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VIDEO: The Winspear’s Wings
by Jerome Weeks 29 Oct 2008

It’s hard to miss the red glass going up on the Winspear Opera House, but now the building has sprouted wings: the solar canopy.


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  • The expanded online story:

In the Arts District, the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House has begun to sprout wings.

The most eye-catching feature of the outside of the new opera house will undoubtedly be the red glass that’s being installed. Eventually, it will cover some seven stories of the auditorium itself. (Click here for a video story on just the red glass.)

But the other noticeable, architectural feature is the solar canopy under construction. It’s like a giant window shutter — set horizontally, five stories off the ground. Made of aluminum and steel, it will stretch out from the sides of the Winspear as far as 98 feet.

Spencer de Grey is senior partner at Foster + Partners, the architects of the Winspear. In the past 15 years, the company has included louvered canopies on a half-dozen of its projects. (See, for example, the Djanogly City Academy in Nottingham, England, or the Carre d’Arts in Nimes, France.) De Grey says the Winspear’s canopy will be the biggest they’ve done. It will cover nearly three acres all around the opera house.

That may seem novel, even flamboyant. But, de Grey says, the canopy is really a traditional Texas response to the blistering sun.

DE GREY: “If you go back to 19th century architecture in the Southern states and Texas, we are used to seeing deep verandahs as a natural response – and this is before air-conditioning was invented – a natural response to the climatic conditions.”

De Grey believes that relying on air-conditioning isn’t a response to Texas weather — it’smore like a denial of it. As long as we pump enough energy into office and condo towers, we can stay behind hundreds of feet of bare glass and pretend the outside heat doesn’t exist. Yet the ‘wings’ on the Winspear can reduce that heat by 20 degrees.

Calling the canopy ‘wings’ isn’t simply a figure of speech. The canopy will have 630 louvers – they’re like giant, aluminum blades 28 feet long. They’re set at precise angles to cut the sunlight.

But it wasn’t just the light the engineers had to consider. It was the wind.

Jeff Innmon (left) is project manager for the Winspear. He’s standing on the lobby roof with the canopy under construction just below.

INNMON: “We modeled the canopy in a wind tunnel. And originally studied the building for wind pressures to make sure we weren’t getting any extreme wind pressures because of the canopy.”

WEEKS: “Like a plane? An airplane wing?”

INNMON: “Exactly.”

The louvers can act like airplane wings, catching the wind, increasing the air pressure under them and creating lift. But these particular wings are attached to a steel frame weighing more than 850 tons. They’re not about to achieve liftoff. But with a strong wind, they could rattle or whistle. And the Dallas Opera wouldn’t appreciate the accompaniment. So the louvers are specially stiffened and bolted in place to prevent any unwanted noise.

The  canopy covers so much ground around the opera house because it will shade the lobby as well as part of Annette Strauss Artist Square. That’s the outdoor venue that will be nestled between the Winspear and the Meyerson Symphony Center.

Because it’s so large, the solar canopy will also create a precious rarity in downtown Dallas: a public, outdoor space – with shade. A comfortable plaza in which to sit and drink and watch. Even under the noonday sun.

DE GREY: “People don’t normally walk out of doors much in Dallas, particularly in downtown Dallas. The ability just to walk out and sit under the shade, provided by the solar canopy, will make a substantial difference to people’s perception of public space.”

The Dallas Center for the Performing Arts plans on making that public space a pleasant gathering spot – with trees and fountains and a cafe. A small park, one of the few in downtown. The hope is that, during the day, it will attract even those Dallasites who’d never set foot inside an opera house.

They’ll come just for the coolness of the shade.

  • More stats for the Winspear canopy:

Height: 63′ — held up by 15 columns

Area: 118,400 sq. ft.

Dimensions: 463′ by 378′-6″

Aluminum louvers: 4′-4″ deep and 11″ thick in the middle

Louver weight: 1,400 lbs. each

Estimated total for the aluminum is 200,000 lbs. and 175,000 ft in length