exterior of a dance theater clad in steel sheet piling material
© Oliver Jaist

A Dance Theater Makes Novel Use of Steel Sheet Piling

The metal facade of a new cultural venue in Munich takes inspiration from its name and its uncertain future.

The “Schwere Reiter” is an independent venue for dance, theater, and music in Munich, Germany. “Schwere Reiter” (literally: heavy riders) was founded in 2008 in a former military barracks from the late 19th century, part of a historic military compound that was slowly taken over by artists looking for affordable studio spaces in one of Germany’s most expensive cities. Since then, the city has declared the area as “creative quarter”. So, the name of the theater simply stems from the busy street in front of it, the “Schwere-Reiter-Straße”, named after the heavily armored cavalry that was trained here long ago. The name stuck, and over the years the Schwere Reiter established itself as a prominent fixture of Munich’s creative scene.

In 2018 the city’s permission to use the existing building expired and the decision was made to build a new one on an adjacent empty lot. But there was a catch: The theater is only guaranteed to be able to occupy the site for ten years, meaning that there’s a decent chance whatever they decided to build will soon be torn down. Rather than build something temporary or cheaply, local architecture office Mahlknecht Herrle built a theater that would be easy to be disassembled and reused, while taking the name “Schwere Reiter” as literal inspiration. Construction began in 2020 and Schwere Reiter’s new hope was opened in September 2021.

entrance to the dance theater in the evening
© Oliver Jaist

Accepting the narrow budget and tight schedule as givens, the architects opted for a facade of raw sheet piling, a standardized industrial product more commonly used to stabilize excavation sites, building pits, and harbor basins. Here, the sheets were rammed up to 11.5 feet into the ground so that they act simultaneously as foundation and outer shell. Inside, the walls are made of prefabricated timber modules and insulation. To mark the entrances, the metal sheets are lifted into the air creating a moment of lightness and movement for a building that otherwise looks extremely heavy and strong. This way, the profiled facade creates a hermetic, almost mystique feel of curiosity, like one of these heavy, old stage curtains just before the play is about to start.

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interior of the small theater, two dancers on the floor
© Oliver Jaist

As a contrast to the heavy exterior, the interior of the 11,300-square-foot building is light, simple, and straight forward. The three main spaces house the public foyer, a large performance hall, and a more intimate rehearsal space. All other facility spaces are placed like corridors along these three main rooms. In the foyer, floor-to-ceiling windows provide views to the street. Structural elements remain visible almost everywhere: Large steel trusses span the entire width of the single-story building, their black color contrasts with the white walls. Suspended ceilings are dispensed in favor of room height, the soffit of the steel trusses and the intervening technology underlines the unpolished character of the entire building.

interior of the dance theater lobby
© Oliver Jaist

Above all, the building is functional, meant to be used and rearranged as needed. All interiors are completely detached from the structural system, and most are made from modular, prefabricated elements so that they are easy to repair or replace. But that’s not to say there are no details or no humor here. For example, the pavement slabs that are a common feature of Munich’s public spaces and boardwalks are used as floor material in front of the building, from where they continue into the foyer, creating a fluid transition from the public space outside into the building.

For now, the building is a welcome addition to Munich’s art scene, and if the building ever is to be torn down, the wood and steel could be fully reused, while the steel sheet pilings may go on to serve their originally intended purpose, shoring up another building site elsewhere in the city.

window details of steel sheet piling facade of a dance theater building
© Oliver Jaist

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