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VIDEO: The Performing Arts Center’s Glass Skins

by Jerome Weeks 23 Jun 2008 6:00 AM

The red glass covering much of the Winspear Opera House will be a beacon, but both the Winspear and the Wyly Theatre break with Dallas’ tradition by prominently using clear glass on their exteriors — not mirrored or tinted glass. So what will they do with all that murderous Texas sunlight?


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[Sounds of loud hammering and drilling, fade and continue under.]

In the Arts District, scaffolding has gone up around the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House. And this week, assembling the building’s outer glass wall will begin. Clear glass is a major element of the new Dallas Center for the Performing Arts. But clear glass is an odd, challenging choice for stage halls. Most shows, after all, are performed in the dark.

James McGrath is a partner in the firm of Foster & Partners, the architects behind the Winspear Opera House.

“We felt that a lot of opera houses from the 18th and 19th century are quite intimidating and we wanted to do a building that was very approachable and open, and the general public would feel comfortable using the building, using the café, using the restaurant.”

Glass offers obvious advantages here. There are two halls under construction in the Arts District, the Winspear Opera House and the Wyly Theater. The Wyly Theater will look like a silvery, aluminum box, 10 stories tall. In contrast, the Winspear Opera House will have a lobby wrapped around a giant red drum, the auditorium itself. But because both buildings use “glass skins” for openness and “transparency,” the public will be able to look straight through their different lobbies. The Winspear’s 8-sided, outer glass wall will encompass the lobby, outside the auditorium, yet it will also permit direct access. One entire, 27-foot long side can be raised two stories into the air. Diners at the lobby café would be able to stroll in or out.

[Sounds of hammering and drilling fade in]

At the Winspear, McGrath explains the mullions, the thin, steel bars that will hold up all this glass:

“There’s a company in Germany that are making this for us, a company called Seele. They do all of the Apple stores. And you can see these mullions are a single mullion, 60 foot high, 10 inches deep, and 2 and a half inches wide. It’s so fine considering how big it is.”

Big is right. Those thin steel bars must help lift 22 tons of glass.

Over at the Wyly Theater, the public will be able to see right into the performance hall itself. That’s because the aluminum box I mentioned will be sitting on two ground floors, where the stage is, and the outer walls of those two floors will be mostly glass. During the day, the silver box will look as if it’s floating. And at night, project architect Vincent Bandy says those floors will be lit up.

Bandy: “And this gives the effect of the building lifting off the ground.”

Weeks: “So it looks like a giant rocket taking off?”

Bandy: “[Laughing] We’ve used that analogy before.”

Still, with all of this clear glass, there’s one blazing, scorching problem.

The Texas sun.

It’s why most big buildings in Dallas have very tinted or even mirrored glass. This problem of 100 degree heat has led the Wyly and the Winspear to dramatically different solutions.

The Wyly will be unlike any theater in history. It takes a theater’s component parts – lobby, dressing rooms, design shops – and stacks them into what’s essentially a little skyscraper. But amid the innovation, the Wyly’s answers to damaging sunlight are pretty familiar ones: adjustable blinds and insulated glass.

Says Bandy: “There’s no really big difference between that and the lobby of a big building. It’s relatively the same.”

In contrast, inside the Winspear, that drum-shaped auditorium is actually a traditional opera hall, even if it is bright red. The Winspear’s solution to the heat is not so traditional: a vast steel canopy stretching almost 100 feet over the outside plaza. It will shade the foyer, meaning, says McGrath, “no direct sunlight goes on to the glass. That allowed us to have completely clear glass wrapping around the foyer, so you could see into the foyer and you could see through to the heart of the building, which is the red auditorium.”

[Sounds of hammering under]

The auditorium is the heart, of course. That’s what all this is about, a darkened, enclosed space where people can be entranced by music. A space where, at the moment, workers are loudly hammering scaffolding into place.

[Sounds off.]

That’s because building the heart of the Winspear has just begun.