Music and culture

Musical Space for Prometheus

Venice | Italy


Ente Autonomo Teatro alla Scala
Architectural design
RPBW Renzo Piano Building Workshop
1983 - 1984
Amount of works
2.000.000 €
Services Provided
Structure design | Construction management
Music and culture
Capacity of the audience: 400 people
Construction technique
Glulam wood

A giant sound box

The Prometheus. Tragedy of Listening is a musical work by Luigi Nono, presented in Venice at the 1984 Music Biennale. The stage structure used for the performance was a laminated wood ark, a highly innovative technology for the time; it was designed by Renzo Piano as a macro sound box that could be disassembled and transported. Techniques borrowed from violin making and shipbuilding were used in its design.

The musical work Prometheus. Tragedy of Listening is an innovative and experimental composition: conceived as a series of moving sounds, it dramatizes through music a text created by Massimo Cacciari, derived from a mixture of texts by ancient and contemporary authors, from Aeschylus to Walter Benjamin. For his work, Luigi Nono envisioned an unconventional and flexible set design, an envelope capable of evolving along with the music, itself being part of the creative process.
The set design conceived by Renzo Piano overturned the traditional concept of theater, placing the audience, intended for 400 people, in the central space and placing the orchestra around it, on three different tiers of walkways. In addition, the musicians had to move during the performance, transiting on stairs and catwalks, and the conducting of the orchestra, entrusted to Maestro Abbado, was conducted remotely, with the help of video monitors.

Music Space for Prometheus - Venice
Music Space Yard for the Prometheus - Venice
Music Space Yard for the Prometheus - Venice
Music Space for Prometheus - Venice
Music Space for Prometheus - Venice
Music Space for Prometheus - Venice

Lutheran art and shipbuilding

Renzo Piano's interest in music, the "most immaterial architecture that can exist," had occasion to materialize thanks to Luigi Nono, who involved the architect in the staging of his innovative musical opera: Prometheus. Tragedy of Listening.
The architect, who at the time was embarking on the construction of a small boat made of laminated wood, drew precisely on his experience in building boat hulls as well as his musical knowledge, particularly the operation of the soundboxes of stringed instruments.
According to the composer's wishes, Piano conceived a set design that overturned the traditional concept of theater, placing the audience at the center of the stage and positioning the musicians, on several levels, around it. In fact, the architect designed a "hull" with a square base 25 meters on each side, raised from the floor by a system of lattice beams that, bending at right angles, became piers. These supported a lighter metal structure, on three levels, and had side infills composed of thin wooden panels that could be removed or added, to accommodate the reverberation times of sound.

Black and white photo of the music space for the Prometheus - Venice

A flexible structure that changes with the music

The simple and essential structure was made of glulam and steel and assembled by mechanical joints.

Glulam, a new technology at the time, allowed for the construction of the main ribs supporting the stalls for spectators and the metal structure on balconies, dedicated to the orchestral players.

Large horizontal, vertical, and curved glulam beams, following the pattern of wooden hull structures, supported the entire facility, like a scaffold closed in on itself. A secondary steel structure held the spandrels and supported the perimeter panels, straight or curved as appropriate, which served as a curtain wall and at the same time acted as a sounding board.

Metal supports allowed the elevation of the stalls, leaving a space below for the foyer and bringing the stage space closer to the church vault in order to further improve the acoustics as a whole.

Thus, the structure was not fixed and unchanging, but lent itself to quick disassembly and reassembly in other locations, adapting to the acoustic quality of the space that would house it.
After its debut in the Church of San Lorenzo, the scene was used for staging in one of the warehouses of the Ansaldo plant in Milan for a further series of performances.

Laminated wood Musical space for the Prometheus - Venice
Music Space for Prometheus - Venice
black and white detail Music space for the Prometheus - Venice
music rehearsals Music space for the Prometheus - Venice
historical photo Music space for the Prometheus - Venice
The structure of the stage space consists of large horizontal glulam beams that, bending at the ends, become vertical load-bearing elements. The structure follows the principle of boats with a round wooden hull: a sequence of cross frames and stringers joined by overlapping and interlocking.

Just as in the boats the cauldron is elevated, so the floor of the stalls and the entire structure are raised off the ground on metal supports. The elevated position relative to the floor allows the two portions of the stalls separated by the central altar to communicate, to provide space for a foyer below, and to optimize acoustics by bringing the stage space closer to the vaulted roof of the church of San Lorenzo.
Black and white beam detail of the Music Space for the Prometheus - Venice
The perimeter enclosures consist of fireproof panels made of multilayer wood. The positioning of the panels and their curvature makes it possible to control the propagation of sound, increasing its intensity and characterizing its timbre. Revolutionary is the idea of placing the musicians on the perimeter of this stage volume and placing the spectator at the center, who is thus enveloped by the music. The envelope transforms the space into a large instrument, capable of vibrating and reverberating an ever-changing sound.
Black and white construction site photo of the Music Space for the Prometheus - Venice

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