Thursday, June 4, 2009

Idea: Sundial Ampitheater

The idea for this came to me as I tried to fall asleep one night. The overall idea is for the stage itself to form the gnomon of a sundial. Having been in theater myself, and having attended outdoor theater, it seemed like three things were always lacking: good acoustics, a sense of separation from the rest of the world, and (as an actor) relief from the heat. The gnomon stage provides a naturally acoustic shape as well as shade for the actors, while the ampitheatre's layout and setting provide the separation from the rest of the otherwise busy world. It need not be limited to theater troupes, however. A band could hold a concert, a religious group could hold a service, or an organization could hold a meeting. In Boy Scouts, some of our most effective ceremonial areas, such as the one for tapping out in Order of the Arrow, occurred in ampitheaters. There is just something wonderous and mystical in such a practical shape. But why not give it other uses? Turning the covering of the stage into the gnomon of a sundial gives it a secondary purpose. For one, it shades the crowd as well, assuming the gathering happened in daylight hours. The very shape of an ampitheater lends itself quite well to a sundial. Performance and meeting times could be easily gauged by the shadow falling across the archway, affording the audience that extra time to arrive when needed, or the leeway to begin early if everyone is there. No one would need a watch or clock to tell them the performance is about to begin, because the shadow would point to the appropriate time. This adds an element of fun and mystic anticipation to the event.

A rear door provides entry and exit for the actors, as well as a loading area for equipment, props, etc. The stage itself is raised off the ground to help keep debris from getting on the stage. Presumably the back part of the stage, facing the back door, would also have an electrical outlet capable of plugging in speakers, amps, lights, or whatever electrical items were needed for the performers. Though obviously these rough sketches are far from exact, they are a good approximation of the intent. The head of the person sitting the third row up should be roughly equal to the head of the actor on stage. The upper and lower two diases should each have a clear view of the actors. The actors themselves should be shaded, providing even light as well as protection from the heat. The audience is merely sitting, but the actors are having to move about, often in heavy costume. Each dias of seating also gives plenty of legroom for people to pass by one another. The interior of the stage should be tall enough at all points to allow someone to stand. Further, the inward sloped, triangular shape of the stage will give it the illusion of being more grand than otherwise. The shape itself will convey the acoustic sound. No additional panels need be hung, nor should they. As an outdoor stage, we don't want to provide birds and pests a nesting place where their sudden flight or droppings from the ceiling might interrupt a performance.

At the very top dias, after the seated members, will be benches against a wall. Between each bench will be an archway, over each of which will be a hollow in the shape of a Roman numeral going all the way through the wall. During the day this will provide a contrast of light that makes seeing the numerals easy from the shady side of the wall, or a contrast of dark that makes it easy to see from the sunny side of the wall. At night, candles could easily be set into the hollows to provide illumination for the numbers. Obviously at night the practical purpose of the sundial will be a moot point, but the numerals themselves can still serve the purpose of allowing people to more easily find their seat. During the daytime, the shadow of the gnomon stage will point each hour out at the archways. This gives both the audience and performers a visual--and forgiving--cue as to when to begin, provided the event begins in daylight hours.

The timing and seat-finding, and acoustic considerations aside, another practical application of the gnomon stage is to provide shade to at least part of the audience during the event. Overall the idea for the Sundial Ampitheater is to combine beauty and practicality with spartan efficiency of design to provide a public meeting place that is at once comfortable and interesting. Even in the absence of an event, in such a place as a city park it could provide a play area for children, a rest area for adults, and in a pinch, respite from sudden rainfall. The design itself is incredibly simple, and should require a minimal cost to erect. One could create each audience dias out of simple landscaping timbers if cost were too great of a concern. The wall and arches could always be forgone in favor of simple wooden benches with numerals carved into them, and even the gnomon itself could be made of wood if need be. The design is such that one could spend as much, or as little, as was needed to fit the budget, while still providing a great public service.


  1. I am also an architecture student (in Louisiana). I am interested in using a sundial in a design we are doing for a park pavilion. How did you figure out what angle the gnomon needed to be in order to be acurate?

  2. Honestly, I haven't gone that far into the math on this yet. This was one of those concepts I had that are in my "someday" book, and is still entirely in concept mode. However, I'm pretty sure the gnomon's angle and orientation will depend on your specific location. The best thing I can suggest is perhaps to try and create a small-scale sundial, and adjust the gnomon on it over the course of time until you find out exactly what compass orientation it needs to be, and what angle will produce the best quality shadow for the hours. I think the angle of the gnomon will probably be within a couple degrees of the standard, the big factor will be how exactly you align it. And the season. I would recommend do the measurements for the miniature sundial at the height of the "outside" season, as it will be most accurate during its highest usage. As the seasons change, the accuracy will decrease. So Winter will be furthest accuracy off from Summer, and Spring furthest off accuracy from Fall, etc. Again though, this is all still theory and concept. I haven't yet designed the specifics.

    If y'all do create a pavilion like this, I'd love to see the results!

  3. See, the easier way to get a paper sundial in seconds.


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