Bauhaus benches at the music tent
August 25, 2011
Herbert Bayer applied iconic Bauhaus principles to Eero Saarinen’s performance tent when he rebuilt it in 1964. The celebrated architect and designer changed the round raked bowl into a hexangular dish, with each row of seating gaining length as you ascended from the center. He copied the acoustic stage shell, but built it larger and higher. The circus-style tent was replaced with a superstructure of steel and cable that supported the stage shell while providing suspension for pleated translucent canvas panels. It delighted audiences.
While the Bayer tent triumphed architecturally, practical shortcomings marred its perfection. Topping musicians’ complaint list: a too small and always too cold backstage (later enlarged), and a concrete stage. Audiences complained that the benches inflicted pain and triggered unprintable language.
Positioning the benches on a slope may have appeared acceptable in the architectural drawings, but in reality, navigating the aisles was easily accomplished only if one’s legs were of distinctively different lengths. Adding to the challenge, the tops of the benches protruded into the 20-inch-wide walking space. To exit a row you had to either lean uphill from the ankles, a difficult maneuver, or turn to face the aisle and then sashay awkwardly along it.
No matter which method you employed, you would collide with the top corners of the metal bench supports. In his autobiography, “The First 90 Years of My Life,” Zeke Clymer described building them. He was contracted to fabricate hundreds of bench supports from square tubing, under a tight deadline. Clymer’s steel-work met the standards set for exacting, complicated angles, and he met the deadline, but no matter how much he ground the metal, some tops of Clymer’s corners protruded into aisle space, catching audience members at thigh level as they passed by.
Working 12 seasons at the tent, I may have walked (and often, in order to meet tight performance and rehearsal schedules, ran) more miles through those aisles than anyone else. I developed permanent black and blue marks on my thighs. The bruises grew as points of sympathy whenever I heard shrieks of pain from unsuspecting visitors as they encountered Clymer’s sharp edges in Bayer’s narrow aisles.
Another hazard of the Bayer benches lay between the steel supports: several feet of redwood backs and seats. The seats of the benches were covered with foam cushion covered with blue canvas. The backs of the benches were exposed redwood planks. Exiting through the aisles subjected everyone to calf and thigh-high redwood splinters.
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Women became the particular targets of Bayer’s benches. Splintering redwood snagged the nylons or bare legs of any female with long legs or short skirts. On top of my black and blue thighs, my skin was constantly recovering from festering redwood splinters. Redwood rivals cactus spines for inflicting pain and infection.
After receiving numerous complaints about redwood splinters, one summer we were tasked with sanding the benches before we erected the tent top. If you have ever sanded redwood, you know how unpleasant redwood dust can be. Herbert Bayer’s home sat high on Red Mountain and he enjoyed viewing town through his telescope. After spotting our sanding activity he called the folks at the Aspen Music Festival, adding his insult to our injuries. What were we thinking? Didn’t we know that the redwood, exposed to the elements each winter, weathered just as he planned? He saw only beauty in the grainy texture and color of the weathered lumber.
Our enterprising sanding project was reduced to touching up edges along the aisles. The amphitheater’s angles and redwood retained their Bauhaus integrity; but audiences continued to confront the challenges of navigating narrow, tilted aisles.