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The Architects Speak: Designing the AT&T PAC

by Jerome Weeks 16 Oct 2009 7:46 AM

The four renowned architects behind the Winspear Opera House and the Wyly Theatre — two of them Pritzker Prize-laureates — are in town meeting the public and answering questions: Why the red? Why the tubes? But mostly, how did the two performance halls in the AT&T PAC turn out the different ways they did?


  • KERA radio story:
  • COMING NEXT WEEK: Video interviews w/the architects
  • Dallas Observer slide show
  • Expanded online story:

The four renowned architects behind the Winspear Opera House and the Wyly Theatre are in town this week for the opening galas and public forums discussing their designs. Initial responses by the media to the two new halls that make up the AT&T Performing Arts Center have stressed how they seem to be polar opposites.

The Wyly was designed by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus. Critics have said it feels rough and industrial yet also futuristic — with its skin of aluminum tubes, its concrete bunker lobby (below) and its heavy reliance on technology to re-shape the theater’s auditorium.

The Winspear Opera House (above), on the other hand, was designed by Norman Foster and Spencer de Grey. The ruby-red building is extremely polished and contemporary. But the Winspear is also a traditional, 18th-century opera house. Old-fashioned, in its way.

It’s almost as if the two buildings represent a clash of designers’ egos, a desire to set themselves apart by facing in different directions. Classic cases of “starchitecture.”

As Koolhaas puts it, contrasting his work with Norman Foster’s: “If Foster is me, we have no interest in being mini-me.”

Yet all four architects strongly emphasize how their decisions were not shaped by competitiveness or personal tastes. Partly, both buildings are responses to the downtown Dallas environment — even as they may seem designed to stand out from it. Koolhaas notes that most buildings downtown are skyscrapers. So he made the Wyly vertical — a skyscraper theater, a downtown theater. He had other reasons, of course, but after all, “vertical organization” (his favorite term for skyscrapers) is a very American invention.

Norman Foster croppedFor Norman Foster (right), fitting the Winspear into the cityscape was crucial.

FOSTER: “It’s a response to its place, downtown, the grid, the climate, the big umbrella. It’s a statement about Dallas. It is of its place. That – if I had to single one thing out – would be for me, really important.”

Just as important, the architects developed the two buildings out of long-term collaborations with their clients, the Dallas Opera and the Dallas Theater Center. So the designers say the buildings reflect the deeply-held principles of those organizations – more than any architect’s whim.

The Wyly Theatre, for instance, was initially going to be built in stone. That’s because the Dallas Museum of Art, the Nasher Sculpture Center and the Meyerson Symphony Center all use stone. Apparently, stone is what we use for cultural buildings in North Texas. There were also plans to use other expensive materials throughout the Wyly.

But as discussions progressed, those plans for glossy, high-ticket surfaces were not as important to the Theater Center board as their commitment to a fully flexible space, a theater that can change its basic layout. So the glamor items got jettisoned.

KOOLHAAS (below): “In the end, the money went into the performance of the building. And I think that was a very conscious choice of the clients, and I really endorse that because it has a wonderful quality of a working environment, almost a factory.”

Just a block away, no one would mistake the Winspear Opera House for a factory. But as grand or flashy as it might seem, the Winspear is intended to be friendly, to encourage social interactions. This holds true from the solar canopy outside, providing shade for café diners, to the grand staircase inside with its remarkable views of the Arts District. In opera, the staircase is where people gather to see and be seen.

Spencer de Grey explains

DE GREY: “We hope that this building will be a welcoming building that will invite everyone in, sort of breaking down the barriers between the outside and the inside, making this a democratic building where people feel at ease and to encourage a new audience for opera because I think that’s very important for the future of opera.”

In fact, both buildings employ clear glass to emphasize their”openness.” All four architects are also united in commending their clients for sticking to those principles — through the long process that’s led them all to this week’s openings.

KOOLHAAS: “It’s exciting to do an experimental building in America today.”

WEEKS: “Why?”

KOOLHAAS: “Can’t you guess? And not only in America. These are not particularly experimental times. And therefore, it’s a sign of incredible courage, of the kind of people who initiated this.”