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The end of an era for costly city arts districts?

'Regardless of the stars involved, there is a distinct difficulty with contemporary buildings in great quantities--I include myself in this lack of resolution,' Rem Koolhaas tells me at the opening of OMA and REX's Wyly Theatre in Dallas. He may be right.

Despite the proliferation of downtown arts districts worldwide, those that proudly bring together high-profile architects--think Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island--often end up as beacons of celebrity obsession and an architecture completely apathetic to sense or context.

Dallas is the most recent example of one such district, but there's something else about it--its location, scale and the buildings involved--that works admirably, especially its two new venues, Wyly Theatre and Foster + Partners' Winspear Opera House. Wyly Theatre itself has been subject of much attention, having been started by OMA and co-designed by Koolhaas and then-partner Joshua Prince-Ramus. Halfway through the project, Prince-Ramus very publicly left OMA to found his own firm, REX, finishing the project under that name, but now co-presenting it with Koolhaas. This drama -detailed in global publications and local papers alike--sums up the symbolic weight of such developments. When renowned architects design on a single site, each building becomes a product of that office and, specifically, the figureheads of that office. So these sites become (for some subconsciously and for others, overtly) emblematic of different polemics and positions on architecture.


In the case of Dallas, this tension is fascinating. Comparing OMA/REX's Wyly Theatre with Foster's Winspear Opera House reveals two contrasting approaches. With the Wyly, OMA and REX began with an ingenious reconfiguration of space. Rather than breaking up the front of house, auditorium and backstage into a linear string of disjointed volumes, the designers chose to stack these vertically into a tall, rectangular box. Visitors enter through a somewhat understated lobby, sunk via a ramp to below ground level. There they move up to the main performance space, a reconfigurable room that accommodates different performance types through mechanically operated seating and movable floor panels. Upper floors hold dressing rooms and rehearsal spaces plus a host of public and private functions.

Although the Winspear sits just across the Performing Arts Centre's main thoroughfare, the ideological gulf between it and the Wyly is huge. A cavernous and hyper-detailed entrance hall is dominated by curving red glass walls that envelops the auditorium beyond. There is no elasticity here, just a manicured finish. Starting at the rather sloppily detailed Wyly and then coming here, is to move from experiment to environment, and each is thrilling for entirely different reasons. The Winspear's gold leaf and walnut decor and ruby-tinted glass exude a magnetic finesse. This has the effect of directing attention away from the floor-to-ceiling glazing that frames an uninspiring landscape and instead, focuses it on the quality of the space itself. And while there is nothing overtly interesting about the building's form or layout, its superficial pleasures and material sophistication propose an alternative to the Wyly's playful, mechanic aesthetic.


The history of the site is paramount to understanding how these particular buildings function. The Dallas Centre for the Performing Arts--now the AT&T Performing Arts Centre, a tellingly corporate name change--also includes the Booker T Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, extended and refurbished by Brad Cloepfil's Allied Works Architecture and the Morton H Meyerson Symphony Centre by IM Pei, completed in 1989. Covering 68 acres in the centre of Dallas, the site was originally a regeneration project launched in 1983, a date that coincides with the rise of mega-projects across the US, including Battery Park City in New York and Downtown Los Angeles. In the 1980s, the Dallas site comprised Pei's Symphony Hall and the Edward Larabee Barnes' Museum of Art (completed in 1984), expanding in 2003 with the Nasher Sculpture Centre, designed by Renzo Piano (AR June 2004) and later with Cloepfil's high school.

The Wyly and Winspear are thus part of a larger vision, but their simultaneity and timing suggest that they're part of a post-Bilbao, archi-tourism push. Yet I would argue that this is only true of the Wyly. As with Pei's and Piano's contributions, the Winspear blends with the innocuous and largely corporate architecture of Dallas. And while those buildings are all vastly superior to their surroundings, they don't disrupt the fabric of the city in the way that the Wyly does. Which brings us back to Koolhaas. 'These types of mega-developments usually lead to orthodox and safe things--this is slightly more daring,' he says. The development of this building, which according to both Koolhaas and PrinceRamus, came about through realising that the theatre it replaced functioned beautifully thanks to its lack of design determinants, thus representing a nod towards the experimental.

With several projects on this scale recently aborted--New York's Hudson Yards, Atlantic Yards and World Trade Center--the completion of this project is a testament to long-term planning strategies. More amazing still is the volume of local, private financial support. To date, the city has only given the Centre US$18m of its total US$354m budget. A massive US$335m was raised privately, with more than 130 families donating over US$1m. This extraordinary support suggests how and why such endeavours, which without it might fail or at least respond to fluctuations in the market.


Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic for the New York Times, recently wrote that the Dallas Performing Arts Centre marked the end of an era of such ambitious, culture-led developments across the country. I couldn't agree more. Ronald Reagan's decentralisation and removal of city funding equipped urban mayors to fight for mega-developments, but these projects soon wear thin. Too many are failing and too many more are proposed to give a realistic picture of their traction and longevity. Yet if Ouroussoff is right and this is the finale of an era, Dallas is a great note to end on, as a reminder of what once was and could have been. By blending the corporate with the experimental and the conservative with the spectacular, it shows that boundaries can be quietly and effectively pushed

Rather than competing with each other in gloss and shine, Dallas' steady accumulation of cultural landmarks form an anthology of architecture and evoke an inspiring sense of what discourse could and should produce. The development is a testament to thoughtful planning initiatives and a welcome relief from New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's MTV-generation model of frenetic attempts at mega-projects that have, sadly, overwhelmingly, failed.
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Title Annotation:DALLAS, USA
Author:Kolb, Jaffer
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:7UNIT
Date:Dec 1, 2009
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