Wyly Theatre by REX and OMA
The lobby is tucked below grade, with an enormous splaying, sloped entry that opens to the arts district's main plaza space. The ramped entry is perhaps the most problematic element of the project. Despite its grand scale and layers of articulation, the Wyly suffers from a kind of loading-dock aesthetic. The looping vehicular drop-off slices through the pedestrian path, and the zigzagging wheelchair ramp is grueling.
Inside, the lobby is an intentionally simple space of concrete and glass. According to Prince-Ramus, one idea of the entry sequence was to leave patrons without any major distractions as they entered the performance space.
"Kevin Moriarty, the artistic director of the [Dallas Theater Center], told us that [in a typical theater] they lose the first five minutes of every production just getting the architecture of the theater out of the audience's head," explained Prince-Ramus in a recent interview.
Rehearsal and administrative spaces are placed above the main hall — named the Potter Rose Performance Hall — and backstage and mechanical areas are located below.
The Multiform Theater
The building's vertical arrangement accommodates one of the project's basic programmatic concepts: that the theater should be able to adjust to a variety of performance situations, from black-box theater to rock concerts. Through a series of clever technical and mechanical moves, the performance hall can be transformed easily, by a small team of stagehands, into several different configurations, such as proscenium, thrust, and flat floor.
This "multiform" concept was inspired partly by the warehouse-like building, formerly located where the Wyly now stands, that previously housed the Dallas Theater Center (DTC), one of the Wyly's resident performing arts groups.
Since they were working in a kind of blank architectural slate in that former home, members of the DTC found they could make dramatic changes to the building without worrying about damaging the aesthetics. At one point, a director brought a backhoe into the building to dig a huge pit in the floor for a special production.
"That's what made the company special," Prince-Ramus says of the theater company's evolution into multiform theater. "We thought the Wyly should engender the freedom of the original building."
The architects' boldest decision was to extend the theater fly space. In addition to the conventional fly tower for set pieces above the main stage area, the performance hall includes expanded fly space to accommodate three balcony-seating assemblies.
Mounted on four-story-high steel frames, the balconies can completely disappear upward into the fly space, lifted by arena scoreboard lifts. Other seating can be reoriented. The room's raked floor can be leveled, with the seats either folded down or removed, resulting in a blank open floor. Add a modular stage that can expand and contract, and two large pivoting glass doors that can open the space to the exterior, and the space can shape-shift into myriad different types of performance spaces, with between zero and 575 seats.
Also unusual are the performance hall's three glazed sides. Enormous opaque curtains integrated into the window and door assemblies can be raised to allow the building's surroundings to serve as theatrical backdrop, and to enable passersby to see in.
Since the design team wanted the option of openness and transparency at ground level, the building had to go through some structural gymnastics during construction. One of the main structural columns at the building's northwest corner was eliminated to reduce the barriers between the theater space and its surroundings. This allowed for the pivoting doors at that corner to give an alternative entry directly into the performance hall.
The building essentially had to be structured twice — first with temporary steel columns that held truss-work that wrapped the building's midsection. Six large concrete columns were poured in place, several of which are angled to support the enormous cantilever at the open corner and to provide lateral bracing. As the steel columns were removed, the entire building frame was lowered with jacks onto the permanent structure.
Rather than the architects imposing a heroic vision of form above function, the Wyly Theatre's aesthetic grew from a collaboration with the client — the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts, now the AT&T Performing Arts Center — and the Dallas Theater Center, focusing on programmatic and technical issues of the project, says Prince-Ramus in a TED talk. Integral to the design process was the step of "productively losing control," as he puts it — being open to opportunities that arise naturally from the collaborative process.
For example, in considering aluminum cladding for the exterior, the design team sought a way to reduce the amount of material used. They came up with an idea of a screen wall made up of aluminum tubes. The team found that an efficient round cross-section could have a very thin wall thickness and still resist denting — a concern in hailstorm-prone Dallas. "I never would have sketched this [detail] early in the process" adds Prince-Ramus.
As for the investment in theatrical flexibility, DTC artistic director Moriarty asserts that it will take five years of productions to see how it pays off.
This is an experiment in theater design well worth watching.
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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