Theater Revival

January 10, 2020

From the January 2020 issue of
Landscape Architecture Magazine.

By Lydia Lee

Robert Royston’s 1967 Quarry Amphitheater Has Been Carefully Rebuilt in All Its Modernist Glory

Like the classical theaters of Greek and Roman antiquity, Quarry Amphitheater at the University of California, Santa Cruz is an open-air venue with tiered seating. But what would the Greeks and Romans have made of the irregular rows, with their off-kilter angles? Even to modern eyes, the amphitheater’s erratic form comes as a surprise. Designed by the noted California landscape architect Robert Royston, the 1967 Quarry Amphitheater is as much a work of environmental art as a theater. The amphitheater had been closed for more than a decade owing to disrepair and reopened in 2017 after an $8 million rehabilitation master-planned by the Office of Cheryl Barton (OCB). Among the guiding principles, according to the OCB plan, was to improve it “without compromising the intimate, immersive, spiritual, and ‘magic’ quality of the landscape experience and the quirky spirit of the historic amphitheater design.”

The amphitheater is contained within the seemingly wild and untrammeled 2,000-acre UC Santa Cruz campus, which was master-planned by the landscape architect Thomas Church and the architect John Warnecke in the mid-1960s. Buildings are nestled on slopes within towering redwood groves, and roads wind around ravines. To provide a large gathering space for commencement and other events (the campus has no stadium), Church earmarked an abandoned 1800s-era limestone quarry for an outdoor theater. In his rough sketch, the stage is set deep into the quarry, with seating for 4,000 in a long fan shape bordered by quarry walls. To design the theater, Church recommended Robert Royston, who got his start working for Church in the late 1930s.

An early aerial view, showing the craggy topography, and the original amphitheater in 1972. Courtesy University of California, Santa Cruz, Special Collections.

By the time Royston’s firm—which was Royston, Hanamoto, Mayes & Beck at the time—received this commission in 1966, he had created numerous notable parks, including one of his best-known works: Santa Clara’s Central Park, with a biomorphic lake and a playground with a 3-D maze of concrete cubes. Quarry Amphitheater would combine Royston’s expertise with public parks, an aesthetic strongly influenced by modern art, and growing environmental awareness. “When you look at the Royston portfolio, you see this shift from the 1950s’ art- and pattern-driven gardens to ones that pay more attention to the specifics and ecology of the place, like Quarry Amphitheater,” says JC Miller, ASLA, a coauthor of the first biography of Royston, which is forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press.

To highlight the rugged rock formations of the old quarry, Royston made a critical 90-degree shift in the orientation of the amphitheater from Church’s initial sketch. The craggy, 100-foot-high quarry wall became the backdrop, with a nine-foot-high boulder defining stage right. Royston further accentuated the jagged rock faces by designing a raised stage and seven tiers of seating with distinctively asymmetric lines instead of curves and bringing in materials that kept the space as naturalistic as possible. He created 13 rows with seat walls, low retaining walls made out of railroad ties of differing lengths and joined at differing angles. Paved with decomposed granite, no two adjacent rows were parallel, and an individual row might vary from five feet wide to 15 feet wide—for both aesthetic and practical reasons. “Bob wanted to keep the feel of the quarry itself in the design and thought rows of different widths would create some big areas and small areas, so you could ad-lib the seating and bring in tables and chairs,” says Harold Kobayashi, FASLA, a former president of Royston Hanamoto Alley & Abey. Kobayashi was a new staffer in 1966, supervising the quarry construction to ensure that the design intent was implemented correctly.

Sections and details from the 1967 plan. Drawings by Royston, Hanamoto, Mayes & Beck, 1967. Courtesy UCSC Physical Planning and Construction.

Royston’s vision did have its trade-offs. The stepped aisles didn’t line up between rows, so navigating between rows required a little concentration. Looking out from the stage, it was hard to know where dead center was given that the stage edge wasn’t square with anything. In the biggest departure from conventional theater design, the space was clearly not designed for maximum seating capacity. Royston’s seat walls had room for 1,665 people; with stadium-style seating, the same space could have accommodated 3,000, according to studies in the OCB plan. And the prominent boulder obstructed views from nearly 90 seats. When university members contemplated removing it, Royston insisted that the rock stay put as a critical component of the design. “He was carrying on the early 20th century tradition of designing outdoor theaters for enjoying the landscape, as well as enjoying the performance,” says Linda Jewell, FASLA, a University of California, Berkeley professor emeritus in environmental design, who is currently working on a book titled Gathering on the Ground: Experiencing Landscape in American Outdoor Theaters. With its casual seating and sublime natural elements, the amphitheater feels like a park when not in use, as opposed to an empty space, waiting for a performance to bring it to life.

After it opened, Quarry Amphitheater became the campus’s main event space, hosting notable speakers including Buckminster Fuller and Angela Davis. It was the site of a number of protest rallies and teach-ins, as well as a psychology class dubbed “Suntan Psych,” in which students would take advantage of the location to sunbathe in the nude. Church himself was quoted as saying, “Every time I see it, I think Bob is a genius.”

