The theater was one of the propaganda tools of the Soviet regime. Therefore, you should not be fascinated by the theater building, which, despite its Hutsul interior, is still the result of its era, with all its pros and cons.
Ihor Panchyshyn, an artist and architect based in Ivano-Frankivsk, explains why we should be more critical of the building of the Ivano-Frankivsk Music and Drama Theater.
Artistic vs. architectural phenomenon
It is both easy and difficult to talk about the building of the theater.
The fact is that there is no established understanding of the architectural value of any objects in the city, and the buildings themselves are often equated with the things that happen inside them.
For example, if you say that the theater building is not that interesting or outstanding, it will cause a lot of objections. They say, there are beautiful ceramics and elaborated woodwork inside, people willingly attend performances, there is an inspired theater company, and it was even awarded with the Shevchenko National Prize, and the theater itself is something we can be proud of.
That’s right. However, it is so only when we are talking about the theater as an artistic phenomenon, but not as an architectural object in the urban space. I will not try to abstract from the meanings of the theater, but I will try to briefly explain what does not satisfy and please me in its architecture.
The new city center, which was never completed
Built in the 1970s, the Ivano-Frankivsk Music and Drama Theater is a product of its time. This refers to the then economic realities, technological capabilities, aesthetic ideas, and norms of the Soviet Union. So the architectural solution for the theater turned out to be conservative and simple.
It is worth reminding that the entire complex of the square, where the theater is now located, was to be organized as a city and regional administrative center. According to the concept, the regional committee of the party, the regional executive committee and a hotel complex were to be located here, as well as a main cultural element, which would frame the large-scale square with a monument to Lenin (a mandatory attribute of the ceremonial surroundings of all state sites. If this is a state center, there should be a complete image-building set: administration buildings, party offices, a square for demonstrations and parades, a theater, a hotel and a monument to Lenin. A theater on this square acts as a main cultural element — author’s note).
The city «just recently», by historical standards (in 1962), received its new name ‘from above’ and instead of Stanislaviv it became Ivano-Frankivsk.
As a military-oriented city, it required radical redesigns of its plan and transport channels. For this, a whole program of restructuring Ivano-Frankivsk was launched: the psychological and cultural center had to be focused in the single, striking and convincing, Center of the city of new times, moving from the Austrian and Polish buildings that were located in the then center of the city.
To arrange this ambitious Soviet square, the city and Jewish cemeteries were demolished, ‘Khrushchovka’ buildings were built instead of separate low-rise buildings, and a new brutalist architecture was deployed along the then Radianska Street (now Nezalezhnosti Street). The German church and Austrian military warehouses were also demolished to make way for the parks.
This project was never implemented to a full degree. In the end, it was decided to move the party bodies to the building on the current Hrushevskoho Street. However, the main principles laid in this new Center were implemented:
- a line of administrative buildings with the design institute on Radianska Street was built;
- the construction of the Ukraine hotel, a mandatory element for such centers by the standards of the time, was started;
- the foundation pits were excavated for the construction of the regional theater as a multifunctional gala hall, next to all the ceremonial elements at that time and the dominant element of the composition — the monument to the leader.
The square perspective in the west was completed by the recently built Consumer Services Center, which, by the way, is almost the most successful architectural object in the city at that time.
All that construction, along with the repair of the road to Tysmenytsia, the construction of the complex of the Center for Scientific and Technical Information (СSTI) and the neighborhood unit with the Kosmos cinema, as well as the development of the project for the construction of an overpass over the track, proceeded very slowly, but thoroughly. However, the change of decisions regarding the building of the regional party committee deprived this whole scenario of the main intrigue. In the following years, the square was completed by inertia, and all its objects cut loose and charted their own course in this incomprehensible lake.
How Soviet theaters were built
Theaters as mandatory elements in Soviet urban planning were built according to certain canons. The local theatrical specificity, the nature of the urban environment, and the local architectural school were not taken into account. Everything was built only on the basis of state trends and ideological requirements.
As a development of modernist evolution (after constructivism and functionalism), brutalism, already prevailing in the whole of Europe, was quite attractive for its use in large-scale construction due to the Soviet doctrine of the dominance of administrations. For architects, this time added a certain freedom in at least some illusory creative diversity. Especially since centralized design and structure of buildings could coexist. The system of specialized central design institutes was easily managed with the development of unified aesthetic paradigms with total control. That is, the appearance of any unique and outstanding architectural works was strictly regulated from the center and set by the party.
