The conquistador priest that Werner Herzog never cast

Gadget-box theatre: Rafael Viñoly’s first British building.

It takes a certain level of nerve to announce that you are going to reinvent everyone’s received notion of what a theatre is. And when it’s your first building in Britain, there’s a lot riding on it. But nobody ever accused architect Rafael Viñoly of lacking cojones. Thus we find an audacious new regional theatre in Leicester, The Curve, that is a great big transparent gadget-box. Does it work?

Well, yes, if your idea of theatre is spectacle rather than intimacy. Yes, if you’re the kind of person who likes to have conjuring tricks explained to you. No, if neither of the above. Because what Viñoly – Uruguayan-born, New York based, and one of the world’s big hitters in architecture – has done is make visible a lot of normally back-of-house stuff, and to lose the distinction between foyer and auditorium. “The history of the theatre is dominated by the tradition of creating mystery – without you participating in the fabrication of the mystery,” says Viñoly when I meet him there on a damp Leicester morning. “I’m kind of against mystery.” To me, that means you’ve missed the whole point of theatre. But that’s not quite what Viñoly means, as we’ll see.

This £61m ($96m) twin-auditorium theatre is called The Curve because, guess what, it curves to follow the street it is built on. I wonder what they paid the marketing people to come up with that one. This literal-minded approach informs the whole concept of the theatre. Viñoly treats theatre as industry rather than art. This is clever up to a point, because so much of a theatre – usually, the bits you can’t see – is light-industrial in nature. Scene-building and shifting, light and sound rigging, costume making and repair. Then again, the reason that stuff is usually out of sight is because we don’t want it to get in the way of what’s on stage. But Viñoly wants us to see the working nature of a theatre, the unsung toilers, in the way that certain architects like to display the bones and guts of their buildings. There’s a notion of honest expression there. “This place is a source of jobs, there’s a whole profession behind it,” he says. “I’m trying to elevate them, expose them as an important thing.’ Thus he exposes the backroom activities in an open-galleried stack of accommodation to one side. Though some rehearsal spaces remain private.

However, Viñoly has created mysteries of his own. He wins points by being pretty damn theatrical himself, and not just because, dressed always in high-necked bible-black, with his shock of silver hair, assortment of spectacles and strong South American accent, he is the conquistador priest that Werner Herzog never cast. You have to admit that a theatre that can, at the press of a button, open itself right up through backstage to reveal a second theatre behind – two audiences staring at each other across a usually hidden kingdom – is a stunt worthy of Fellini. Viñoly does this. You can also open up the sides of the stage to the foyers outside, which in turn are on the level of the street beyond. As artistic director Paul Kerryson puts it: “We could have a herd of elephants marching across stage if we wanted to.”

There’s more than a whiff of vaudeville in this. And there is indeed a reason for such extreme adaptability that goes beyond normal theatre, or even circus. Leicester has a big carnival culture. Carnivals are processional by nature. By opening up to the street – and having foyers which are themselves equipped to work as theatre spaces, complete with technical grids – The Curve can cater for that culture.

So yes, it’s ingenious. Here you have two theatres (large conventional and medium-sized adaptable) placed back to back. They are separated by two big vertically-sliding acoustic walls. When both are lowered, there’s a corridor left between them for actors to enter and exit. They just have to make damn sure they go through the right door otherwise the productions could take on an unintentionally Ayckbourn/Stoppard quality. Hamlet turning up in Mamma Mia, that sort of thing.

Similarly you can raise all the walls and turn the whole place – both theatres and foyers – into a big in-the-round arena for up to 1500 people. All of which is just great, assuming the gizmos don’t break down and the production is on a scale to justifiy it. Kerryson assures me that it’s also possible to close everything right down, lower curtains and have a venue suited to cabaret or stand-up. He reckons he can make a third small auditorium in this way, using the backstage space. But does any of this amount to interesting architecture?

It ought to, but it doesn’t. I was surprised by how unspectacular this all is. I expected to be enthralled by the sight of those mighty walls lifting themselves into the air, but it was curiously uninvolving, and rather noisy. Meanwhile the foyers around the theatres – though very tall – feel a bit pinched. Internally the place feels like a reduced version of The Lowry in Manchester, complete with its acres of painted plasterboard in red and purple. Everything looks and feels cheaply finished – probably because they spent so much of the budget on neat mechanical tricks that there was no money left over.

Outside, The Curve is just a big dumb building, its glass façade clad in metal sunshading louvres, its ends expressed in orangey Leicester brick. It could be an office building or upscale research lab. The vigour and delicacy of the buildings surrounding it in the St. George’s conservation area cruelly expose the one-liner crudeness of the composition. Viñoly is a broad-concept man, not one for the fine detail. Worse, the whole building feels about 25 per cent too big for its context, leaning outwards to elbow itself more space, a cuckoo in the Leicester nest.

Viñoly’s second British project is close behind: the much-delayed “Firstsite” contemporary art gallery in Colchester, Essex, a yellow boomerang landed in an ancient garrison town. It will be interesting to see how well he responds to that interesting context: first reports are that he doesn’t, really.

Back in Leicester, is Viñoly right to expose the inner workings of theatre? No. Theatre as an art form, like illusion-making of all kinds, is fundamentally, benignly, dishonest, which is why we love it. Is he right to make a supremely adaptable theatre building? Yes, and it should generate some extraordinary productions. And has he built a piece of great architecture for the centre of a fine city? Most certainly not.

Text and photos © Hugh Pearman. Extended version of the article first published in The Sunday Times, London, 2nd November 2008, as: “See you backstage”.

The Curve Theatre is now booking:
Firstsite gallery project information:
Rafael Viñoly Architects: http://www.Viñ