Houston’s Alley Theatre is a masterpiece. Any renovation of it, no matter how greatly needed, is sure to stir up some controversy. The 1968 building put its architect, Ulrich Franzen, squarely on the map and was much lauded for its faceted, curving Brutalist-inspired design. However, as the years passed and Brutalism fell out of vogue, the building fell out of favor. Early renderings released by the renovation architect, Houston-based Studio RED, went too far, triggering cries of “Preservation!” rarely heard in Houston. As a result, most of the initially proposed alterations were scuttled in favor of a more subtle renovation that respects the original design while improving its performance.
The most noticeable exterior change is the addition of a fly loft along Smith Street on the west face. According to Studio RED project architect Jared Wood, AIA, they clad it in curved metal panels as a contrast in deference to the existing concrete. Nearly 40 ft in height, the fly loft is easily overlooked, as it is set against the 18-story parking structure to the north, which was designed by Studio RED partner Pete Ed Garrett, AIA, in the 1980s while he was with Morris Aubry Architects. Fully mechanized and isolated for sound, the Alley is the only resident theater in the nation to boast such a feature.
Less sensitive, but far less noticeable, is the expanded glazing for upper-story meeting rooms. Though necessary for opening parties and fundraisers, these undermine the rhythm between interior and exterior endemic to the original design. Similarly, the enclosure of balconies facing north, now shadowed by the garage, provides needed green room space for entertaining and a sorely needed catering kitchen on the uppermost level. These latter balcony spaces lost their original allure long ago due to surrounding development.
The lobby interior feels surprisingly unchanged. Concrete still buttresses the ticket booths; the textured plaster of the walls looks the same; and the original storefront was left in the entry. Moving up the red-carpeted stairs, the spiraling tiers continue to imbue the space with the drama of the theater. The transformation of provisional office space into a bar and lounge unifies the lobby.
Inside the theater, newly outfitted with light and sound locks, the stage becomes the focus. Seating has been reconfigured on a tighter radius to provide a greater thrust: The audience surrounds the stage, nearly parallel with the proscenium. The farthest seat is now 22 feet closer to the stage. The stage was lifted 5 ft to decrease the rake and the catwalks demolished to make way for the fly loft. Original concrete bunkers that served to “break the fourth wall” had been removed a few years prior to make additional seating. In their place, Studio RED introduced two new vomitoriums for the actors that connect to an added trap space below.
Ten Eyck Swackhamer, the Alley Theatre’s general manager, contends that this renovation was primarily about eliminating obstructions. The scalloped ceiling was replaced with a nondescript arc of services blanketed with acoustic treatment. Striking acoustic changes enable a range of volume in actors’ voices that was previously inaudible. These modifications, in conjunction with such added back-of-house spaces as recording booths, rehearsal space, and connections between prop construction and stage, allow the company to broaden its potential.
Swackhamer says the best part of working with Studio RED was their level of communication with stakeholders. He taped out dressing room dimensions, having actors stay within the allotted spaces for 30 minutes, then had their notes incorporated into the design. Early schemes for wood ceilings, terrazzo flooring in the lobby, and reconfiguration of ticket booths were dismissed as contrary to the iconic nature of the original. The result is a building that builds upon the past and honors the evolving needs of the company.
Jesse Hager, AIA, is an architect in Houston.