Architecture firm bureau^proberts has a rich and prolific connection with Brisbane. Founder Liam Proberts grew up in the inner city, and says its civic and heritage structures were very much a part of his upbringing. So when his practice was approached to undertake the revitalisation of Brisbane’s oldest performing arts theatre, La Boite, the answer was obvious and emphatic.
First built in 1958 but having existed in different forms for nearly a century, La Boite theatre was originally housed in a tiny worker’s cottage measuring just 22 square feet. A few decades later, it moved to its next home, a “timber box built from a brick fabric”, which Proberts describes as “a true piece of modernism”.
“It was very different to the other buildings of its time,” says Proberts. “La Boite was one of those buildings that made an impact, it was a bit in your face, which I think it wanted to be.”
In 2004, the theatre vacated its brick home and moved to its current location, on the grounds of Queensland University of Technology. The site, although nowhere near as old as the theatre itself, was in need of both upgrades and an identity overhaul to suit its new function. According to Proberts, the theatre was at risk of losing some of its unique character after being “subsumed” by the university.
“The brief was clear in so far as making the theatre space a highly functional and safe environment that would allow La Boite to improve their production capability,” says Proberts. “For front of house it was less defined – they knew the box office and bar needed to be reimagined and were looking for ideas.”
This front of house space posed a particular problem, as the section of the floorplan allocated to it had never been intended for that purpose. There was no obvious front door and, since the entrance had been inserted into a space that already served a variety of other uses, there was no indication to visitors that the space was home to Queensland’s second largest theatre company.
“Our vision was to amplify La Boite’s presence within the precinct, allowing it to embrace visitors. The concept was to be as progressive as the theatre, and to once again reach out as it had in its inception,” says Proberts. “We did this by making the foyer space like a verandah for gathering crowds and even visitors dropping by.
“The foyer was about creating a communal space while maintaining all the hallmarks of a traditional theatre. It also had to cater to the specific nature of a theatre crowd where a lot of people arrive and gather, and enter and leave the theatre space at the same time.
“The front of house had to become central to the patron’s experience, and a re-positioning of La Boite in the lexicon of Queensland theatre. The major tenet of the refurbishment was to strongly connect the front-of-house experience to those qualities that make La Boite unique: open, adventurous and welcoming.”
To bring it back to its roots, bureau^proberts settled on a material palette that recalled the theatre’s original conception as a weatherboard worker’s cottage. Aluminium blades were installed along the ceiling and back of bar to reflect “the pattern and rhythm of weatherboards”, with wood itself represented by a timber table that runs the length of the box office and bar.
For safety and performance reasons, an upgrade to the gantry in the theatre space was to form the second major element of the design process. bureau^proberts’ solution allowed for “safer and much more flexible” lighting and stage changes.
Once the design process was complete, construction could begin – but only between productions. All work needed to occur in the theatre’s ‘recess’ time, between the last show of one season and the first of the next.
“We were commissioned in October 2016 and designed and detailed off-site works for tender [over] December [and] January,” says Proberts. “On-site works were then carried out between shows in February, March and April of this year. The project was around seven months in total.”
After various incarnations over nearly a century – from a 1950s weatherboard to a 1970s brick roundhouse to a millennial building on the campus of QUT – La Boite theatre may have grown and advanced and radically re-formed, but thanks to a sensitive design that draws from its heritage, Queensland’s oldest performing arts theatre will spend its foreseeable seasons plugged into its roots.