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From town to theatre
by Muhammad Yusuf January 10, 2019
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At the inaugural Dezeen Awards announced at a ceremony in the Tate Modern, London, recently, Matthew Mazzotta was the recipient of the overall Architecture Project of the Year prize for The Storefront Theater in Nebraska, USA. Mazzotta, a founding member of Culturunners which has a connection with the Middle East, won with an unassuming project which brought community life back to an abandoned Main Street in a rural town in Nebraska.

Culturunners is an independent body which mobilises international artists to tell stories and create art across physical and psychological borders; their first major project was a multi-year artists’ road-trip between the United States and the Middle East.

“This poetic and powerful project has generated the most interesting conversation and has got us the most excited,” said the Dezeen Awards architecture master jury. “Architecture is for the community and this is the project that serves the community the most”.

The Storefront Theater provides the town of Lyons, Nebraska, with a unique open-air event space, which can be hidden away and disguised as part of the streetscape when not in use.

Since the venue was installed, it has hosted events including movie screenings, video-game nights and music concerts, all programmed by the local community.

Mazzotta, an artist who travels around the world to work with local communities, was invited to Nebraska by the Department of Rural Affairs to work on a site-specific artwork in collaboration with the locals. The result was the 100-seat theatre, which flips down from a modest abandoned freestanding storefront in the small town.

Hydraulic cylinders on either side push down the awning and false frontage over the sidewalk, revealing stepped seats. A screen can be wheeled in front by a tractor, then driven away again when necessary.

“During the process of making the theatre, many community members revealed fond memories of a once-thriving downtown and expressed a strong desire to see downtown become the centre of community life once again”, Mazzotta said. Locals donated money and volunteered their time to help to construct the theatre.

The aim of project, at the intersection of community and sustainability in the built environment, is to help bring life back to downtown Lyons. With a population of 851, and like many other small towns in the US, its main street has suffered decline in recent years.

“What happened in Lyons, Nebraska, has happened to communities throughout the world”, Mazzotta said, “Small Town Main Street has suffered as goods, services, entertainment — and the jobs that go with them — move away.

“Buildings that once housed bowling alleys, barber shops, theatres and restaurants, also can no longer compete and have closed their doors. As a result, the social bonds and everyday experiences that these spaces once provided have virtually disappeared”.

The Dezeen judges concluded that “the Storefront Theater addresses the challenges and opportunities of the changing small town high street in a joyful, witty and communal way. Whilst in itself it’s a small architecture gesture, it changes the character of the whole high street in a meaningful way. It proves that even a simple facade can be as impactful as a big and expensive architectural gesture”.

Mazzotta has close links with the Middle East, especially to the Arabian Gulf region. He worked on a community-specific art project in the historic Al-Balad district of Jeddah that investigated the impact of globalisation on it, previously the commercial hub of Jeddah.

Using a multifaceted approach, which included collaboration with local residents, workshops with students, local government and local crafts people, Mazzotta took the buildings and alleyways of the old city as the site for an artwork.

He led local students to allow each of them to develop their own socially engaged public art proposal. Of his project, Mazzotta said: “I am an artist that works with communities around the world. I am always coming in as an outsider, so I start by making spaces for listening – in this case in the community who live in the old town of Jeddah.

“The basic premise behind this type of work is that the solution is already there; the artist just helps illuminates that path. I am most interested in working with communities that don’t have the resources to develop an art project that speaks about their situation”.

The project was part of an initiative by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, which seeks to facilitate authentic cultural exchange between the United States and Saudi Arabia through immersive and collaborative projects. It was produced in collaboration with Culturunners.

Dezeen is an online architecture, interiors and design and magazine based in London. Dezeen Awards, hosted by Dezeen, are designed to identify the world’s best architecture, interiors and design, as well as the studios and individual architects and designers producing the most outstanding work.

The Dezeen Award Architecture master jury included Mexican architect Michel Rojkind, Assemble co-founder Paloma Strelitz, Design Haus Liberty founder Dara Huang and architect Jurgen Hermann Mayer.

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