dr.sc. Nenad Fabijanić
Creation and Transformation of Theatre Architecture
The period of Historicism did not introduce significant typological innovations: the baroque type is mostly varied, sometimes with construction of an amphitheatre-like auditorium. In the spirit of worldviews of historicism and marked by traditionalism, the 19th century also reaches for the forms of historical styles in its stylistic expression, which it creatively reinterprets in many ways, so it is mostly not the imitation that this era was accused by Modernism. This is how all versions of historicism build their recognizable identity: from Classicism (that is, Neoclassicism according to English terminology), early, romantic Historicism, to the so-called pure styles, Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Baroque and Neo-Rococo.
Art theory in the second half of the 20th century took away the negative sign from eclecticism, which generally characterizes art until the emergence of art-nouveau or secession, and placed historicism on an equal footing with other historical styles. The stylistic and aesthetic values of the architecture of that era are also convincingly testified by the theatres, as a rule larger than in the previous era, which is dictated by the large urban scale of the new city and the prominent cultural and symbolic status of that era: like museums or libraries, theatres are also understood as temples or shrines. This connotation merges with the previous concept of the court and public theatre as a promoter of ideas in the spirit of the Enlightenment, a scene of social representation, prestige and entertainment.
The construction of theatres intensified at the turn of the century, which is clearly evidenced by statistics: while in 1889 there were 302 theatre houses in Europe and America, in 1926 there were 2,499, and in Europe alone, 1,500 theatres were built in 37 years.
In the 19th century, theatres throughout Europe were designed by the Fellner & Helmer bureau in Vienna, which was founded in 1873 by Ferdinand Fellner Jr. (1847 – 1916) and Hermann Helmer (1849 – 1919), based on the reputation of Ferdinand Fellner Sr. (1815 – 1871), and the office was later run by the founder’s sons until 1919. They created 70 projects for theatres and concert halls, realized 48 theatres in Europe, among them theatres in Varaždin (1873), Rijeka (1885) and Zagreb (1895). Their success is characterized by high quality, low price and fast performance (Buschek, 1999). Relying mainly on the type of French Baroque theatre, they gradually introduced innovations that did not mean a more radical step forward, and as eclectics they adhered to the wishes and tastes of their clients.
In the history of the architecture of European theatres from the Renaissance to the present day, several constants can be seen: the authority of the Greek theatron and its Roman derivatives, the influence of scenography and the requirements of stage technique, the acceptance of innovations in painting and other arts, adaptation to the differentiation of performance genres and the cultural and social status of the theatre. More or less pronounced in certain epochs, these elements encourage the constant transformation of the theatre architecture, especially the interior. It was particularly pronounced in the 19th century, when there was already a considerable heritage of earlier periods, and the theatre became one of the institutional strongholds of the culture of historicism and the period of liberalism, along with the university and the parliament (Schorske, C. E. 1985., 12.-25.).
After the First World War, the transformation was accelerated by the participation of political and artistic avant-garde. In the second half of the 20th century, with the establishment of new criteria for the protection of monuments, the revaluation of historicist architecture and the emergence of neo-historicism, historical theatres became the subject of renovation and necessary, sometimes radical modernization, which ensured them not only a useful but also a new symbolic function as objects of the cult of tradition. The complex requirements of such a renovation become a challenge for architectural creation and call for the work of an affirmed artistic personality chosen for a dialogue with the masterpieces of the periods of Baroque and Historicism – epochs that have produced the most prominent and famous European theatres.
It could almost be said that the history of the theatre and theatre architecture – in which we include the building and the scenography as equals – in a small way illustrates and highlights the overall development of European culture
The Building after the Opening
In its century and a half long life, Helmer’s building did not always shine in its opulence. Half of that time will pass before a more extensive intervention, then already dilapidated buildings. The struggle for a permanent theatre with a continuous drama and music-scenic program went hand in hand with “the ravages of time”, unfavourable historical circumstances and the lack of funds in the city treasury, with the theatre building as its great burden.
