A Theater Transformed

Oct. 1, 2007
Buildings Interiors® Citation of Excellence: University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, Houston, TX

Well-defined pathways and a new front lobby draw students and visitors toward the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, the new hub of performing and visual arts on the University of Houston campus.

The 1977 Lyndall Finley Wortham Theatre, home of the dramatic arts at the University of Houston, was recently transfigured into the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, which is an alliance among the five arts units within the University of Houston's College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences: the Schools of Art and Theatre, Blaffer Gallery, the Art Museum, the Creative Writing Program, and the Moores School of Music.

The theater is located in an attractive spot near the university's busiest entrance. The building, like many of its neighbors, was built in brick modernist style, defined by simple, geometrical volumes. Unfortunately, the building lacked a strong entry element. Because it was also obscured by an oak grove, it seemed isolated in its location.

To strengthen the building's presence, Lake/Flato Architects Inc. added 11,800 square feet of entrance, rehearsal, and office space, all while preserving the pure geometry of the original building. Along with a visually appealing entrance, a new box office and alternate lobby for ticket buyers were constructed adjacent to the theater's main lobby. The box-office lobby's vaulted ceiling made room for the installation of an evening light show that is visible to the outside through large, colored window panes located above the entrance. The spacious lobby of the theater was also stylishly renovated.

The second floor of the addition includes an administrative suite that includes a director's office, an ad­­ministrative assistant's office, a conference room, and a reception area. There are also two large rehearsal classrooms that overlook the park. Frosted floor-to-ceiling windows in both the rehearsal spaces and the office suite allow passersby to catch a glimpse of performances being rehearsed or business being conducted inside.

The architects also connected the building with the surrounding park. The roadway was "lifted up" by pavers placed over the existing roadbed, and the same material was used in the forecourt of the new building. The extension of material from the theater's forecourt into the park defies the boundary between the two and makes them seem like part of the same element. It also marks a physical path that encourages traffic flow near the building.

The Fine Arts quadrangle is now animated by the dynamic glimpses of activity seen through the large windows of the rehearsal spaces. The new addition has preserved the geometric integrity of the building while bold architectural forms visually integrate the School of Theatre with its Center for the Arts neighbors. As a result of the addition, this formerly underutilized facet of the campus has realized its potential.

Judges' Comments

"The design team has presented a well-thought-out solution to a difficult problem. The campus is now much better informed of the contents and activities of this area, which allows for much greater interaction for the student body and the general public. Materials, colors, [and] furnishings are all placed together with crisp precision; nothing is overdone. The finesse of the detailing clearly fits."

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