The Dallas Edifice Complex
The Winspear Opera House and the Wyly Theatre will change the face of downtown, but will they bring Dallas what it so desperately wants?
by John King
From D Magazine OCT 2009
Architecture can do many things: provide shelter, scrape the sky, make you smile, and make you cringe. It’s the most public art form, the only one we can’t avoid. But architecture can’t perform acts of urban resurrection all alone. Nor can it change the course of history—not even when the buildings are designed by celebrity architects.
Which brings us to the Arts District: 19 blocks, 68 acres, and, as of October 12, home to four cultural facilities designed by winners of the vaunted Pritzker Architecture Prize. Each building in the quartet is genuinely important as a work of architecture, make no mistake, and the two about to open are innovative and ambitious. Even their shortcomings pay dividends, revealing strengths in their predecessors that were easy to take for granted or overlook without the ability to compare and contrast.
These days, though, more is expected of such big-deal debuts as the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, billed to Dutch provocateur Rem Koolhaas, though primarily designed by his protégé Joshua Prince-Ramus. Or the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, designed by Foster + Partners, a firm led by Lord Norman Foster of London. It’s not enough to deliver the structural goods—resonant sound in the case of the Winspear, flexible performance space at the Wyly. The goal is to deliver an Icon.
That means something to generate buzz far beyond Plano or Fort Worth. Step one: starchitects come to town. Step two: the world takes notice. Outsiders—such as yours truly—proclaim that downtown Dallas is finally, firmly On the Map.
Don’t take my word for it. The press kit from the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau confides how “journalists and visitors alike are flocking to the city” that “exemplifies world-class architecture.” The Dallas Center for the Performing Arts, which will operate the Winspear and the Wyly, calls itself “the most significant new performing arts center since New York City’s Lincoln Center.”
Such hyperbole is par for the course in the district, which has been on the drawing boards since 1977. When the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center finally opened in 1989, such a fuss was made locally about the regal limestone box by 1983 Pritzker winner I.M. Pei that one visiting architecture critic began his (favorable) review by taking condescending note of “This city’s latest attempt to assert a cultural presence of international stature.” Fourteen years later, the Nasher Sculpture Center, by Renzo Piano (Pritzker ’98), transfixed the Dallas Morning News editorial page. In those well-lit galleries and tree-shrouded gardens, the writer gleaned a spark “that could transform the world’s opinion of Dallas” and do what “the Guggenheim Museum [did] for Bilbao, Spain.”
Flash forward to 2009, and here’s a reality check: lightning is not about to strike. If you’re looking for a convenient place to explore a range of contemporary architecture, what stands along Flora Street is an intellectual treat. But an arts district does not a city make—especially an arts district trying hard to be anything but the city around it.
It’s too early for a full verdict on the Winspear and the Wyly. Opening night for projects of this sort tend to serve as dress rehearsals, prods to get the big things done while the loose ends are tied up later (at the Meyerson, now so regally assured, I’m told that workers were screwing in chairs the afternoon of the gala premiere, and faux-marble paint covered for stone that hadn’t arrived from Italian quarries). The all-important landscape around the two buildings, the 10-acre Elaine D. and Charles A. Sammons Park, designed by Michel Desvigne of Paris (in collaboration with JJR of Chicago), will barely have taken root—and the plantings were installed during the least hospitable months of the year. But the main moves are in place, the strokes used by each architectural team to try to make its mark on the city.
The drum-shaped sphere of the Winspear offers nighttime drama along Woodall Rodgers Freeway, 105 feet high and clad in vivid red glass, the luminous orb surrounded by a flat metal canopy that stabs out to shade 3 acres around the hall while scalloped blades deflect the sun. The Wyly strikes a much different pose. It could be a silvery glacier on stilts, a compact box with a tight skin of ribbed aluminum except at ground level, where the first 32 of the building’s 132 feet are clad in clear glass and vertical steel mullions.
One newcomer reaches out for attention; the other has a frosty aloofness that dares you to look. The Winspear beckons the public from Flora Street with a glass-clad lobby through which glows that red sphere, amid an urbane realm of lawns, oak trees, and a reflecting pool. The Wyly requires you to descend a ski-slope-steep concrete incline to a lobby with floors of gray concrete, walls of gray concrete and dull aluminum, and light provided by fluorescent tubes hanging like austere icicles. The Crescent it ain’t.
