Built in 1854, the Piccinni Theater (formally known by its Italian name Il Teatro Comunale Niccolò Piccinni) is the oldest artistic venue in the theater-rich Italian city of Bari.
Constructed of wood and stone, the Piccinni featured an elegantly decorated, horseshoe-shaped performance area with a gallery and four tiers of boxes seating 800. With the passing of time, however, the municipal structure proved to be too small to meet all of Bari’s entertainment needs, so the larger Petruzzelli Theater was constructed between 1898 and 1903 to provide more space for the city’s performing arts.
On the night of Oct. 26, 1991, the Petruzzelli was destroyed by an arsonist’s blaze and the Piccinni once again became the main venue for Bari’s operatic and theatrical communities—a role that the older theater would carry out until 2009 when the rebuilt Petruzzelli was opened. During this period, the Piccinni Theater underwent its own program of restoration and upgrading, and that is when the expertise of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was called in.
Working as a team in 2002 and 2003, fire engineers from NIST and architectural/urban planning specialists from the Polytechnic University of Bari (PUB) chose a novel approach to bring the 150-year-old theater in line with current Italian fire resilience and safety standards without sacrificing the building’s historical appearance and function. Instead of following a prescriptive process where only specific (“prescribed”) methods and materials may be used to meet codes, the NIST and PUB experts opted for a performance-based plan. In this more flexible process, a building is brought up to code by choosing the most appropriate designs and technologies to achieve a desired performance while blending as seamlessly as possible with the existing environment.
The project began with a comprehensive “physical exam” of the theater’s structural and decorative features using endoscopes, sonic and acoustical analyses, and other nondestructive assessment techniques. Computer models were created to study and understand the structural behavior of different building sections such as the roof trusses (supports). Wood samples, colors, finishings and other decorative elements were scrutinized, even microscopically, to ensure that they would be maintained, restored or replaced to their original state.
Once the character of the entire theater was scientifically captured, the NIST/PUB team developed and implemented a plan for modernizing the Piccinni for fire resilience and safety while keeping it firmly anchored in its historical roots. Visitors see the Piccinni as it appeared in 1854, but behind the scenes, there are now sprinklers and a gaseous fire suppression system, steel reinforcing bars and fire-resistant materials added to the wooden infrastructure, additional fire exits, smoke detectors and a computer-controlled building environment (including lighting, airflow, temperature and security systems).
Avanti con lo spettacolo! (“On with the show!”)
– Michael E. Newman