Lelystad, the Netherlands
Imagine Ben van Berkel as a child, traveling among the theaters of the Netherlands to listen to his mother sing in the chorus of the latest musical. Now fast-forward to adulthood: Van Berkel, principal of the renowned architecture firm UNStudio with Caroline Bos, is standing on the artificial shores of Lake Isjlemeer, about 45 minutes’ drive from his Amsterdam office. From dawn to dusk, the designer charts the changing colors of the sky as low cumulus clouds rush overhead in typical Dutch maritime fashion.
Van Berkel conjures up these two pictures of himself in discussing the Agora Theater, a new 37,500-square-foot building that contains 753-seat and 207-seat auditoriums, a restaurant, and corollary spaces, which UNStudio completed last year. These experiences inspired both the remarkable rakes and projections of the theater building as well as the range of fiery colors in which that form is clothed.
The Agora Theater is located in Lelystad, a distant suburb of Amsterdam that sits at the foot of Lake Isjlemeer. When the municipality invited UNStudio to present a proposal for the theater in 2002, it had already begun implementing a master plan to revitalize Lelystad by Adriaan Geuze of Rotterdam-based urban planning and landscape design firm West 8.
At the time, the master plan’s realization had not yet touched Lelystad’s innermost core, a public square adjacent to the local train station. The city was founded in 1967, and its center exemplifies Dutch planning in that era: an assemblage of bland, brown-brick, low- and mid-rise structures. These buildings border a too-big negative space where market stalls are set up on summer weekends, but they are not packed tightly enough to foster a cohesive forum in colder or darker conditions. According to Geuze’s scheme, the Agora Theater would anchor this floundering public space.