The Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre looks like a moon lander in the middle of the Dallas Arts District, a shimmering aluminum cube in a brick and limestone world, at once coolly remote and eerily seductive. For architects Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus, the Wyly was an opportunity to reinvent the contemporary theater by combining ultimate spatial flexibility with maximum mechanical ingenuity. Whereas conventional theaters usually flow horizontally, with the stage in the middle and support spaces to the sides, the Wyly rises nine stories with the lobby below grade, the stage at street level, and offices, rehearsal studios, and a costume shop stacked on top in another version of Koolhaas' “vertical city.”
“Going up allowed us to free the ground plane so that control of how the play is seen or changed passes to the director instead of the building,” explains principal-in-charge Joshua Prince-Ramus, who previously headed OMA's New York office before starting his own firm, REX.
The interiors are uniformly raw and industrial: gray concrete walls, sleek aluminum canopies, chain link that feels like fabric on the staircase walls, all surrounded by pulleys, winches, ladders, and catwalks that you'd expect to find in an engine room. Seats and sets fly up into the ceiling at the touch of a button; the stage can be reconfigured from proscenium to thrust to flat floor in a matter of hours, dramatically reducing labor and production costs. Perhaps the only precedent for such mechanical pizzazz is Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius' 1927 design for a “Total Theater,” but it wasn't built, allowing the Wyly to corner the performing machine market.
A centerpiece of Dallas' $355 million AT&T Performing Arts Center—a complex of two performance venues—the Wyly is supported by massive steel and concrete X braces that are sheathed in slender aluminum tubes reminiscent of a rippling theater curtain. Lighting designer Suzan Tillotson inserted simple MR16 lamps in the tubes to create pools of light around the base of the building, “enhancing its mystery without going overboard.”
More challenging was finding ways to pull audiences into the Wyly's sunken lobby, then up elevators and staircases to the Potter Rose Performance Hall, without making them feel like they'd wandered into the house that Jack built. Tillotson's solution is a grid of slender fluorescent tubes in the lobby ceiling that extends up a narrow staircase to the stage. The tubes read as minimalist extrusions, like the exterior aluminum tubes, thus complementing the spare industrial look of the rest of the building. “Those tough interiors forced us not to get fussy or precious,” Tillotson explains.
In the 600-seat performance hall Tillotson chose to light the audience and make the architecture disappear, not that there was much to deal with. Decorative blackout curtains had already been cut for budget reasons, leaving only balcony fascias and a warren of pulleys and platforms overhead. For the audience she designed custom LED lights on the sidewalls to help people read their programs and find their seats.
The program for the rest of the building was bare bones and the lighting follows suit: Fluorescent sources for workspaces, halogen lamps for highlighting. No fancy fixtures or clever special effects, not that Tillotson stopped lobbying for them. Her early drawings of the ninth floor rehearsal space, for example, show richly textured and painted walls with 2- to 4-foot-diameter acrylic balls suspended from the ceiling. But for budget reasons the walls ended up as painted gypsum board and the globes became ordinary PAR lamps in recessed sockets. “Layers kept getting peeled off until we were down to concrete and plywood, period,” she recalls.
Yet while a few of what she calls “glamour touches” might have produced a livelier and more engaging theater, the Wyly is ultimately a working building, a “machine for performing in,” in Corbusian terms, that doesn't need potentially dated flourishes.
Far more problematic is the sharp break between the Wyly plaza and the grander Sammons Park in front of the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House across the street. The arts center master plan shows the two as visually and metaphorically linked, the pools and greenery of one carrying across Flora Street to the Wyly. In Tillotson's early sketches, the Wyly lobby extends out to the street as a bed of light, including thin illuminated strips in sidewalks and pavement.
Those remain but most everything else was eliminated, including water features and decorative lighting on the plaza floor. The city of Dallas compounded the problem by insisting that the tall and intensely bright street lamps remain in front of the building, effectively killing the glow from the lobby. “Those things really tied our hands,” Tillotson says. “The whole plaza area got diluted to the point that you can't see it as one whole thing.”
That said, critical reaction to the Wyly has been largely positive. The theatrical machinery has worked nearly flawlessly; the audience experience, except for poor sight lines on the side balconies, has been excellent. Artistic director Kevin Moriarty says that the Wyly has exceeded expectations, with the caveat that it is an experiment that must be tested and retested over the next few years.
Most of the testing will take place inside, on the stage. Outside, the Wyly is what it is, a shimmering silver cube that absorbs the ambient light around it and, like theater itself, transforms it into something exciting and occasionally magical.
David Dillon was the architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News for 20 years and now teaches in the architecture school at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.