The Alys Robinson Stephens Performing Arts Center is a new structure built adjacent to the 1960s music building at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. The PAC complements the existing facilities by focusing on performance halls. It includes the 1300-seat Jemison Concert Hall, a 450-seat proscenium theater, a black box theater, and a 100-seat recital hall, all served by one monumental lobby.

The original budget for the project did not allow the users’ full program to be recognized. Rather than paring the program to the point of failure, the program was reduced somewhat and the available money was spent building the shell of the desired building. As subsequent funding became available, the performing spaces and lobby were gradually designed and fitted out. Although there were inevitable compromises inherent in this process, in the end UAB gained a more diverse and higher quality building than initially seemed possible. The success of the concert hall, the first space to open, helped secure funding for the remaining spaces.

To accommodate the huge range of audience sizes expected for the concert hall, the main floor was kept relatively small, with nearly half the seats in the large balcony. Side boxes, side galleries, and a low balcony front further emphasize the sense of intimacy in the room. The stage is sized for full orchestra but narrows towards the back; a choral terrace accommodates choruses or audience members who want a close look at the orchestra.

Walls are slightly bowed, painted split-face block with gypsum-board pilasters that serve as pockets for acoustic curtains. A plaster collar in the room defines a lower ceiling plane than the actual acoustic ceiling. The room has a wonderful character of sound – warm and clear.

The Alys Robinson Stephens Center is a tribute to creativity, but not just in the way you might expect. When UAB set out to build a performing arts center to serve its arts program and present visiting artists, the initial budget was not sufficient to achieve their ambitious goals for the size and quality of the project. The design response was to design a large building that met the client’s full program, build the shell of the full building, and gradually fit out the spaces inside, starting with the 1,330 seat concert hall and its lobby. The success of the concert hall helped UAB to raise the money to fit out the 450-seat proscenium theater, the 125-seat recital hall, the black box theater, and at long last the academic office spaces. The concert hall is a modern variation of a classical shoebox hall. A single balcony sweeps down low over the aisle at the back of the main floor, maintaining a reach-out-and-touch sense of connection from balcony to stage despite the size of the hall. Side tiers step down from the balcony to a choral terrace wrapped around the stage. Painted split-face cmu walls helped to keep the room affordable and the sound warm. A coffered ceiling gives acoustic access to a painted-out volume in the catwalk zone, extending the reverberant volume of the room at minimal expense. The smaller spaces are straightforward and effective in their acoustic design. As the Stephens Center approaches its third decade, it remains loved and respected as one of the great performance venues in the Southeast.
Project Details
Audiovisual Systems Design
Mechanical Noise Control
Room Acoustics Design
Davis Architects, Inc., Architect, Birmingham, AL (Building shell, fit-out of concert hall); K/P/S Group, Architect, Birmingham, AL (fit-out of theatres & recital hall)
Theatre Projects Consultants, Theatre Consultant, South Norwalk, CT
31,600 gsf
1,330-seat concert hall; 351-seat Morris K. Sirote Theatre (proscenium theatre); 125-seat recital hall; studio theatre