Ulrich Franzen, Architect of the Alley Theatre, Dies at 91

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17 Oct 2012

Ulrich Franzen, the German-born architect who designed Houston's Alley Theatre—the first permanent home to one of the nation's first major regional theatres—died on Oct. 6 in Santa Fe, NM, at age 91.



Mr. Franzen graduated from the Harvard School of Design. In 1964, he was tapped by the Alley's board of directors to build their new theatre. The Alley had been running for 16 years at that point, under the guidance of founder Nina Vance. In 1962, the Houston Endowment had given the company land worth $800,000 and grants totaling $2.5 million from the Ford Foundation for a new building at 615 Texas Avenue. To this, the theatre added more than $900,000 in donations from Houstonians.

The theatre was designed in the "Brutalist" style, which was popular from the 1950s to the mid-70s, and frequently involved the use of raw concrete as a building material. Mr. Franzen said he wanted to create "a building that sings from any viewpoint." The resultant building was a kind of rough-hewn, turreted, gray castle that dominates its corner of downtown Houston.

Franzen told the Houston Chronicle at the time, "The towers act visually as pivots but are, in fact, the required fire stairs as well as the housing for much of the mechanical equipment." He described the building as "ancient as stone and as modern as Houston." The structure contained two theatres, a small, square arena-style space and a larger fan-shaped auditorium.

The construction of the new theatre was covered by the national press. When the Alley opened, Newsweek called it “the most striking theatre in the U.S. … another step along the road toward ending Broadway’s domination of the American theatre." But the building had its detractors as well, who called it cold and fortress-like. Even today, opinions are split as to whether it is one of the ugliest or most daring buildings in the city.

Ulrich Franzen was born in Dusseldorf. His family emigrated to the United States in 1936. He lived with his mother and a younger brother once his parents divorced. He took an undergraduate degree at Williams College and after one semester at the architectural school at Harvard, enlisted in the Army. He completed a master's degree at Harvard, where he was heavily influenced by Bauhaus design, after World War II. In 1951, he began working under architect I.M. Pei. He formed his own firm, Ulrich Franzen & Associates, in 1955. The Alley Theatre was his first notable undertaking. Other major works included two 17-story concrete and glass towers for Hunter College, in New York City.

He is survived by his wife, Josephine, two sons, Peter and David, a daughter, April, and three grandchildren.