All this is necessary for us to understand the worldview, organizational and aesthetic nature in which such twin objects appeared throughout the Soviet Union.
When I was a student, I passed through the city of Vladimir (near Moscow), and I saw there the regional theater and was surprised how much it resembled the Ivano-Frankish theater. Over time, I discovered that almost all regional theaters are somewhat similar. At first, there were Stalin and Zholtovskyi porticoed buildings, and in the times of brutalism, they became large rectangular prisms looking like mausoleums. They differed only in their «binding» methods in accordance with the terrain (that is, the way the project took into account the peculiarities of the area — soil, underground water, etc. — author’s note) and small decorative elements.
In 1981, the Shevchenko National Prize in the field of architecture was awarded to the team that built the Shchepkin Music and Drama Theater in Sumy. But despite its independence, the influence of typical projects of similar buildings developed by the Central Research Institute for Entertainment and Sports Facilities in Moscow is felt in the theater.
The Ivano-Frankivsk Music and Drama Theater was designed with the participation of Stepan Slipets, an architect, Shevchenko National Prize laureate and designer of the Shchepkin Music and Drama Theater in Sumy.
Interestingly, state awards were usually given to teams that used to be led by party and business leaders. For instance, in the Sumy project, the head of the team was Mykhailo Lushpa, the first secretary of the Sumy City Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine. In the case of Ivano-Frankivsk, Dmytro Sosnovyi became the head of the team: he was an architect, but still a member of the nomenclature, the chief architect of the region, who at one time was seconded by the party to this position from Odesa.
What does the theater architecture consist of?
Once, I re-read a description of the theater architecture from one of the small-town experts, and it made me not just smile, but also get sad because of the fact that we are all satisfied with such a ‘poetic and logical analysis’.
“…The pyramidal growth of volumes resonates with the architecture of brutalism, which is characterized by the accumulation of massive structures. The presence of side cubes of the theater, which are supported by thin flattened legs, can be considered a ‘demonstration of faith’ that these volumes can fully exist. At the same time, the architecture of the theater is restrained and clear. Stacking cubes does not create an effect of redundancy. The fact that so many ideas are combined in one building refers its style to the so-called international, which rejected individual traditions and synthesized simple, laconic and understandable geometric shapes. But this was in no way a return to the pre-war constructivism…»
And one of the final phrases looks the funniest: «Repetition of similar forms (cubes, supports, windows, and lines) creates a special rhythmosophy [what kind of word is this anyway? — author’s note] of the buildings…»
This is how the Lutsk Music and Drama Theater is described.
In fact, the theater architectural volume itself is nothing special. The building is a usual composition of several parallelepiped prisms, formed according to the main functional zones:
- the audience hall with a stage and grates (the upper part of the theater stage — editor’s note);
- the two-level vestibule part, with the main facade facing the street, with continuous glazing, which is open to the adjacent streets;
- the technical area with a large property department and workshops for producing props and scenography elements;
- the block of offices, dressing and utility rooms.
The plasticity of the complex is formed thanks to the following combination: the airiness of the glass and the contrast of the deaf walls, as a challenge to the old urban scale and rhythm. A well-balanced and harmonious building emphatically dominates the space and contrasts with other urban architecture.
And this was the new trend of the Soviet urban planning: declaring the indisputability and power of the Soviet Union, its scale of mastering large spaces and volumes. All this now seems to us to be a gross dissonance and a mockery of the proportions of a classic European city, built and adapted according to centuries-old models.
Monsters like this square, the administration building on Hrushevskoho Street, or even the shopping mall with the new covered market, were simply foreign giants embedded in the fabric of the city.
When talking about the architectural value of the Ivano-Frankivsk Music and Drama Theater, its interior is often mentioned. However, again, one must look at the context in which it was created.
The decoration of the theater interiors arose from the realities of the time, when artists tried to bring local colors to their work — a kind of regional curtsey against the background of the impossibility of giving freedom to the architecture itself. Creative unions worked in a regulated and mechanical manner: although party ideologues proclaimed regionalization, it was only regionalization that could be controlled.
A special emphasis in the interior of the Ivano-Frankivsk Music and Drama Theater is made on the Hutsul motifs. This was part of a consistent Soviet policy: to reduce all perceptions of Ivano-Frankivsk to exclusively as a center of the Hutsul region. The party stubbornly washed away everything that did not match the proletarian ideology. Of course, the surrounding architecture also was in the firing line, as it annoyed with its undeniable genesis and attachment to European classical styles and forms.
