So many years later… Thanks to those who came before us and to those who, in the visionary footsteps of Matthias Langhoff, had the desire to believe and dream, to imagine and build this theatre, and to fight too.
So many years later, a theatre has emerged and opened its doors. More than a building: a dream-making and heart-opening venue, a place where anything is possible. After thirty years and the period we have just lived through: here we are, finally.
The Comédie de Genève in Eaux-Vives is a venue of unlimited imagination in the heart of this specifically multicultural city that is Geneva.
Two halls, workshops to build the sets and create the costumes, a restaurant, performers, artists from Switzerland and beyond, mediators in the offices, right next to the stage, and stage creators invent the theatre of today.
This is a theatre of public utility, a place to live too, featuring spaces which, as soon as we are able to, will be open during the day for spontaneous activities in our corridors – hip-hop dancing or juggling, or reading on a bench.
Bridging the gaps: our cultural outreach programme has been dubbed “the Bridge of Arts” and aims to accompany classes, offer discussion seminars and workshops, facilitate access to the theatre for those in need, give the floor to those who have fewer opportunities to speak, open the theatre on Sundays for the whole day and hundreds of other activities to break down barriers and prejudices, so that we may enjoy living in harmony.
The new building was designed by the FRES Agency, who have imagined a fabulous venue for developing and producing shows, and a theatre open to the city.
The 21st century Comédie is first and foremost a long, geometric silhouette and a major landmark in the new Eaux-Vives station district. Sober during the day, it is dressed in light at night. The longitudinal façades are made of 2.70 x 1.10 m glass tiles. The same measurements are used for the perforated aluminium sheet cassettes that clad the other façades and cover the roofs, forming a ribbon that envelops the building. These sunlight-filtering cassettes can be opened in the working areas.
The entire building blueprint is based on a 5.40 m grid, like the one used in the neighbouring station designed by Jean Nouvel. This choice offers both a form of harmony and a guarantee of cost control since it corresponds to standard construction elements.
Architects like to compare the building to a watch with a visible mechanism, and indeed, there are many interactions between the inside and the outside. The glass of the facades reveals part of the internal flows and hints at the activities on site. In daylight, it also turns the building into a mirror for its surroundings.
The theatre, bordered by a cross-border greenway (for pedestrians and cyclists), next to the station, also offers a path from one level of the district to the other, by crossing its vast foyer. In summer, the restaurant opens its terrace onto the esplanade, in which some project leaders will no doubt be keen to invest.
Public access is mainly from the esplanade, on the south-east side. In the hall, which is as long as the building, the space is divided by the clear metal structure of the glass roof and the high concrete ceiling forms the inside of the crenelated façade. Here, the thermal envelope corresponds to the interior wall, while on the opposite façade the double glazing insulates three levels of galleries. These lead to the different parts of the building. The interior load-bearing walls allow for ample cantilevers in the halls and in the foyer.
The large volumes have been accentuated to characterise the theatre and are likely to respond to an evolution of uses and to other forms of performance and cultural practices in the future. Certain uses – administration, dressing rooms – are more compartmentalised.
The building, designed for maximum energy efficiency, has four photovoltaic solar power plants on its roof.
The new Comédie de Genève has two performance halls, a traditional one with 500 seats and a modular one with 200 seats, both equipped with exceptional technical equipment, to cater for any form of show.
Inside the main concrete structure, at the heart of the building, sit the two halls, complementary in shape and size to allow for infinite possibilities, both in the relationship between the performers and the audience, and in terms of set design and staging. In order to avoid the noise and vibration of the station, they are supported on independent structures which themselves rest on spring boxes.
The largest hall, designed for frontal performances, has a capacity of 498 seats. It is clad in a lacquered steel mesh and the slight curve of the tiers, in a single block, ensures optimal visibility of the stage as well as a form of connivance between audience members. The dimensions of the stage and the stage house will enable international creations to be hosted and produced. An extension of the floor (proscenium) will enable the show to be performed as close to the audience as possible or, once dismantled, to accommodate an orchestra pit. Light, sound and video control rooms, technical ceilings, walkways, lifting machinery, everything is combined to give life to the most varied projects.
The modular black box hall, clad in vertical fibre-reinforced concrete slats, can accommodate up to 250 people, depending on the configuration, which can vary thanks to retractable bleachers. The technical equipment, in particular the footbridges that go all the way around the parallelepiped, allows for a maximum of possibilities in terms of set-up and operation.
The two halls have an underside of more than three metres. This makes it possible to vary the floor levels and to use appearing and disappearing sets.
Between the rehearsal rooms and the construction, painting and sewing workshops, a third of the building is devoted to the production of shows. Set design, painting, lighting, sound, wigs, costumes and make-up, all of these are necessary for the theatre and will be integrated into its daily operation.
The architecture helps showcase this work. For example, the theatre’s restaurant overlooks the large construction workshop where the sets for future shows are created.
The building also includes painting and sewing workshops. Here too, the spaces can be adapted to suit changing techniques and aesthetics.
The delivery area allows a truck to enter the building comfortably and without disturbing the neighbourhood. The circulation between these different places and the stages is of course facilitated.
The two rehearsal rooms, like other areas of the building, can each accommodate around one hundred visitors. Together with the numerous individual and collective dressing rooms, they allow for residencies and the installation of a permanent group of performers.
Your project, Skyline, is located in the heart of a neighbourhood that was still entirely virtual when you designed it. How did you take this into account?
The theatre’s surroundings are quite different today from what they were in 2009 when we took part in the competition and the old station was still in operation. At that time there were few permanent urban fixtures on the site. Nevertheless, the project for the Eaux-Vives station area was known about, and it is the everyday business of architects to design buildings in virtual urban environments. For the Comédie, it seemed important to us to create a strong link and continuity between the theatre and the future esplanade in front of the building. We extended the esplanade inside the theatre. And all the interior public spaces (hall, restaurant, ticket office, foyer) are open to the esplanade. We also staged the theatre on the public highway by lighting the façades and the side on route de Chêne. “When you design a theatre, the scenography begins on the pavement because that is where the evening begins”, Jean Vilar used to say.
In what way is the shape of the building and its materials emblematic of a theatre in your opinion?
The specificity of the Comédie de Genève is to bring together in one place the performance spaces of a theatre (the performance halls and rehearsal rooms) and all the trades necessary for the production of a play (carpenters, locksmiths, fitters, painters, sculptors, dressmakers, etc.) through dedicated workshops. A whole third of the building is actually dedicated to the production of shows. This is quite unique, especially in the city centre.
The idea is that the crenelated shape of the building expresses the multiplicity of activities that inhabit the theatre. The choice was made to use raw materials such as glass, steel and concrete, which are commonly used in the construction of industrial buildings and express the idea of a productive place, like a factory for creating shows.
Hence, the Comédie is not only a performance venue but also a place where shows are actually created. What links between these two activities did you favour?
We wanted to show that the Comédie is a lively place throughout the day. This is expressed through the architecture of the theatre itself. In several places we have created visual and spatial points of contact between the public and private areas of the theatre.
The foyer, designed as an urban passageway accessible during the day, expresses the theatre’s openness to the city. The principle of the building’s internal distribution places the technical flows on the façades, open to the city. A strong visual relationship is created between the café-restaurant, the kitchen and the set construction workshops, which are no longer hidden. This transparency aims to highlight the creation and production of shows. The Comédie is a theatre within the city, and a city within the theatre
Interview by Elisabeth Chardon