Silviu Scrob: Sibiul infrastructura si culturala @FocusAgency

Sibiu and Cultural Infrastructure: A Destiny Being Written Now


April 27, 2021

From June 18 to 20, 2020, the third edition of the “Therme Forum: Theatre and Architecture” event took place as part of the Sibiu International Theatre Festival (FITS), in partnership with ARUP and Therme Group. This year’s edition, held under the theme “The Power to Believe: How can the built environment and technology empower artists to shape the world we live in?”, occurred online on the official FITS website and the festival’s Facebook page.

Therme Forum is part of an international platform (Therme ART) with a year-round program aimed at expanding the conversation about art, architecture, and the future of our urban environments for the physical and spiritual benefit of people.

I have followed all these events, and I confess that I am closely monitoring all activities related to the imminent investment of the Sibiu Municipality in the “Conference and Performance Center” for several reasons.

Among personal reasons, I have halted the organization of the Mozaic Jazz Festival because I did not find any truly suitable space in Sibiu to host an international festival. I say this with sadness and knowledge. I am familiar with all possible venues in Sibiu and have been involved in organizing thousands of shows in all these spaces. With the Mozaic Jazz Festival I have used the Union Hall, Gong Theatre, Thalia Hall and Redal Expo Venue and I reached the same sad conclusion.

Another personal reason is that, starting in 2003 (when I began collaborating with FITS for the technical production), I have worked enormously to discover and transform various spaces for hosting performances and to bring Sibiu to the status of a cultural city. Looking at the evolution of the spaces where FITS presented performances, I note that in 2003 there were 14 spaces hosting shows. In 2004, we managed to activate 22 spaces hosting performances, in 2007 there were 31 spaces hosting performances, and over the years we implemented performances in over 60 spaces in Sibiu, according to documentation from my personal archive. 

Sibiu list of venues for FITS

List of venues where we hosted performances over the years during FITS.

Yes, I have a folder where I centralize documentation about various event spaces throughout the country, and the folder dedicated to Sibiu contains over 60 spaces where I organized events over the years, preserving drawings, photos, plans with different configurations for various events, etc. Much of this documentation for spaces began in 2006 when I was enlisted in the coordination and implementation team of the Sibiu European Capital of Culture 2007 program. I was involved in a series of initiatives aimed at creating spaces and infrastructure necessary for hosting events and shows in the 2007 program.

Another reason is the civic sense and community spirit that urges me to a slightly more complex reasoning to clarify various information related to the construction of the so-called Conference and Performance Center. If we think a little about the history of this city, we can conclude that the only building specifically built to host shows and events is the Union Hall (Casa de Cultură a Sindicatelor), built between 1969 and 1973. And this was not a local initiative, other Unions Halls were built throughout the country.

All other buildings that today are cultural institutions, venues or spaces hosting events and shows had different destination of use in their initial construction. Even the current Thalia Hall is located in a space built in the 16th century as part of the city’s defense fortifications — Turnul Gros. This space was taken over by Martin Hochmeister, who between 1787 and 1788 arranged a town theater there, the first theater in present-day Romania and one of the first in Eastern Europe. The “Radu Stanca” National Theatre from Sibiu resides in the former Apollo cinema building, inaugurated in 1937. The Gong Theatre is located in a building constructed also in 1937 as a sports hall for the Evangelical Gymnasium, and other various stages from different buildings from Sibiu (ASTRA Library – old headquarters, Casa Armatei, Brukenthal High School, etc.) are part of buildings with various destination of use. We cannot consider them venues that were built specifically to host performances or other performing arts events. Furthermore, I am not aware of any recent initiatives in Romania that have produced a new building specifically designed to host shows and events.

Thinking about all this, I cannot help but notice the opportunity that Sibiu has, under local initiative and responsibility, to build the first building dedicated to performances and events in the history of this city. How this construction will be approached and look will enormously influence Sibiu in the decades to come.

At this edition of the “Therme Forum: Theatre and Architecture” event, held in the form of online discussions or conferences, several personalities shaping various institutions or globally renowned organizations, as well as representatives of local institutions and authorities, participated:

  • Louise Herron – CEO Sydney Opera House
  • Alison M. Friedman – Director Artistic, Performing Arts, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority
  • Alicia Adams – Vicepreședinte International Programming, John Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
  • Matthias Woo – Director Executiv, Zuni Icosahedron, Hong Kong
  • Anthony Sargeant – CEO, Luminato Festival Toronto
  • Claire McColgan – Director, Culture Liverpool
  • Astrid Cora Fodor – Primarul Municipiului Sibiu
  • Constantin Chiriac – Președinte al Festivalului Internațional de Teatru de la Sibiu
  • Robert Hanea – Fondator, Președinte și CEO Therme Group
  • Tateo Nakajima – ARUP Fellow (moderator)
  • Matt Atwood – Theatre Consultant, ARUP (moderator).

