The Dallas Arts District boasts a handful of architectural trophies to call its own, among them Renzo Piano’s Nasher Sculpture Center, I.M. Pei’s Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, and the Dallas Museum of Art designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes. But the new, multi-venue AT&T Performing Arts Center is the biggest bet yet that this stretch of Dallas icons can be knit together as a harmonious hub.
The ambitious new ensemble, which opened on October 12, is “a daring challenge to Dallas’ citizenry to build more city, more urban vitality around it,” said Joshua Prince-Ramus, president of REX and project architect for the center’s Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre. “We spent a lot of time discussing how to encourage patrons to engage the center above ground—to generate urban life—instead of disappearing into the performing arts center’s garages. Architecture doesn’t make cities; people do.”
To that end, the Wyly, conceived by REX/OMA and their respective principals Prince-Ramus and Rem Koolhaas, is emblematic of the center’s aspirations. Clad in silvery-sleek, extruded-aluminum tubes, with a dozen levels of stacked, horseshoe-shaped balconies, the theater maximizes interaction by exposing a perimeter around the performance space to engage the city beyond, while using a mechanized “superfly” system that can pull up both scenery and seating, allowing artistic directors to rapidly alter the venue’s configuration.
That spirit of openness is echoed in other components, arranged in a master plan that lets music, opera, theater, and dance flow throughout the complex. The drum-shaped Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, designed by London-based Foster + Partners, features a retractable facade that opens to the surrounding landscape. Foster is also designing the Winspear’s landscaped public performance area, due to open next year, while the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill–designed City Performance Hall opens in 2011. Weaving these elements together is a ten-acre piazza and garden, designed by landscape architect Michel Desvigne as the Arts District’s first public park.
What may be the boldest urban move, however, is Woodall Rodgers Park, a 5.2-acre deck that bridges an adjacent freeway. Designed by the office of James Burnett in Houston, the park aims to turn what had been a barrier into a pedestrian-friendly link connecting downtown and the Arts District with the trendy Uptown and Victory residential districts. “I think it’s going to dramatically change the feeling of that area of downtown,” said principal Jim Burnett. “It’s been a slice separating Uptown and the Arts District, and I think it will bridge the gap between those two.”
Some might question the city’s lavishing $354 million on homes for art venues while the homeless wander downtown streets. But many who live and work in the area believe that the center will offer something for everyone. Recent years have seen a steady stream of hipsters and empty-nesters alighting in downtown lofts. And certainly those with a stake in this effort see life beyond ticket sales. As John Dayton, chairman of the Winspear selection committee, noted, “Beautifully crafted buildings only take you so far. It’s programming and the activity in and around these buildings that will be the ultimate success of the project.”
Deedie Rose, who chaired the architecture selection committee for the Wyly and is a founding member of the arts center’s board of trustees, noted that the project has already made a difference in density-averse Dallas. “I was thinking maybe we didn’t have enough room,” she said, recalling an epiphany she had while driving with Rem Koolhaas on a preliminary tour through the district. “Then I realized that filling it up with people is where we can make life rich within the city.”
A version of this article appeared in AN 17_10.21.2009.