October 11–December 16, 2000


The first major exhibition to focus on architect Joseph Urban's designs for theater and opera will open October 11, 2000, at Columbia University's Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery. Architect of Dreams: The Theatrical Vision of Joseph Urban will include approximately 120 watercolors, set models, drawings, book illustrations, and architectural drawings, in particular stage designs for the Metropolitan Opera and the Ziegfeld Follies created between 1915 and 1931.

One of the principal artists responsible for new stagecraft in this country, Urban (1872-1933) has formerly been overlooked in favor of such contemporaries as Robert Edmund Jones. Urban advanced American stage design through the introduction of the latest European developments, as well as his own experiments with lighting and painterly effects, which often paralleled developments in modernist literature, painting, and dance. He straddled the worlds of architecture and theatre, and his ability to integrate them is evident in his work—his buildings are theatrical while an architectural sensibility infuses his theatrical designs.

The exhibition is drawn from the archive of Joseph Urban materials at Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which is the repository for the largest collection of Urban's work. Many of the works included will be on public view for the first time, including ten recently restored stage models.

Born in Vienna at a time of great artistic ferment, Joseph Urban trained as an architect and was influenced by the artists of the Secession (Gustav Klimt, Josef Olbrich, Josef Hoffmann) as well as by the architect Adolf Loos. Later, he was associated with the Wiener Werkstiite. Urban was a central figure in the cultural life of Vienna for more than a decade before immigrating to the United States in l9I2 to become the art director of the Boston Opera. In 1914 he moved to New York, where for the next two decades his studio was a major theatrical presence, designing productions especially for the Ziegfeld Follies and the Metropolitan Opera. By the time of his death in 1933, he had designed well over 500 stage sets for more than 168 productions, many of which he also directed.

Throughout his life, Urban worked in diverse fields, from the design of residential and commercial buildings (including New York's New School for Social Research) to book illustration (including Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tales) and set and costume design.

Famous for his color—and identified with his signature "Urban blue"—he was placed in charge of color choice for the 1939 Chicago World's Fair. He designed movie sets for William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan Productions. It was precisely this eclecticism that made Urban difficult to pigeonhole and adversely affected his historical standing, according to exhibition curator Arnold Aronson, professor of Theatre Arts in Columbia's School of the Arts. "Despite Urban's acknowledged importance and influence, he has remained surprisingly underrated," said Aronson.

"At the time Urban came on the scene, set design was very cluttered. He simplified, stripped away excess and introduced color in a way it had never been used before. He didn't give in to various artistic styles—and couldn't let go of beauty and decoration. He was a little out of step with the modem movement."

Aronson points out that Urban was constantly borrowing. "In his design for the Bedell department store on 34th Street, he used elements from his 1928 design for Max Reinhardt's; the interior of department store became a theatrical space." This careful borrowing anticipated postmodernism, says Aronson. "He was an overlooked predecessor for what's going on today in architecture. Contemporary designers do a lot of things-from building to furniture design."

"Urban was one of the primary influences in American stage design, yet his contributions have been overlooked, maybe because he never bothered writing any theoretical work (like Edward Gordon Craig, Robert Edmond Jones, Lee Simonson)."

Aronson, a former chair of the Theatre Arts Division at Columbia University's School of the Arts, where he currently teaches, has published extensively on theater design. He is the associate editor of Theatre Journal and a contributing editor of Theatre Design and Technology. He is the author of American Set Design (Theatre Communications Group, 1985), The History and Theory of Environmental Scenography (U.M.I. Research Press, 1981; 1988) and the forthcoming American Avant-Garde Theatre to be published by Routledge this fall.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Wallach Art Gallery will publish a 94-page Catalogue that contributes substantially to the scholarship on Joseph Urban, which to date has focused on his architectural career. An essay by Aronson focuses on Urban and the theater; Urban's architecture is the subject of an essay by Derek E. Ostergard, the associate director of the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts; and Matthew Wilson Smith, a Ph.D. candidate in film at Columbia, has contributed an article on Urban's work in film. More than 100 reproductions, half in color, will illustrate the publication.

A panel discussion with Joseph Urban scholars and theatre professionals will take place Monday, October 30, 2000, at 6 p.m., in Schermerhorn Hall on the Columbia University campus. It is open to the public free of charge. Participants will include Mark Anderson, Professor of Germanic Languages at Columbia University; Mary Beth Betts, an architectural historian who is an authority on Urban; John Conklin, a set designer whose work includes productions for the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera, and the Boston Ballet; and Markus Kristan, a curator at the Albertina in Vienna.

The exhibition, the catalogue, and the symposium have made possible, in part, with the generous support of the Austrian Cultural Institute, New York; Dr. Lee MacCormick Edwards; and the Central National Gottesman Foundation.


Past Exhibition

Architect of Dreams - Exhibition Catalogue Cover

Architect of Dreams: The Theatrical Vision of Joseph Urban

Previous research on Joseph Urban (1872–1933) has focused on his architectural career; yet after moving from Vienna to the U.S. in 1912, he devoted much of his energies to the stage, especially productions for the Metropolitan Opera and the Ziegfeld Follies.

Architect of Dreams | Exhibition Catalogue
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