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Video: Why the Wyly? The Designer Explains

by Jerome Weeks 15 Dec 2008 5:04 PM

The Wyly Theater is finally taking shape as its outer skin goes up – but the true strangeness of the Dallas Theater Center’s future home is inside.


The Charles and Dee Wyly Theater is finally getting its outer skin and is showing its ultimate shape. But unlike the visibly dramatic Winspear Opera House, the true uniqueness of the Wyly is only beginning. It’s mostly on the inside.

Joshua Prince-Ramus was the American partner in Rem Koolhaas’ design firm OMA (Office of Metropolitan Architecture), the man in charge of designing the Wyly Theater — before he split off in 2006 to form his own company, REX. (That’s why the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts officially credits REX/OMA as the architects).

That same year, Prince-Ramus gave one of the TEDTalks in Monterey, California. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) hosts a famous annual conference of Big Brained sorts and posts the videos online as TEDTalks. In his lecture, Prince-Ramus discusses the “hyper-rational” method he used on three projects: the Seattle Public Library, the Wyly Theater and the downtown Museum Plaza in Louisville. His explanations are worth hearing because not only are they strikingly illustrated, they make (some) sense out of what may seem to many a perverse structure.

Seattle Public Library

Prince-Ramus repeatedly argues that the three buildings, as eccentric as they may seem, are not the result of architectural whim or a competition for attention, although he has admitted he’s perfectly willing to risk what many people might find ugly. A process of deep-thinking about the buildings’ basic functions has led to these designs — an approach he learned (and adapted) from Koolhaas. As he told BusinessWeek:

We believe in a hyper-rational process where you accept the constraints, conditions, and challenges of a project, and you attempt to engage them by going back to first principles. You don’t accept any convention. If someone says, “This is how you solve that problem,” you give them the bird. You just say, “I don’t want to hear it.”

Can you give me an example?
A good example is the [Charles and Dee Wyly Theater] in Dallas. The theater consultant kept saying that the fly tower has to be a concrete structure like this and this and this. But we said, “Don’t give us predigested solutions. Tell us what it needs to do, and let us figure out how to build it.” We truly wanted to go back to first principles: What does it mean to create an acoustic enclosure?

Our observation is that if you do this hyper-rational, almost dumb process of taking everything back to first principles, it’s tiring as hell, but you start to construct something that has never been done before — something that transcends convention.

Some people, on the other hand, might argue that a number of those conventions, worked out over thousands of years of theater history, do serve still-useful functions. But Prince-Ramus describes the Dallas Theater Center as “an infamous theater company” (he means that as a compliment) because of its “multi-form” tradition. It’s that desire for flexibility that led him to “put the theater on its head,” design what he calls “a theater machine” and in the process re-define “fly tower,” “acoustic enclosure” and other theater apparatuses: “At the push of a button, it allows the artistic director to move between proscenium, thrust, arena and flat floor.”

One correction to Prince-Ramus: In passing, he mentions that the highly adaptable nature of the Wyly will permit the Theater Center to stage its inaugural play, a drama about Charles Lindbergh that will use real aircraft. Not so, says DTC managing director Mark Hadley. In fact, he has never heard of such a proposal — and he goes all the way back to former artistic director Richard Hamburger’s ideas to adapt Edna Ferber’s novel Giant as the Wyly’s debut. (That idea fell through, Hadley reports, because someone else was already adapting it.) The actual choice for the premiere will be announced in a few months, Hadley says. (Another small correction: When Prince-Ramus says things like “Wagnerian procession” late in his explanation, it’s clear he means “proscenium.”)

The YouTube video excerpt above begins after Prince-Ramus’ discussion of the Seattle library at the moment he starts talking about the Wyly. If you wish to see the whole clip, you can go here. Thanks to Art&Seek poster hd for the original link.