Filled with good humour

by VIRGINIA LAU on Mar 13, 2012 in Architecture , Interiors , Lifestyle
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Amsterdam-based Denieuwegeneratie Architecten makes more space for comedy at the city’s oldest theatre, De Kleine Komedie

From the widely-acclaimed Koninklijk Theater Carré, which has offered an array of popular productions since 1863, to the more experimental De Melkweg (Milky Way), which used to be milk factory, theatres in Amsterdam are not short of variety. Perhaps due to the city’s well-known liberalism, productions are quirky, innovative and open-minded – and so are the venues in which productions are staged.

Celebrating its 225th anniversary this year, De Kleine Komedie, located on the banks of the Amstel near the Rembrandtplein, is Amsterdam’s oldest existing theatre. Built in 1786 as a French comedy theatre by architect Abraham van der Hart, the site has gone through a series of transformations. The main unit of the structure was once a bicycle lot before returning to its original operation as a theatre in 1947. From the 1950s onward, several small interventions obstructed the interiors of the building, making space a major concern when renovation plans began in 2010. 

Completed last October, Denieuwegeneratie Architecten collaborated with De Kleine Komedie to make sure all needs were met. “Generally speaking, the client’s brief was very clear,” says partner and architect Oscar Vos. “They wanted more space and a renewed interior in all matter of sense.”

Situated in a dense part of town, space was not something that could be easily achieved. “Expansions were impossible and the building needed to be treated with the utmost care,” says Vos. “We translated these questions into the design challenge to create a sense of more space within the existing margins.”

Rather than expanding externally, inner relations are created with new perforations vertically and horizontally. The three foyers, the spaces in between and the hallways are connected as part of a public space. “With this, a theatrical game of watching and being watched is inserted in the building,” says partner and architect Thomas Dieben. “This is part of public urban life as Richard Sennett meant it to be: the two meanings of public – i.e. in both theatrical and urban sense – are combined in one place.”  

Also noteworthy are the detailing and materials used in the renovation. “We aimed to create a space where there is minimised visual distraction with tactility in natural materials,” Vos explains. “It is a play of contrasts: shiny and opaque, rough and soft.”

The practice combined old faint finishing with modern materials that are soft and shiny to provide a theatrical experience for visitors. Colours are carefully chosen to direct the eye. “Bright colours emphasise the bars, seats and doors to the theatre hall,” says Vos. “The remaining parts of the small spaces are kept modest in grey hints.”

Since De Kleine Komedie is located in the theatre district of Rembrandtplein, which comes to life in the evening, Denieuwegeneratie Architecten wanted to create interiors that functioned at night. “This way, the lights, the people and movement of the vibrant nightlife are entering the public spaces through the windows,” explains Dieben. “Vice-versa, the public foyers are next to the street and the crowded foyer space is seen from every corner of the area.”

To do this, the designers incorporated a darker colour on the inside of the outer façade. Hand-polished white shiny lime plaster made with an authentic Renaissance recipe is used to highlight the skin of the theatre hall. The marble floors have been preserved to remind visitors of the theatre’s historical significance as the oldest in the city. At the same time, the installations have been completely redone with a heat exchanger, LED lighting and an extra layer of glass on the inside of the monumental windows.

Originally a French comedy theatre for all social classes, the renovation brings new life to this state monument in Rembrandtplein. “Our main purpose in the transformation was to open up the theatre again,” says Dieben. “Even now, it is still a breeding ground for ‘small performance arts’, as we call musical and comedy theatre in the Netherlands.”