, the question of visibility in theaters is a concern that requires constant reflection, but which must also be open to and associated with other criteria. This is why those involved in scenography and museography, including dUCKS scéno, are constantly questioning these criteria. Their initiatives are based on a constant search for harmony between art, architecture and the comfort of users, whether spectators or professionals.