Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 November 2007
The short period in which open-air playhouses were built holds a special interest for architectural historians. In a defined period of time, barely seventy years, this new building type developed and flourished, then disappeared. The playhouse period therefore provides a discrete sample to study, from its antecedents to its demise. It offers a sequence of development, in which old forms and construction methods were adapted, new elements prototyped and refined, to when the form lost favour and was comprehensively superseded by a completely different kind of theatre building. It also offers a building type that became wholly integrated with its use, that of dramatic entertainment, and at a time when the use itself was developing – playwriting and staging – and developing with the form and layout of each successive playhouse. This was an energetic period in playwriting, full of experiment in which many different forms and ideas were tried and discarded. The same is true of the playhouses.
To an architect, the relationship between the use and form of a building is fundamental. Individual buildings will often display this use/form correspondence; a group of buildings built in quick succession with progressive refinement, such as the open-air playhouses, will have the use and building form fundamentally entwined. A study of the use of the building will tell much about the form of the enclosure, as conversely the form of a building will tell us much about the use that the building served. For those less familiar with buildings the same relationship can be seen in everyday objects, a corkscrew or a teacup for example, where the shape of the object has been generated and refined so that it perfectly matches its intended use and the hands that will use it.