Indeed, the Hutsul style fascinates with its exoticism and unusualness in the all-Ukrainian palette. And a good school of folk craftsmen and the impeccable craft of ceramists, weavers, and woodworkers give the effect that the organizers hoped for: it should interrupt the entire brutalist atmosphere of the theater interior.
However, that entire rich decor only fills the architecture and has nothing to do with the modernist architecture of the city. Even in such a successful, at first glance, adaptation, the artificiality of the combination of strict travertine, marble and granite with homely, warm and cozy details of Hutsul life is palpable. The fireclay panel (a ceramic panel made of fireclay. Fireclay is a fire-resistant white ceramic with a specific craquelure — author’s note) in the interior of the second level of the foyer looks somewhat more organic, because both the color and the texture are closer to the construction materials of a huge hall.
A wooden ceiling is often used in classical architecture, but a huge space filled with cold stone still dissonates with warm wood. Even its virtuoso implementation does not save from this disproportion.
An example of a much more successful use of such a ceiling is, in my opinion, the ceiling in the hall of the Ivano-Frankivsk airport, where it, on the contrary, dominates and is organically woven into the context of modern functionality.
Particular chamber fireclay sculptures, which are pleasant on their own, still give the impression of randomness in this large-scale space of the theater. Tinted metal is another inappropriateness with excessive decorativeness that is strikingly different from the Hutsul style.
Who created the theater’s interior design?
In 1982, the group of artists who worked on the Ivano-Frankivsk Music and Drama Theater received the Shevchenko National Prize in the category «For the use of the folk art motifs during creating an indoor space», that is during creating the interior.
Architect Dmytro Sosnovyi, sculptor Vasyl Vilshuk, artist Volodymyr Shevchuk, redwood carpenter Anton Ovchar, carver Vasyl Lukashko, and design engineer Leonid Sandler received awards at that time.
In fact, Leonid Sandler was the head of this team. He designed the structure of the auditorium, and also supervised the construction from the very beginning to completion. Together with architects and artists, Sandler developed elements of decorative design, including the panel on the main facade, the ceramic panel in the second floor lobby, the suspended ceiling, the decoration of the fountain in the lobby, railings of balconies, stairs, decorative chandeliers, etc.
However, the Ivano-Frankivsk Theater could have a completely different appearance. Together with the already mentioned architect Stepan Slipets, the legendary Kyiv artist Viktor Zaretskyi worked on the theater project.
He developed his own design project for the building. According to it, there should have been a giant mosaic panel on the facade in a Secession style close to Gustav Klimt. The rest of the creator’s design was also very lyrical and poetic. Zaretskyi believed that such a move is more in line with the nature of ornamentation and architectural plasticity of Stanislav/Ivano-Frankivsk.
That project was never accepted: because of its «non-Sovietness» and the emphasized sentiment towards European Secession, and also because Zaretskyi was the husband of the dissident Alla Horska, that is he was «unfavorable» for the regime.
A cold monument of the era
So, let’s be objective. At the turn of the 20th century, Ivano-Frankivsk city acquired a solid theater space that could be used for various large-scale events. However, buildings canonical to the Soviet aesthetics will never be able to meet the challenges of time and new generations.
The inexorable process of social evolution will require not frozen monuments, but buildings that are either able to adapt and change, or remain symbols of their era.
This theater building is a monument of the 1960s and 80s. Over time, the warm and eye-pleasing decorations of the cold Soviet aesthetics will more and more clearly emphasize the artificiality and mechanistic nature of their implementation, which has nothing to do with the nature of brutalist architecture. The excessively distinct Soviet genesis will require radical architectural changes to be reinterpreted in accordance with the challenges of the times.
It is indicative of how the theater team is subconsciously looking for other scenarios, venues, and scenographies. It’s like an involuntary escape into new plasticity and drama: the use of basements, operational areas, and even the search for other sites outside of this building. For the official imposingness and comfortable but cold recreational nature of the theater defines and limits the newest variety of drama and challenges of the new plastic arts.
I think one should not be recklessly proud of one of the monuments of the Soviet era just because it mercilessly dominates the environment of a compact, harmonious city, nurtured on other scales, paradigms and with other understandings of space.
Photo by Olesia Saienko