In the “Budget of the city of Varaždin” in 1888, the building was declared “the main source of the city’s financial difficulties” (“Hrvatska straža”, 18.2.1888:1). In 1911, in the text “Debts of the city of Varaždin”, the construction of the theatre was cited as one of the main causes of the poor financial condition of the city treasury. (“Naše pravice”, 26.1.1911:3) The request for the allocation of funds in order to carry out the necessary repairs in the theatre restaurant in 1905 was rejected with the explanation that “the city municipality is not willing to invest a large amount in a building that is passive” (” Varaždinski viestnik”, 4.6.1905:3). The lack of understanding that a theatre building cannot be financially self-sufficient, let alone generate income, is confirmed by A. Femen on the occasion of its 25th anniversary: „When our theatre was founded and opened, it was firmly believed that it would bring some income to the city municipality. It was a dream, a deception…” (Femen:1899:2). At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the state of the theatre in Varaždin was a frequent topic in local newspapers: the lighting was spared, the premises were aesthetically inappropriate to the taste of the time, the chairs in the boxes creaked, the stage lacked everything that a modern stage of the time should have… About a dangerous warning in 1909, we read: “As we hear, the city theatre is so dilapidated in its interior that it is becoming unusable and will probably close…” Harsh criticism for the neglect of the theatre building in the first decades after its opening also came from the audience itself: People say that the theatre is not clean, the seats are dusty, and the wallpaper is torn.” (“Narodno jedinstvo”, 21.7.1923) Citizens, as always in the history of the Varaždin theatre building, express their desire to preserve it formally and substantively.
Parts of the building were often occupied by tenants without taking into account the preservation of the interior; it housed a military hospital, high school, many associations, a cinema, etc. In the 1920s and 1930s minor renovations were carried out, and the building was in increasingly poor condition due to the use of inadequate materials and poorly executed works. In 1938, the auditorium had 542 seats, only one exit, with another emergency exit, the stage was too small for more modern performing needs, without the necessary rooms for the ensemble and other staff… That’s when negotiations for the modernization of the interior began with the architect Aleksandar Freudenreich, who realizes projects to solve problems in the 40s. It is completely understandable that in the midst of the Second World War no reconstruction was possible.
Extension and Renovation in the 50s of the 20th Century
The building is dilapidated: “The staircases are all quite dilapidated, the hygienic conditions are bad, the floors are destroyed. The stoves, which were used to heat the auditorium and the stage, wore out during use, and using wood for burning was too expensive. The fire prevention and safety measures were by no means satisfactory.” (Vukalović: 1955:94) There was a lack of space for scenery and costumes and all the necessary equipment needed for the smooth running of the program. Franjo Vukalović, the technical manager at the time, further writes: “It is difficult for a permanent theatre, which has its daily needs for preparing new repertoire, to survive under such circumstances in such a building. The only solution, which would cover all the difficulties and solve these problems, was the upgrade of the theatre building and the adaptation of the existing premises.”
Architect Freudenreich, already familiar with the building’s problems, was invited again in 1948 to create a project for upgrading and adaptation, with the condition that “the style of the building, both the interior and the exterior, should be strictly maintained.” The construction was entrusted to the Zagorje Construction Company in Varaždin. At the beginning of the works, the project was completed: the City Library and Reading Room and the Great Concert Hall with the surrounding rooms were refurbished, so this included the construction and adaptation of the entire building. This required more resources and time, and in addition, the problem of lack of materials and manpower appeared, so the works were suspended for more than a year, i.e., by the end of 1951, only the Library and Reading Room and the Great Concert Hall were being renovated, that work on other parts of the building would continue in 1952. The construction adaptation of the entire interior included stone-cutting, masonry, locksmithing, electrical installation, carpentry and other works; modern central heating was introduced, the stage was technically equipped, and in the extended part there were actor’s dressing rooms, rehearsal rooms, office spaces, workshops and storage rooms.
As with the construction in the 1870s, citizens responded by collecting voluntary financial contributions, “work collectives of Varaždin companies provided great moral as well as material help”, and many Varaždin craftsmen contributed with their services. In the preface to the book of memories from 1955, upon the completion of the extension, the editor proudly points out that the reconstruction was supported by the citizens: “(…) construction in our city is progressing through the conscious efforts of our working class within the framework of the great material needs that exist in it. But at all gatherings, where the construction of the theatre was discussed, and decisions were made in the widest circles of working people, one could see a unanimous desire to build it as soon as possible, regardless of the difficulties, in order to create development opportunities for that cultural institution.”
The newly renovated theatre was opened with a performance of Gundulić’s Dubravka. The upgraded eastern part of the building forms the image of the Varaždin theatre today.
