The curious case of the center aisle

In designing auditoriums, every once in a while the architect or client will ask “Shouldn’t we have a center aisle?”

Center aisles are very common, but not in theaters. Buses and trains have center aisles. Airplanes have center aisles, unless they are wide bodies. Of course, the travelers’ sightlines to the front of the vehicle are not usually a design consideration! Center aisles are also common in churches and synagogues, where they may be important liturgically.

Theater designers tend not to like center aisles, because they occupy space that would otherwise be the “best seats in the house.” The production on stage is usually composed to appear best from the center of the auditorium, so why put an aisle there? And there’s a more esoteric reason not to have center aisles, having to do with seat rows, seating rake, and sightlines—but maybe that’s a subject for another post.

Just how rare are center aisles in performing arts spaces? A scan of Leo Beranek’s Concert Halls and Opera Houses turned up ten concert halls and six opera houses with center aisles (out of a total of 100 halls).

The concert halls span a century, from the Concertgebouw (1888) to Madrid’s Auditorio Nacional de Musica (1988). The only hall in the United States is Symphony Hall in Boston, opened 1900. Fully half of the examples are from the latter half of the twentieth century. It appears center aisles in concert halls are a thing, just not in the States.

The opera houses include Naples (1737), Milan (1778), Paris (1875), and Colon (1908). I strongly suspect a wider search would turn up more historic opera houses with center aisles. The list also includes the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco (1938) and the Vienna Staatsoper, which was completely rebuilt after WWII.

Searching my brain and the internet turned up a handful of playhouses with center aisles. Two Broadway houses, Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (1913) and the Palace Theatre (1925), have center aisles. Yale’s own University Theater (1926) and the historic Play and Players Theater in Philadelphia (1913) do too. I suspect that a number of small off and off­off­Broadway theaters have center aisles, and I’m sure I’ve missed many larger spaces. If you think of one let me know. Do you have a favorite (or least favorite) space with a center aisle?

- Gene Leitermann is co-founder of Nextstage Design, an educator, and a theater consultant with more than 30 years of experience

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