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Attitudes toward the arts have changed radically since the initial plan for the center respectfully aligned each institution along a single street (Flora). Today, generous open spaces intended to attract crowds of nontheatergoers are considered as important as the buildings themselves. To encourage this democratization, the architects enlivened the plan with new axes that link the buildings with plazas and the surrounding streets—notably a north–south path perpendicular to Flora. Consequently, the Winspear now shares with I.M. Pei’s Meyerson Symphony Center (1989) an inviting 10-acre park and an orientation rotated 30 degrees from the street.
The horizontal thrust of the Winspear’s massive solar canopy provides a nice contrast to the verticality of the Wyly Theatre by REX/OMA across Flora Street. Stretching 463 by 378 feet, the canopy surrounds the red-glass drum that encloses the building’s auditorium, stage, fly tower, and cooling towers. A steel structure with anodized-aluminum louvers set at various angles to follow the sun’s path, it offers solar protection for a public plaza and the 60-foot-high glass walls wrapping around the building’s lobby. In good weather, sliding glass panels running the entire length of the east side of the lobby open so visitors in the restaurant and café can sit or mingle outside.
By creating a temperate outdoor oasis, the canopy reduces heating and cooling loads on indoor spaces. The architects employed a number of other energy-saving strategies, including a displacement ventilation system in the hall that pumps air from the floor—cooling people but not all the space above them. They also landscaped the shady refuge under the pergolalike structure with squares of lawn and wildflower plantings and a black-granite reflecting pool where a film of water hovers above the names of donors, flush with the surrounding pavement. While the canopy’s enormous grid extends the building’s reach outdoors and helps to define an enlarged public realm, its scale and rigidity are oppressive.
Reversing the traditional color scheme for opera houses, Foster put red on the outside, not the inside, of the hall, making it the district’s most prominent constituent. The firm clad the Winspear’s concrete drum with bright ruby PVB (polyvinyl butyral) interlayers laminated between two sheets of glass. By illuminating the colorful skin from both the back and front, the designers were able to create bold signage in the daytime and at night, when the house is washed in a red glow of light.
In a daring gesture in car-centric Dallas, the architects placed egress from underground parking in the landscaped plaza outside the building, forcing all patrons to enter through the same set of doors on grade. However, what might have been a dramatic processional fails to materialize because the entrance aligns with the arts center’s new north–south axis rather than the opera house’s main axis. So visitors enter to one side of the grand stairway that anchors the enormous lobby, an arrangement akin to slipping in the side door. Furthermore, the performance hall’s red-glass panels, while effective from the exterior, fail to warm up the rather cool feeling of the lofty glass-and-aluminum lobby. Circulation nevertheless appears to be efficient, via elevators and wide stairs that hug the theater’s curve, with bars and cafés on the first and second levels.
The theater itself offers a warmer environment. Like many new auditoriums, it has double doors to isolate sound at every level. It employs a traditional horseshoe configuration, which Bob Essert, the opera’s acoustical consultant, deems “a guarantee of good acoustics.” Four gently sloped tiers of seating only 90 feet from the stage make the hall feel exceptionally intimate. The glass-fiber-reinforced-concrete fronts of these balconies, which look like crinkled ribbons when illuminated, stand out against the dark brown, textured-plaster peripheral walls and make the 2,200-seat theater feel smaller than it is. By continuing the balconies’ top tier in a ring in front of the barely noticeable proscenium, the architects further enhanced this effect. A fire curtain designed by Argentine artist Guillermo Kuitca protects the main stage, which is supplemented with an ample rear stage and wings, all equipped with state-of-the-art technology. A 70-foot-tall retractable chandelier made of 318 thin, acrylic light rods, along with charcoal-gray Ultrasuede upholstery and burnt walnut floors, complete the house’s elegant decor.
Following Bill Winspear’s insistence that the new house be first and foremost for opera (with other kinds of performance, such as dance and touring shows taking second place), Essert aimed for a warm, voluptuous sound best suited for the mainstream 18th- and 19th-century operas featured by the Dallas company. He achieved this and more, as attested by New York Times chief music critic Anthony Tommasini, who cited the Winspear’s exceptional combination of “richness and resonance” and its bright, clear sound. But for those who heard Foster’s garbled comments on opening night, some fine-tuning is still needed when amplification is used.
Spencer de Grey, one of Foster’s senior partners, points out that his team made many decisions with acoustics in mind. So they built the hall basically of timber on concrete with hard textured plaster walls on masonry in the theater to reinforce bass response, and designed slightly convex peripheral walls to help disperse sound and prevent echoes. A large, open orchestra pit—which can be raised and lowered on two lifts—accommodates up to 100 musicians.
De Grey is particularly enthusiastic about an outdoor performance space currently under construction that aims to reinforce the building’s reputation for reaching out to the public. Connected with the opera house and protected by the solar canopy, this outdoor square will continue a tradition of pop concerts and fiestas that for decades have attracted as many as 5,000 people a night.
The Winspear stands in a long line of opera houses that reserve innovation for the exterior rather than for the theater inside. Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House (1973) in Australia, and more recently Snøhetta’s Norwegian National Opera House in Oslo (2009) come to mind in this regard. Most of these schemes employ the horseshoe configuration established by Carlo Fontana in Venice more than 300 years ago and championed by Essert today; one of the few exceptions is Zaha Hadid’s unbuilt Cardiff Bay Opera House (1994–96).
For half a century, cultural institutions have served as linchpins for urban renewal and expansion. So in addition to its success as a superior home for opera and its ability to adapt to other genres, the Winspear will be judged on how well it can overcome the elitist isolation of an earlier era and connect with the city around it.
Foster + Partners
Norman Foster (Registered UK)
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Sigma Marble – Stonework
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Anton Cabinetry – Millwork
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Vision Products - Glass Ornamental Handrail
Greenscape Pump Services - Fountain Work
ValleyCrest Landscape Develop. - Landscape & Irrigation
J.R. Clancy - Performance Equipment
Clair Brothers - Performance Sound, Video & Communication Equip.
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