These are just a few of the participants in the third edition of the “Therme Forum” event.

Among the topics discussed, I mention the importance of the built environment in various communities, how these constructions shape the world of performing arts, the present and future of a community, the impact these constructions have on community members and local authorities, investment in better and more context-adapted buildings and the recovery of investments. The discussions also covered the opportunities presented by new spaces, the role and importance of various curatorial programs in the perspective of interconnecting spaces and communities, new technologies reshaping the boundaries between physical space, actor and spectator, and emerging technologies in sound (immersive sound – Soundscape), etc.

Yaroslava Babenchuk has collaborated with FITS since 1997, knows the development of Sibiu, and has been involved in the Therme Forum event since its first edition. She provided valuable insights during the session on Saturday, June 20, at 14:00, reflecting the level of thinking and engagement required to imagine and conclude on such a space.

Throughout the three editions of Therme Forum hosted by FITS, a significant volume of relevant information about the construction of a new cultural space in Sibiu has been produced. The National Theatre “Radu Stanca” Sibiu naturally positions itself as the main beneficiary of these efforts. It is a natural position that, from the standpoint of the main creator of shows and in the given context, they understand they must actively assume. I can’t imagine a better approach to such a topic in which Constantin Chiriac (FITS and TNRS director) and Robert Hanea (Therme Group) have succeeded in involving the most important specialists in the field to benefit from the most relevant experience and information for building a new performance space. Regarding this initiative, I can only commend it and hope that concerning the spaces dedicated to the “Radu Stanca” National Theatre Sibiu, things are clearer now than before the first Therme Forum event.

The significant question posed by Yaroslava Babenchuk at the close of the Saturday event, just before the start of the final session attended by Sibiu Mayor – Astrid Fodor, emphasizes the need for community involvement in the process of thinking about what will happen in a performing arts facility about to be built. She raises questions about „how do we involve into the process of thinking about what is going to happen in a performing arts facility that is about to be built, how do we involve the community? And why do we need to involve the community in a more active way?   …  How in thinking about sustainability of the facility, how do we engage people? … I think is really important to find a way for the community to be part of the conversation like this one.”

Information about the purpose and role of this construction is detailed in the specifications for contracting the pre-feasibility study released by the Sibiu Municipality in August 2019:

“Multifunctional center with main cultural functions such as: theater, performance and conference halls, events.” (pg. 2 – Introduction)

or “Within the center, the following main categories of uses are proposed: performance halls, conferences, exhibitions, meetings, congresses, symposiums.” (pg. 2 – Introduction)

or “Meeting the needs of cultural organizations that need a new facility to support their existing and future activities, including creative artistic experimentation, which is not possible at present.” (.pg 3 – Context of service procurement)

or “Presentation of the technical documentation (pre-feasibility study) required, appropriately and completely developed, according to requirements. Understanding the complexity of the investment, as well as the need for sizing and sustainability. Continuing the economic growth of the municipality by supporting creative industries and creating a regional and national cultural hub, as appropriate.” (pg. 5 – Interested parties and their role)

or “Construction of a multifunctional cultural center suitable for current and future needs.” (pg. 5 – Interested parties and their role)

or “Organization of consultations with essential stakeholders, to develop the vision and objectives of the project.” (pg. 7 – 3.4 Services to be performed / Outlining the vision and objectives of the project / 1.3)

On pg. 11 Outlining the visions and objectives of the project / B. Vision Document, we are informed that the Contractor has 21 days from the signing of the contract to “develop the Vision Document project.”

It remains to be seen how this dialogue between city representatives, those responsible for the vision of this space, and community representatives or communities will unfold because there is the possibility of identifying multiple communities.

We can have a community formed by the performing arts institutions in Sibiu, each with its specific needs, such as the Ballet Theater and the Professional Folk Ensemble “Cindrelul-Junii Sibiului,” both having rehearsal spaces but lacking a space for creation and staging their performances. Here, we can also include other cultural institutions (Sibiu Philharmonic, Teatrul Gong Sibiu, etc.) that produce cultural products (performances, festivals, etc.) surpassing the capacity of their spaces and stages, often seeking hosting for projects in more generous venues.

