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05.30.2014
The Alley Revisited
Studio RED renovates Houston's Ulrich Franzen landmark.
The brutalist theater is one of the finest of its era.
Ezra Stoller / Esto

The Ulrich Franzen–designed 1968 Alley Theatre in Houston is among the great performance spaces of its era, standing beside such fine company as Eero Saarinen’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center in New York City, Harry Weese’s Arena Stage in Washington D.C., and Welton Becket’s Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. It is also the only one of these landmarks that has not undergone a major renovation to bring it up to contemporary standards—until now. Local firm Studio RED Architects is currently preparing to overhaul the Brutalist, poured-in-place concrete structure. The plan involves a redesign of the lobby and main theater, the addition of a fly loft and below-stage trap system, and an upgrade of the building’s mechanicals.

 
The new fly loft will be clad in zinc panels designed to match the building’s concrete shell.
Courtesy Studio RED
 

The most significant aspect of the project is the redesign of the 824-seat Hubbard Stage, the larger of the Alley’s two theaters (the smaller, the 310-seat Neuhaus Stage, was refurbished following its inundation during tropical storm Allison in 2001, which included the addition of flood gates to the building’s “mouse hole” drive-through). To get inspiration, the architects and the theater’s managing director, Dean Gladden, visited the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. “That meant we wanted to build a stage that had a fly loft, but also a deep thrust into a typical Greek amphitheater seating diagram,” said Pete Ed Garrett, partner-in-charge of the project at Studio RED. “Vivian Beaumont has a full stage, full trap rooms, so there’s complete 3D flexibility.”

   
 

Studio RED’s design also rearranges the seating diagram. “The existing theater had a really steep seating rake,” said Garrett. “Everybody from the 5th row to the last row was looking down hill. They weren’t seeing the facial expressions of the actors. They were seeing the tops of their foreheads.” The architects are demolishing the existing stage, building the new one five feet higher, and inserting a new seating bowl on top of the existing one to flatten the sightlines. Those changes, in addition to the removal of some cubic footage to improve acoustics, and added wheel chair accessibility, will reduce the number of seats to 777.

The only sign of the renovation on the exterior, besides a planned cleaning of the smog-blackened concrete, is the 45-foot-high fly loft, which rises above the building’s castle-like turrets. This steel framed structure is being clad in a zinc panel that mimics the existing building’s coloration. The long faces of the rectangular volume also bow out, mimicking the curved profiles of Franzen’s design. While not an exact replica of the existing building’s materiality and form, the gesture does recognize its status as a local monument. “The building is not on the historical record, but it is a landmark,” said Garrett. “If you keep a building 40 years in Houston it’s historical. I’ve torn down buildings that were some of my first projects.”

Aaron Seward