Yet the Wyly likely will receive the most scrutiny from afar, since it is one of the few American building associated with Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture. The theater credits split Koolhaas’ billing with Joshua Prince-Ramus and his firm REX (formerly OMA New York). But Prince-Ramus himself is considered a prospect to watch by the architectural intelligentsia—can the prince upstage the 2000 Pritzker winner?—and that’s part of the hook.
Prince-Ramus describes the genesis of the Wyly’s design in almost clinical terms. “Your best strategy is to create a significant performance as opposed to a significant form,” he says. “A lot of our work centers around the notion that if you focus on ushering forward a process, pushing the limits, you often will come to a conclusion that will transcend.”
With the Wyly, this means striving for a performance space where the relationship between audience and stage can shift from show to show, even act to act. The floor seating can level off or rise in tiers at the push of a button; the three levels of balconies on three sides can move forward or back or disappear, lifted into the rafters using technology devised to adjust stadium scoreboards. Black-out shades will keep light from filtering through the glass walls during a performance—but they can also be raised, so that the stage and the city appear as one.
To follow through on such a vision, Koolhaas and Prince-Ramus took the “obvious” next step: they moved the hall’s back-of-stage elements up and out of the way. There are no windows in the lower portion of the aluminum cube because that’s where the fly spaces are located. Above them, you’ll find the rehearsal hall, the costume shop, and offices.
“The fact that the building is vertical is in total deference to our effort to return the ground plane to something that is malleable,” Prince-Ramus says. “Imagine the last act of Hamlet with the curtains opened to force viewers to confront the play’s relevance to our lives.”
If the past is any guide, the intelligentsia will embrace the Wyly as a symbol of a new century’s need for convention-defying design. When OMA’s Seattle Central Library opened in 2004, then New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp anointed it as “an urban montage of starburst images” in which “social, technical, and psychological goals are fused into form.” One year later, OMA’s Casa da Musica debuted in Portugal, and Muschamp successor Nicolai Ouroussoff crossed the Atlantic to herald “a rationally ordered environment animated by the chaotic social and psychic forces whirling around it.”
In the long run, though, cultural theory is less important than construction and craft, and the Wyly’s deliberate rough edges might wear on patrons who might prefer a bit of pomp.
Cross Flora Street and compare the Wyly to the Meyerson. The lobby of the Meyerson is all about uplift and space, elegant poise. The lines are modern—Pei isn’t one for fussy finishes—but the materials glow, from the warm marble walls to the glamorous staircase that ascends with magisterial sweep. When you arrive, you’ve arrived.
The Wyly does the opposite, pushing down and in, monochromatic and raw. Unless patrons have intervened since my visit, you’ll see spots where metal panels don’t line up precisely with the concrete alongside them (“The architects like the roughness,” my guide said a little sheepishly). And the “grand staircase” here has the feel of entering an attic, tight and dark with the walls clad in chain metal mesh attached to magnetic wallpaper.
None of this is by chance. “By definition, if you don’t want the lobby to impose on the malleability, it has to go beneath the chamber [performance hall],” Prince-Ramus says. But it’s also an artistic conceit, a pretense that there’s no need to put on airs. The floor of the performance hall may be plastic-like polyboard, for instance, easily drilled through or replaced, but those are expensive hydraulic levers under the ground-floor seating.
And the heaviness of the lobby? “It’s the expression of a foundation, the under-area of a building,” Prince-Ramus says. A pause. “That said, the reality is, most architects love concrete.”
The Winspear is more conventional, turning on the charm as well as the flash.
Foster’s forte is high-tech sheen, of the moment but timelessly suave. There’s no better recent example than the 1999 Pritzker laureate’s renovated National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., where the 28,000-square-foot courtyard in the center of the 1836 landmark now is topped by a rippling roof of glass set within a net-like grid. It’s as if a gauzy veil floated into place.
