What Makes a Building an Icon?

What makes a building an icon? One characteristic is distinct contrast with its context, in form and/or exterior material, that draws attention to the building and away from its surroundings. Iu + Bibliowicz Architects’ Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City is iconic by virtue of its the six-story articulated glass-clad rehearsal spaces that turn the corner of 55th Street and Eighth Avenue. It stands in stark contrast to the red brick buildings that comprise that Midtown Manhattan neighborhood. Another way a building can be considered an icon is through an exceptional reconsideration of program and internal organization. Gould Evans’ design for the Stevie Eller Dance Theatre in Tucson can be called iconic because of how it capitalizes on an interpretation of George Ballanchine’s work to guide the building’s structure, form, and cladding into a unique collaboration.

Within Houston’s Theater District reside a set of iconic buildings—the Alley Theater (Ulrich Franzen, 1968), Bayou Place (a 1997 adaptation of the Albert Thomas Convention Center), the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts (Robert A.M. Stern, 2002), Jones Hall (Caudill Rowlett Scott, 1966), and the Wortham Theater Center (Morris Architects, 1981). Each stands out from the downtown office-building environment through scale, cladding, and/or form.

The Houston Ballet Center for Dance, an important new addition to the Theater District, is iconic in that it represents the city’s internationally renown dance company. Its location at the northwest edge of downtown is significant because the 115,000-sf facility serves as a gateway to the Theater District from Interstate 45 South and Interstate 10. The site also affords immediate adjacency to the Wortham Theater, the performance venue for the Houston Ballet. Performers have direct access to its back-stage spaces via a sky bridge from the new Center for Dance.
Although the Center for Dance’s large framed windows present views into its stacked studio blocks, the articulation of multiple forms does not address the scale of the Wortham Theater’s broad, blank, brick-clad southeast facade. Nor does it suggest – except for the sinuous metal bridge tether ¬– that the Center building is related. In fact, the choice of curtainwall and black granite panels suggests that it is a close relative to the downtown commercial context in which it resides rather the district in which it belongs.

The building design responds to the Center for Dance’s multi-layer program, which includes two organizational components of the Houston Ballet Foundation, its professional company and the academy where its dancers are trained. Three of the eight rehearsal spaces are dedicated for use by the professional company. The other five rehearsal spaces are used by the Ben Stevenson Academy (formerly known as the Houston Ballet Academy), including the 200-seat Dance Lab where recitals and performances take place.

The Houston Ballet Foundation was created in 1955 to establish a resident ballet company and school that would train its dancers. Houston Ballet Academy, now Ben Stevenson Academy, was made operational that same year with the founding of the professional company in 1969. The Houston Ballet is now the fourth largest ballet company in America, featuring 54 dancers who have received international recognition. In 2011, the Ben Stevenson Academy moved its new Center for Dance, a 115,000 square foot building located in Houston’s downtown Theater District. The building is a state of the art facility that has drawn important talent internationally to participate in the Academy and Professional Company of dancers. It is an important building in the Theater District and an iconic representative for Houston’s world-renown ballet company.

Support spaces for the professional company and academy are extensive. There are several dressing rooms, both large and small, and a training center where dancers have access to exercise equipment and rooms for massage and physical therapy. Other areas include storage for costumes, a secure room for dancers’ shoes (representing an annual investment of $250,000), a dye room, sewing area, and fitting rooms. The program includes staff office space for both the professional company and the academy, and living quarters for 16 student dancers. A large public space on the first floor accommodates ceremonial events and also serves as a lobby for attendees of public performances in the Dance Lab.

Two concepts guide the design of the building’s interior and exterior architectural characteristics. The first concept leverages the building’s location to expand awareness of the Houston Ballet by displaying dance as it is rehearsed. Large windows into the studios face north toward Interstate 10 and the I-45 exit to Smith Street, promoting the local performing arts institution to all who pass by the building.

The second concept is the arrangement of the building’s three types of programmed space – studio, office, and support – along a central circulation spine. This organization facilitates the designer’s concept of creating space for and encouraging interaction among the academy students, professional company dancers, staff, and at the first floor, the public. And, at the same time, it reinforces the Center for Dance’s community focus on dance. The circulation spine itself consists of two elements: an open monumental stair that links floors two through six; and horizontal, gallery-like spaces that connect the single-story support and office floors to the double-height dance studios.

Functionally, the Center for Dance is a private venue for learning, rehearsal, and preparation. This facility provides a supporting role to the public performances of the Houston Ballet in the Wortham Theater across the street to the southwest. As such, the design of the building could have taken this position and resulted in a more ordinary, supporting architectural structure. However, the two concepts envisioned by the architect and owner placed the design approach in a more visible role. Intended as an iconic representation of the Houston Ballet’s presence and importance to the community, the design seeks loftier goals.

For the students, professionals, and staff, the programmatic concept and its organization make the building unique in its use, spatial relationships, and connection to its surrounding community at the edge of downtown. Internal galleries connect rehearsal studios, support spaces, and office floors; not only providing efficient functionality, but also creating an atmosphere that communicates and promotes the power and beauty of dance. Eschewing the typical corridor/studio relationship, as in the Alvin Ailey building, the openness of these spaces is enhanced by the large, proscenium-style framed, glazed openings into each of the studios. This provides the ability to view the rehearsals from floor level and then from an above balcony level. Reinforcing this sense of community is a fifth-floor gathering area that is equipped for food and coffee concession, tables, and casual seating. The layered internal glass and external glass curtainwall of the studios work together to position the dancers between the internal communal spaces of the galleries and the viewed spaces of downtown, the Theater District, Sesquicentennial Park, and Buffalo Bayou. This internal transparency further enhances the connection of the Center for Dance to the city. The building’s iconic qualities are best understood from inside, where internal activities – of dancers, students, and staff – are performed against a framed backdrop of the city.

Here’s a thought: Since the Center for Dance occupies a half block, the adjoining site is up for grabs. The architect for that future project – whomever it will be – might benefit from learning a few ballet steps.

Geoffrey Brune, FAIA, practices architecture in Houston. This article is featured in the 2011 Nov/Dec issue of Texas Architect magazine.