We can have a community formed around cultural operators on the cultural agenda and other local, national, or international cultural operators. Constructing a cultural space that would exclude them from the community, not offering them the possibility to express their needs, thoughts, and knowledge, would be disastrous for the community and sad for Sibiu’s history.

We can have a community formed around agencies, tour operators, and organizers of conferences, congresses, symposiums, exhibitions, meetings, etc. They also have specific needs, and it is essential to take them into account in the context of a space that directly targets them.

We can have a community formed around tours that can establish this space as a permanent landmark to consider in their organized tours. Tour organizers look for efficient spaces. Easy access for setting up and equipping spaces according to the event’s design, configuring the space for the audience, and parking spaces for the “mobile homes” of artists are just a few criteria that can decide the fate of such a space as an inclusion or exclusion destination from the tour organizers’ lists.

We can have a community formed around a curatorial initiative that brings significant cultural creations to this space on an international scale, covering the entire artistic spectrum. In addition to the theater’s program and organizers renting spaces for their events, it is crucial for this space to create and curate a program of events and shows intended to place this space among the luxury galleries of internationally renowned cultural centers. Creating events that over time become cultural landmarks, hosting shows, established artistic creators, and possible exponents of new or innovative artistic trends are essential for breathing life into these spaces and for the audiences and communities formed around them.

We can have a community formed around an initiative to encourage artistic creation and experimentation by facilitating access to various creation, rehearsal, and presentation spaces. This is probably a unique opportunity that could target both independent creators and the academic environment. Spaces that offer the chance for artists, creators of new artistic expressions, students, and technicians to create, experiment, and research—spaces that can prove essential to the health and spirit of the cultural center and the communities formed around it.

Finally, we have the most important community, formed by the inhabitants of Sibiu, whom we hope to actively involve in the life and dynamics of this space. What the community wants from this space is something I cannot know. I can only hope that those overseeing this project intend to find out. 

I can express what I desire or how I envision that this construction would serve the community, as I perceive it after twenty years of activity in the cultural field in Sibiu. I imagine an architectural complex divided into two cultural-administrative entities. The first entity is the “Radu Stanca” National Theatre in Sibiu, which will benefit from and administer the necessary spaces according to its own vision. The second entity will have a name, let’s say the Sibiu Cultural Center, and will also administer the necessary spaces according to the vision resulting from dialogues and consultations with groups of specialists (ideally the same ones creating the vision for the theater) and members of the communities described above. Regarding the theater, things are clear; they will manage their own spaces, program their shows, and host other performances and events within the limits of available space and time. Being an institution subordinate to the Sibiu Local Council, renting its own spaces will represent a new source of income, much needed in the new context of managing such a complex space.

The Sibiu Cultural Center is a new entity that will be created with the purpose of administering spaces dedicated to the creation and hosting of performances and events for other cultural institutions in the city (which do not have their own performing spaces), shows and events of local, national, and international cultural operators, congresses, conferences, symposiums, touring shows, creations and experiments of various local, national, and international artists, its own program of performances and events according to a curatorial vision meant to place this space on the international cultural scene and meet the needs of the Sibiu community as they emerge from dialogues and consultations that I hope will occur periodically for this purpose. The challenging mission for the creators of the vision for this space is to create a versatile enough space to host a wide range of events and performances already existing in the community that need suitable venues (ballet, folk performances, fashion shows, international conferences, opera, symphony concerts, and events from other musical genres, exhibitions, gastronomic events, fairs, etc.) in correlation with the long-term vision of this space, which will have to efficiently host other types of performances and events. Most likely, discussions about assuming the construction of this space will revolve around the annual budgetary resources needed for its operation and the possibility of it functioning in the future under a management regime subject to sustainability.

I believe it is vital for those overseeing this project not to miss this unique opportunity in the history of Sibiu. The opportunity for Sibiu to build its first space for performances and events from its own initiative and according to its own desires. The chance for Sibiu to finally have the necessary spaces for cultural development, which it has invested in, worked towards, and longed for too long.

The way this space will look and serve the community is the responsibility of a handful of people who bear all the responsibility and pressure for establishing and approving the vision for this space. They are also the ones who can reap the rewards of the results and choose how Sibiu’s history will remember them for eternity.

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