The Winspear doesn’t have the serendipity of that courtyard, or of Foster’s Hearst Tower in New York, with its diagonal trussed form that ascends from a historic stone building with an air of nonchalance. In Dallas, the drama comes from the emphatic canopy, staking out the opera house’s prominence on the scene while also extending an invitation to passersby—an invitation that as planned will include a cafe open during weekdays and accessible through a portion of the lobby where a 70-foot stretch of the glass wall will slide open on nice days.
“We wanted to make sure we designed a building that really said it was public,” says James McGrath, a Foster partner who spent three years in Houston working from the office of Kendall/Heaton, the architect of record for both the Winspear and Wyly. “Not everyone goes to the opera, but lots of people will be in the Arts District.”
In an ideal world, the louvers within the canopy would fully shadow the plaza beneath; to cut costs, alas, “every louver we didn’t need to shade the lobby, we took out,” McGrath says. More conventional trappings fell victim to budget as well: the planks cloaking the underside of the lobby’s zigzagging staircase landings wear white plaster rather than stainless steel. Outside, the dark wall wrapping the rear of the orb is clad in fiberglass-reinforced concrete, the sort of material you’d expect to find in a suburban office park rather than the Arts District.
But these are details for architecture critics to pick at. What opera-goers will notice is the sleek grandeur of the lobby. While staircases slice from one level to the next, the red drum visible from Woodall Rodgers swirls down into the action, with the walls and ceilings of the circulation corridors that punctuate it painted the same sumptuous red. Add 2,200 patrons dressed to impress, and the effect on a good night should resemble a velvet boudoir.
Without resorting to high-culture kitsch, these are operatic moves. “We want it to be eye-catching,” McGrath says of the Winspear. “The red drum helps it stand out. It can’t be mistaken for a commercial or institutional building.”
No danger of that. The drum has the richness of a neon-infused gel, an effect created by scrunching thin layers of heart-red vinyl between two planes of glass. That vibrancy makes it far more arresting on repeat viewings than, say, the swelled-chest prow of the 15-story Hunt Oil Tower five blocks to the west, just outside the district.
At the Wyly, we’ll ignore the metaphorical notion that aluminum tubes in their six different widths evoke a stage curtain. The icy purity of the form is what’s compelling, especially when the tubes thin out ever so slightly across the upper-floor windows of the theater’s costume shop and offices, adding a ghostly sheen.
So far, so good. but to be a catalytic icon—Bilbao’s Guggenheim or the mesmerizing new High Line in New York City, with its 10-block-long promenade above the Meatpacking District on a long-abandoned rail line—a building or intervention needs to be so powerful that it changes your take on everything around it. And despite the infusion of architectural stars, what’s memorable about downtown Dallas isn’t the Pritzker Four. It’s the impression made by the towers in the air and the parking lots on the ground.
Every time I walked from the Magnolia hotel north to Flora Street, there to immerse myself in “the largest urban arts district in the United States” (thank you, Convention & Visitors Bureau), I chose a slightly different route. But the sights were always the same: neck-craning bids for attention, prairies of asphalt with spaces on hire for $5 a day (or less), and lushly planted plazas, their extravagant fountains often putting on a show for me and me alone. Inside the Arts District, the coherent neighborhood shown on a map dissolved into clutter and contradictions.
Certainly that’s the case at Flora and Pearl streets, the intersection that, theoretically, marks the center of the district. On one side stands the Meyerson’s slightly aloof hulk, including a billboard-scaled stone arch that frames the entrance not only to the lobby but also a plaza with abstract sculptures. Off in the distance, to the west, there’s the line of magnolia trees that shrouds the low side wall of the Nasher Sculpture Center and, a block beyond that, the Flora Street entrance to the Dallas Museum of Art.
But to admire the horizon, I need to ignore the other three corners of the intersection: a full block of parking and mostly windowless backsides of a service building for the Cathedral Santuario de Guadalupe and the extension to the Belo Mansion. Then there’s Pearl Street itself: six lanes of asphalt made wider still by turning lanes and a parking garage exit and a median. There are tollways more intimate than this.
As planned, Flora Street ties the district together and is keyed to pedestrian scale. The 1983 landscape design by Sasaki Associates includes paving stones, double rows of cypress trees, and circular bollards that are granite on one side and concrete on the other. The dream was “a great street in the European tradition,” to quote one Sasaki planner at the time. Maybe that’s why it feels like an attractive but alien streetscape—in Dallas but not of it.