Works on the Renovation of the Building of the Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin (2005-2023)
2005 – renovation of the hydro and thermal insulation of the north and south terraces
with the restoration of the balustrade;
2006 – renovation and reconstruction of sanitary facilities in the building and addition of
sanitary facilities for people with disabilities;
2007 – renovation of the Europa media, the Red Salon and the Chamber Hall ’99;
2008 – renovation and reconstruction of the boiler room, central heating and ventilation
and air conditioning of the Auditorium, the Rogoz Stage, the Europa Media Club
and the Great Concert Hall;
2009 – restoration of four small chandeliers in the Great Concert Hall;
2011 – restoration of the Auditorium chandelier;
2011 – restoration and reconstruction of the main entrance to the Croatian National
Theatre building in Varaždin;
2012 – renovation of the staircase, cloakroom and vestibule of the Great Concert Hall;
2013 – restoration works on the ceiling of the staircase on the fresco by Miljenko Stančić
and stuccos and plastics that frame it;
2013 – construction and installation of five new windows (west) in the Great Concert
2016 – construction and installation of twelve new windows on the balcony of the Great
Concert Hall (north, south);
2017 – restoration of part of the roof above the Great Concert Hall;
2017 – during August – renovation of three doors on the stage of the Great Concert Hall,
renovation of the door on the small balcony (West I), production and
installation of the door on the small balcony (West II), production and installation
of five windows in the Great Concert Hall (north);
2018 – works on the Great Concert Hall – construction crafts and restoration work on the eastern and the southern wall of the Great Concert Hall, the corridor of the ground floor and the gallery on the first floor (with renovation of part of the parquet and interior decoration);
2018 – installation of lift – platform;
2018 – during the first half of 2018 the main project “Lift-platform in the Croatian
National Theatre in Varaždin, and the realization of the project is ongoing;
2018 – during September, painting works were carried out in the Red Salon and the
Europa Media Club;
2018 – during September – renovation of the parquet (grinding, filling, varnishing);
2018 – during September – renovation of the central chandelier in the Great Concert Hall
(testing of installations, repair, gilding);
2018 – during October – trial operation and commissioning of the lift-platform for people
with disabilities and low mobility;
2019 – the Report on conservation and restoration probes in the interior in the Croatian
National Theatre in Varaždin which was carried out during May by “Art4art”
d.o.o. / Ltd;
2019 – during August – replacement of manual pull elevators (“cugovi”) – 19 pieces;
2020 – during March – part of the roof of the Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin was
2020 – during April – construction and installation of two windows in the Great Concert
Hall (west) and the entrance door (port);
2020 – The design of “Lifting platforms and fences of the orchestra proscenium” was completed. A restoration project for the proscenium (whose statics was damaged) was also created during 2019)
2020 – May and October – works on the auditorium stage – dismantling and construction of a new one, reinforced proscenium constructions, construction crafts, and electromechanical works as a prerequisite for setting up lifting platforms;
– installation of three lifting platforms and fence walls was carried out (production
and installation carried out by Tehnix in Donji Kraljevac;
The lifting platform is used in three levels:
1st upper level – in line with the main stage,
2nd medium level – in line with the floor of the auditorium (increasing the
auditoriums capacity is possible),
3rd lower level – space for the orchestra;
2021 – during April – renovation and painting works in the interior of the theatre which
refer to the side walls of the ground floor with a view of the mezzanine and the
front of the mezzanine edge;
2021 – during April and May – restoration and painting works in the interior of the theatre
which refer to the portal of the main stage in the auditorium with a fixed part of
the curtain and the neighbouring side boxes;
2021 – during May – renovation of part of the roof above the auditorium;
2021 – during July and August – restoration and painting works in the interior of the
theatre relating to the walls of the third floor with the restoration of the ceiling
and the gilding of the chandelier;
2021 – during July and October – construction of the new floor of the main stage of the
Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin (substructure, end boards of Oregon pine
and final painting black matte paint for stages);
2022 – during the second half of the year, reconstruction and furnishing of the Zvonimir
2022 – third quarter – installation of a wireless Internet system in the Croatian National
Theatre in Varaždin;
2022 – December – installation of a new fire protection system;
2022 – construction-renovation and painting works on the side boxes in the auditorium of
the Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin;
2023 – February – completion of the Zvonimir Rogoz Stage;
2023 – first quarter – renovation of part of the roof;
2023 – August – construction-renovation and painting work of the boxes on the first
floor and the ceiling soffit on the first floor and the front of the fence on the
2023 – August and September – modernization of the iron curtain – installation of
an electric motor;
2023 – during the year – purchase of reflectors;
2023 – September – procurement of IT equipment;
2023 – production of project documentation for the reconstruction of the Veček Hall.
Judging by the last item in the restoration process, it continues. The renovation of the Veček Hall is in progress, which will also be used for performances, for the first time.