To tell a story, three elements are crucial: setting, plot, and characters. To tell a story well, these three essentials require refinement and time to reveal them. The setting—Houston—provides the context, and the plot—how to design and build a new theater in Midtown—is compelling. The characters—a vibrant mix—complete the challenge that’s been thrown to Lake|Flato Architects and Studio RED.
Located off Main Street at the Ensemble/HCC MetroRail stop, the site was formerly a chain-linked parking lot for the city permit building. After years of planning and fundraising with a strong arts board and consultant and philanthropic pledges, the Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston (MATCH) came to life as a nimble metal-skinned building with glass-box theaters bisected by a double-height breezeway.
The $25 million community arts complex provides a central home base in Midtown for a spectrum of leading and emerging arts and culture organizations. The 59,000-square-foot facility consists of four dedicated theater spaces, rehearsal classroom spaces, and several gallery spaces, along with back-of-house support and office space.
Ryan Jones, an associate partner at Lake|Flato, knew that the building’s breezeway, with its grandstand and functional connective artery, was key, but it took some convincing that a two-story open-air “street” for media projections would thrive given the heat and humidity that swallow most days in Houston. The solution was to install six Big Ass Fans, which keep outdoor public spaces comfortable by exhausting hot air through the chimney effect.
The building’s agile presence does not overtake its program. For this new Midtown theater and arts center, the soul of the building is internalized, and life illuminates from within the breezeway, theaters, rehearsal spaces, and control booths. The building remains in the background, allowing the exuberance of theater life and the visual arts to stand in the limelight. Its skin and structure have a subdued, protective strength amid the bustle and frenzied transactions of Travis Street traffic that includes Main Street light-rail interruptions, bus stops, church, college, and urban passersby, daily logistics, ticket sales, and cafe pauses. For Lake|Flato and Studio RED, the decision to invite the street into the building is best exemplified by their addition of graffiti art by GONZO2047 where patrons’ names are tagged on the bathroom walls to merge high art and street culture.
Houston, as described by Barrie Scardino, Bill Stern, and Bruce Webb in their book Ephemeral City, was “built around characteristic features of modern life such as rapid change, built-in obsolescence, indeterminacy, media orientation, a culture of style, and instant gratification.” It is indeed an ephemeral city, hard to pin down and understand at large, but perhaps easier to encapsulate in one permeable space.