It’s hard to imagine the new cultural facilities giving Dallas an image makeover, luring urban hipsters to check out the action in—the convention bureau again—“a dynamic cultural destination that is unparalleled in the world.” Nor will middle American families make vacation plans because the Center for the Performing Arts boasts that Dallas is “the only city in the world with buildings designed by four Pritzker prize-winning architects in one contiguous block” (Pearl Street is a mirage?).
Buildings become icons when, by their presence, they redefine the norm, whether as a catalyst or a culmination. But Flora Street and the cultural facilities along it don’t embody any quintessential trait that says “Dallas” to an outsider (at least not this one), the way the High Line unfurls a surreal green perch from which to exult in Manhattan’s layered drama. Nor is it the exuberant counterpoint, the way the Bilbao Guggenheim erupts from an aged city with swirls of titanium that reflect the bay on the other side.
Here’s what the Arts District is instead: a major piece of a puzzle that won’t be finished anytime soon. And that’s okay.
If you doubt me, ask Dallas’ Pritzker star-in-waiting: Thom Mayne, who received the award in 2005 and whose firm Morphosis is designing the Museum of Nature & Science’s new home in Victory Park. “There’s been some discussion about architects remaking cities, and it’s way overstated. We’re much more modest about our aspirations,” says Mayne, who’s based in Santa Monica, outside Los Angeles, a city with a daunting downtown to-do list of its own. “Cultural institutions represent one of the earliest stages of a city moving toward a form that is more cosmopolitan or urban, in the traditional sense.”
At the very least, residents of Dallas and North Texas have a concentrated dollop of the arts to enjoy. The Meyerson is regarded as one of the finest halls in America to hear classical music, and the efforts at the Winspear by Foster + Partners and its acoustician, the London firm Sound Space Design, aim to follow close behind. If the dexterous staging of the Wyly lives up to creators’ hopes, the facility could influence theater design in the decade to come.
There’s also the Dallas Museum of Art from 1984, designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes and the first cultural institution to put down roots in the district. No Pritzker is attached—though Barnes did receive a posthumous Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects in 2007—and the exterior is glum, with walls of limestone that manage to look like concrete. Inside, though, the galleries offer an orderly procession of treats.
And then there’s the Nasher, architecturally the most sublime building in the Arts District—not just for Piano’s spare design (five thick lines of creamy travertine, clear glass walls between them, topped by gently bowed skylit glass, and that’s about it), but also the choreographed landscape by Peter Walker & Partners of Berkeley, California. It transports you from downtown Dallas into some deceptively natural retreat, a spell only enhanced by the works of such sculptural masters as Richard Serra and Jonathan Borofsky.
The fact that none of this happened exactly as hoped back in 1977 doesn’t matter. Because as Mayne says, cities evolve. Downtown Dallas has a long way to go, and the mistakes of the past aren’t easily healed (how much parking does one city need?). There’s a disturbing tendency to keep pursuing the next big fix, the intervention that will change things once and for all.
The closest example at hand lies directly north of the Arts District, where Woodall Rodgers Park will cap the freeway between Pearl and St. Paul streets with 5 acres of public open space.
It’s an attractive notion, a way to begin making Uptown and downtown feel like one large urban district. But several people suggested to me that what’s scheduled to open in 2011 will be the local equivalent of Millennium Park in Chicago. Not likely, since that capped railway yard is hemmed tight by blocks far denser than any in Dallas, with the added bonus of a lakefront on one side. And if Woodall Rodgers does become what the project website describes as an “urban oasis” of “professionals enjoying lunch, friends taking in a movie on an outdoor screen, or couples enjoying a relaxing stroll,” isn’t that the same bright scenario sketched for Sammons Park enfolding the Wyly and the Winspear? (Another heretical thought: how much park does one city need?)
Still, I saw plenty of examples of Dallas growing right, an almost organic threading of housing and commerce amid the flamboyance of the past. One Arts Plaza at the east end of Flora Street isn’t great architecture, but it gets the basics right—stepping low at Routh Street to ring an auto courtyard with restaurants and outdoor seating. Another nice touch: the condominiums that occupy the top seven of the slab’s 24 stories are visually distinct, with balconies scooped into the façade. You can imagine perching in one at the end of the day, a cool drink close by.
