Building democracy

The theatre: a space to see, listen and debate

Developed between 2012 and 2013 - during his residency at the Villa Medici, in Rome (Italy) - French architect Olivier Vadrot's Circo minimo was a mobile stage inspired by the Circus Maximus - the large mass entertainment venue built in ancient Rome, amidst the Palatine and the Aventine hills.

“Relatively small in size, the Circo minimo was designed for a reduced audience (about twenty people or so). While its design is based on the rules laid down by Vitruvius, its scale - only a few meters in diameter - is closer to a piece of furniture than to an architecture”, explains Vadrot. “Made of poplar plywood, the light structure can be disassembled and reassembled quickly”, he underlines.


After the Circo minimo, in 2016, the architect developed Cavae for the Centre National des Arts Plastiques, in Paris (France). Both flexible and nomadic, the structure - made of birch plywood - can hold conferences, panel discussions and workshops and will be used in 2018 by the Centre Pompidou to celebrate the 50th anniversary of May 1968. A key moment in the French fights for social rights, during which collective assemblies played a major role in encouraging the dialogue between citizens. Among the many slogans brandished by the crowds during the popular movement, one is worth recalling: "When the National Assembly becomes a bourgeois theatre, all the bourgeois theatres should be turned into national assemblies." [1]

Arguing that the theatre is the founding principles of the western democracy, Vadrot agreed to tell us more about his field research and his passion for cavae - an ancient Latin term designating the core of theatres, the rows of seats.


“Some architectural forms are like archetypes: they are so obvious that we associate them with generic images. At first sight, the ancient theatre is one of those shapes based on what seems to be a simple plan: a space dedicated to performances that concentrates the attention, with rows of seats to welcome the spectators. In Greek, the sitting area is referred to as the koilon, in Latin as the cavae - namely the place from where to see.

Yet this idea of the ancient theatre as an unalterable model remains problematic. In fact, in reality - both material and historical - the ancient theatre of the Mediterranean area offers a large diversity of typologies and its chore is much more complex than one may see at first sight. The theatre is a founding principle of western democracy and isn’t all about spectacles.

Associated to polytheism, in the past theatres held political debates, musical and poetical contests, dances as well as sports competitions. Such a plurality of functions - cultural in every sense - make them far more complex than they seem.


Performance exists only to be seen by spectators. Therefore, observing and analysing the system that allows this to happen - combined with the lack of publications on the matter - is of major interest. Before being made of stones, the seats of ancient theatres were actually made of wood [2]. So originally, the cavae were a succession of furniture put together. And because they started to accommodate thousands of spectators they became architectures. A transition that was reinforced by the fact that at a certain point in history the rows of seats ceased to be mobile structures.

After an attentive and systematic analysis of the koilon - its geometry, configuration and size - of many theatres in Greece and in other countries of the Mediterranean surroundings, one can observe that its shape varies radically from one site to another. If the principle of the open-air building that rests on a natural slope and adopts the shape of a truncated cone is generally valid, other characteristics give each construction a determined specificity. A specificity that depends on the steepness of the site, the curvature of the cavae, the capacity of spectators, etc...

Yet, these contextual elements do not explain everything. In fact, many different design choices were made from one site to another, and that even for theatres that were geographically close to each other. By analogy, one might say that during the antiquity there were as many types of koilon as there are types of chairs today.

If notable variations in the general structure and constituent parts of the theatre vary according to the historical period - from the Greeks to the Gallo-Romans - the design of the cavae seems to escape all strict rules.


For instance, the theatre of Chaeronea in Boeotia (Greece) stands apart in its singularity. Its cavea is dug directly in a rocky outcrop. With a very rough aspect, the steps are arranged on a rectilinear section followed by a slight curve. The meticulous tracing reveals atypical dimensions (ca. 34 cm height and 41 cm depth). A rather un-ergonomic design as it leaves a little space to the person sitting behind. Presumably, the spectators only used one row out of two.

During the Antiquity, Athenians noticed the similarity of theatres with political and juridical assemblies. Spectators, in fact, actively participated in the shows! An observation that led them to the idea of democracy as spectacle. [3]


COVER-1_Olivier Vadrot, Circo Minimo, 2012; 2_Olivier Vadrot, Cavea, collection of the Centre national des arts plastiques (Paris), 2016; 3_The bouleuterion in Priene (Turkey); 4_The theatre of Chaeronea dates from the 5th century CE making it one of the oldest theatre of the ancient Greece period;

[1] Slogan written on the walls of the Odeon Theatre in Paris during May 1968; [2] This kind of structure are not yet called theatre but “scaffolding” (Ikrion). It was generally set on a grassy slope and made of wooden planks fixed on piles planted on the ground. Some archaeological traces remain in Athens; [3] See Noémie Villacèque, Spectateurs de paroles! Délibération démocratique et théâtre à Athènes à l’époque classique, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2013;

Published: 8 Nov. 2017

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