But the amphitheater’s rustic, low-budget construction—it was built for $82,600, or about $635,000 in today’s dollars—was also prone to failure. The redwood seat walls were anchored directly into the dirt with long, steel spikes, and water pooling around the spike holes and ponding in the seat tops promoted decay. The hillside at the back of the amphitheater had begun to erode and shed rocks, imperiling people below. By 2006, it was unsafe to use and the university stopped holding events there. It also had a few deficiencies that limited its practical use. The stage was essentially dirt, with only enough electrical power to run a basic sound system, and the access road was too steep for larger trucks, so equipment occasionally had to be brought in using handcarts.

The amphitheater was upgraded with Wi-Fi access, improved accessibility, and on-site stormwater management. Image courtesy Siegfried Engineering.

The amphitheater’s forlorn condition became a priority in 2013. The university hired a team led by OCB to provide a vision for the facility. Although project approval from the state historic preservation office (SHPO) was not required (UC campuses operate independently of SHPO), the consensus of the community was to retain the original design. “There was a huge emotional connection with the space at all age levels,” says Cheryl Barton, FASLA, the founding principal of OCB. “It was clear that so many people craved an intimate place to be quiet and contemplative.” The feasibility study outlined a two-phase plan. The first phase, now complete, was the rehabilitation and minor upgrade. A future expansion phase, estimated to cost $10.7 million, calls for new lobby and support buildings.

The university structured the rehabilitation as a design/build project, for which the contractor, Flint Builders, was responsible for delivering the proposed design for the stated price in the bid—an increasingly popular approach in the United States, particularly for educational facilities. “Whatever we designed needed to have a 50-year life, so the challenge was how to build something you know wouldn’t last that long, especially under the trees and in the fog,” says Robert Norbutas Jr., ASLA, a senior associate landscape architect at Siegfried Engineering. To compete for the project, Flint Builders teamed up with Siegfried Engineering, based in Stockton, California, and architectural firm Dreyfuss + Blackford from Sacramento, California.

The OCB plan recommended that replacement seat walls have wood tops and concrete bases, and the team’s winning submittal added new refinements for further longevity. The new benches have a base of board-formed concrete, stained to resemble weathered wood. The redwood seat clips onto the base via a custom bracket system, allowing the seat to be replaced without rebuilding the wall. And the bracket system has no bolts on top, which reduces the chance of wood rot.

To help re-create the tiers accurately, the team laser-scanned the site, creating an exact 3-D model of existing conditions. They removed the old railroad ties and excavated the rows to pour shallow concrete foundations before installing the new seat walls and rows paved in decomposed granite. An additional row of benches at the top level expands the seat wall capacity to 2,080 without disfiguring the original design (adding folding chairs allows another 600 to be seated). Rather than try to replicate the redwood-tie stairs, the team installed concrete stairs, stained beige to match the decomposed granite paths and also increase their visibility. “It was a very sensitive project, because it had to balance the need for functionality with preserving what Royston created—there were a lot of details to be worked out,” says Jason Silva, an architect and principal at Dreyfuss + Blackford.

An aerial view from 2018. Photo by Kyle Jeffers.

The most noticeable change is the addition of galvanized-steel handrails for the stepped aisles, required by code. Modules integrated into some of the slender handrails supply Wi-Fi service for 2,000 users. Wi-Fi, a particular request from the student body, encourages the use of the amphitheater as a casual hangout. On a sunny afternoon in early October, Jaswinder Singh is among a handful of students taking advantage of the quiet space as a study spot. “It’s really nice to be in nature, with trees all around,” he says. Wireless connectivity has also come in handy for events as well. During a recent talk for which no screen had been set up, attendees simply paged through the presentation slides on their phones.

Following the OCB plan, the team also worked to improve the accessibility, safety, and functionality of the venue. Previously, people in wheelchairs could effectively reach only the top level of the amphitheater, but a new path provides access to the stage level and lower tiers, and 22 accessible seats and associated companion seats are distributed throughout the tiers. The regraded road allows large trucks with stage equipment and emergency vehicles to get right up to the stage, which is equipped with the necessary switchgear to support professional lighting and audio. The decomposed-granite stage has been upgraded with a concrete slab, which contains a concealed trench for running feeder cable, along with engineered footings to hold a removable stage canopy. (In a blow against asymmetry, the footings are aligned to the true center of the house.) To manage all stormwater on site per university and state regulations, the team added naturalized bioinfiltration areas, including a bioswale tucked discreetly behind the giant boulder. And the eroding hillside at the back of the amphitheater has been stabilized with a steel mesh curtain, secured at the top and sides to form a cage drapery that will catch any falling rocks and eventually be overgrown by vegetation.

The restoration retains the original design’s essential elements, including the boulder that Royston fought to preserve. Photo by Kyle Jeffers.

Royston, who died in 2008, reflected on his body of work in this publication’s November/December 1986 issue, and his words could apply directly to Quarry Amphitheater. “My personal approach is to have a strong underlying structure because nature is so powerful, both in its land undulations and in the trees,” he wrote. “I recently dragged out my early drawings. They were very interesting because I don’t want to change any of them. Those beautiful perspectives that we do are not eyewash: that’s the way it will look, only better.”

Lydia Lee writes about the built environment in the Bay Area.

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