In downtown’s core, meanwhile, the future lies in such recently completed projects as Mercantile Place—an apartment complex that pairs the restoration of the sentimental 31-story landmark tower from 1942, spire on top and all, with a new and cleanly modern 15-story companion. Designed by BGO Architects for Forest City Enterprises, the project brings new and old together in a single airy lobby marked on the street by copper-panel accents that continue across the top of the new building’s storefronts. With time, the storefronts should fill; for now, there’s action around the elevated pool that helps nudge renters to sign a full-year lease. Again, the block won’t make the cover of Architectural Record. But it’s a smart way to grow.
That’s how cities are mended: piece by piece, swatch by swatch. Fill in the blanks with style and deference. When the Next Big Thing has come and gone, like the banks that originally inhabited all those granite-flaunting towers, good urbanism will remain.
“What’s fascinating is that downtown Dallas now has all these institutions in place,” Mayne says. “They’re waiting for the city.”
While they wait, the Pritzker four offer something that is unique to Dallas: a remarkably concentrated do-it-yourself seminar on what makes the best architecture endure. The contemporary forms might put off visitors left cold by anything edgier than the SMU Campus, but each building shows how architecture can resonate beyond opening night, tapping all of your senses.
Such as touch.
At the Meyerson, the lobby with its commanding scale and smooth luxury is meant to be dazzling, a sanctuary of high culture. But after you ascend the staircase and enter the performance hall, a brush with the handrail brings a delicate surprise: the railing is sheathed in thin velvet. Aloof becomes intimate.
There’s a similar encounter at the Wyly. The staircase past the dour lobby is dark but also exotic with the chain metal mesh that covers the walls. Better yet, the mesh is waiting to be tugged. Give it a pull, and it scrimps out, to be rearranged night after night in an infinite number of ways. It’s as malleable as the performance hall supposedly will be, but playful as well.
The Meyerson opened at the height of Pei’s career, the same year as his addition to the Louvre in Paris, and it has all the ease of a veteran who had mastered his own brand of geometric modernism. Prince-Ramus, by contrast, has much to prove. His building wants to score points, not sum up.
One structure is assured, imperial yet relaxed. The other is crammed tight with ideas and twists. Some are spot on, such as the chain mesh. Others went askew—as on the ninth-floor outdoor terrace, where the idea was to cloak the floor, walls, and ceiling with artificial turf. Building inspectors let the flooring stay; the rest has been replaced by a green fire-resistant fiberglass.
This call-and-response doesn’t stop at the district’s borders. The Wyly’s tight curtain of vertical tubing evokes, consciously or not, the thinly spaced mullions of the Federal Reserve Bank just north of Woodall Rodgers, on Pearl Street, a handsome 17-story tower from 1992 designed by Kohn Pederson Fox. The Winspear canopy cuts even farther into the city, a large-scale tribute to the ad hoc urbanism you find in a neighborhood like Oak Cliff, where diners are being reborn as watering holes, the open-sided shelters that once shaded autos now used to create open-air lanais, Texas style.
Or you can leave it all behind and retreat to the Nasher, an exquisite case study of how in the best buildings, no detail is left to chance. The shiny trunks of the crepe myrtles along Flora Street offer far more beguiling views inside than if Peter Walker had gone with the cypress of the Sasaki plan. The eroded surfaces of the water-blasted travertine—as haphazardly nuanced as a topographical map—are more alluring than all of downtown’s marble lobbies combined. The spare weave of cables that holds the bowed ceilings in place is as artistic as some of the sculptures on display.
Even the vents in the floor reward a second look. Instead of being interrupted by metal grills, the oak-plank floor smoothly flows across each vent, sliced as needed to circulate air. Which brings to mind those ghostly screened windows at the Wyly, now that I come to think of it.
Architecture can’t save the world. It can’t turn a city around. But it can teach you to view the world and the city with fresher, sharper eyes. And in that respect, here, Dallas is blessed.
John King is the San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design writer and two-time finalist for the Pritzker Prize in Criticism. He was born in Dallas.
"I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use." -- Galileo