Foster's New Opera
The more massive opera house was moved to a larger site on the edge of the development area, where it could have more visual impact and form a barrier to the din of the adjacent submerged freeway. This protective stance would help shelter a public plaza placed between the buildings.
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"The site itself had a big influence on the design of the building," says James McGrath, the Winspear Opera House project manager for Foster + Partners, which designed the building with co-architect Kendall/ Heaton Associates. "We pushed the opera house closer to the freeway to allow for the plaza." This public outdoor space was an important element for both teams — an attempt to pull arts patrons into more of an urban pedestrian experience in this car-centric city.
In addition, Foster + Partners wanted the audience to arrive in a procession from outside to inside. The typical pattern in Dallas is to tuck the parking underground, with elevator access directly into the building, as with the Meyerson Symphony Center next door. Often the public arrives without ever really having experienced the exterior of a building.
"We insisted that people arrive at the front door and come up near the plaza, so that they have that moment of experiencing the outside world," says McGrath.
The Public Opera House
Foster, a great lover of opera, gave his building an assertive and coherent presence. The basic form of the building is an elongated oval that extrudes upward to pierce an enormous shade canopy. Hovering some 60 feet (18 meters) in the air, the aluminum superstructure stretches out and takes possession of the site in a grand gesture to connect the building to its environment by providing shelter from the Texas sun.
The relationship between the solid building and the open frame of the canopy sets up a dynamic counterpoint. The shade structure is normal to the local grid, while the long axis of the building is rotated about 30 degrees to be oriented approximately north-south.
The pattern of horizontal louvers in the canopy is tuned to provide a cooler microclimate. Tracking the sun's movement across the sky, deep wing-like louvers become denser near the building so that the structure is completely shaded during the warmer months.
McGrath says the firm wanted the building to be accessible to the public and highlight the opera hall structure from the outside. "We wanted the building to be transparent and welcoming," he explains. "The canopy allowed us to physically extend the lobby to the exterior." The glass garage-type doors open the lobby to the plaza and enhance this indoor-outdoor connection.
The 60-foot- (18-meter-) tall lobby wraps around the south end of the oval, encasing it in vision glass on three sides. The result is a dynamic in some ways similar to Foster's treatment of the atrium in his Great Court addition to the British Museum.
Both spaces play on the experience of moving around a smooth curvilinear form flooded with light — the intrigue of experiencing the solid from the void. But the glass curtain wall of the Winspear lobby is meant to make the building feel open and accessible, exposing the theater, in contrast to the protected courtyard of the British Museum.
And unlike the beige limestone surface of the British museum, the cladding of the opera house is glossy, deep-red panels of glass. "There's a historical association with the color red in opera houses," observes McGrath, "like the red curtains and velour seats." The firm alludes to precedents, such as the Royal Opera at London's Covent Garden and the Munich Opera, that informed design elements such as the cladding.
Green Strategies in a Controlled Environment
Besides the colossal sun-shading canopy, the building has other features that improve energy-efficiency. When asked about the challenges of energy-efficient design in theaters, McGrath says, "It's difficult in an auditorium building. You can't have natural ventilation and in a climate like Dallas — there needs to be humidity control."
The firm opted for displacement cooling — a low-velocity system that brings cool air in low, where it lingers, and vents warm air high in a space. The low-flow system includes a register under each seat, creating a microzone of cool air for each audience member.
The same "pool of cool air" strategy was used in the lobby, where HVAC registers target places where people congregate. And while the theater itself must be carefully thermally controlled, the lobby can be naturally ventilated through the large glass doors when the weather permits.
Appropriately, it's at night that the Winspear Opera really shines. The dominance of the canopy acquiesces to the ruby glow of the opera house itself, washed entirely with red-filtered light.
The historical references are much more literal on the interior of the main hall. The 2,200-seat theater is the classic pinched horseshoe shape. The space has an intimate character, with the three levels of vertically stacked balconies less than 90 feet (27 meters) away from the stage — the distance between adjacent bases on a baseball field.
The treatment of the theater space is somewhat subdued for an opera house. Only a couple of detail flourishes highlight the dark-red interior. The convex balcony faces are gilded with white-gold leaf and have a horizontal scalloped pattern, as if raked methodically with a rounded chisel. That balcony shape and surface treatment help distribute sound in the hall.
The centerpiece of the space is an enormous chandelier made up of 320 illuminated acrylic rods. In classic opera-house style, the rods retract into the ceiling as the lights dim at curtain time.
It's perhaps easy to stereotype cities such as Dallas, with a reputation for profit-oriented cowboy culture. But Dallas has a few surprises left. Several years ago when the city introduced light rail, many scoffed that the denizens of the city would never leave their cars behind to ride the rails. But, surpassing the hipper (and smaller) Austin, whose single rail transit line has barely left the station, the successful and expanding DART rail system will soon be serving the Dallas Arts District.
The city has perhaps also felt outpaced by sister-city Fort Worth's stellar museums, and Houston's well-heeled art scene. Now Dallas, one might think, has plenty to be proud of.
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Michael Cockram is a freelance writer and adjunct assistant professor of architecture at the University of Oregon. More by Michael Cockram