Outside, Dallasâ City Performance Hall â" its upswept roof capping a stern assemblage of concrete and glass â" will win no beauty contests. Inside, though, the newest building in the Dallas Arts District supplies a handsome and versatile 750-seat theater designed for a range of performances.
Although designed for future expansion, this is the last of the arts facilities planned for one of the largest such complexes in the country, with four buildings by winners of architectureâs coveted Pritzker Prize. Previous buildings here have been built with various mixes of public and private funds. This one, $40.5 million worth, was funded entirely by the city of Dallas from a 2006 bond election.
In still-straitened times, no unseemly luxuries have been lavished on it. In the company of its âlook at meâ neighbors â" the red-cored, broadly sun-shaded Winspear Opera House and the Wyly Theatre with its aluminum-tube cladding â" the City Performance Hall is an architectural plain Jane.
The curtain-wall faÃ§ade, facing Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and the poured-in-place concrete walls could belong to an anonymous corporate office in Richardson. Even inside, with the exception of an LED stage âcurtain,â youâll see no materials more exotic than board-formed concrete, cinder blocks and white oak.
Within budget constraints, though, design architect Leigh Breslau and colleagues in the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, working with experienced theater and acoustical consultants, got their priorities right â" from the inside out. The performance chamber is crisply attractive, and if the adjustable acoustics are rightly managed, the sound will be first-rate. The stage is surprisingly large and fully equipped for music, theater and dance.
All buildings are sets of compromises, and this one is especially so. Itâs the cityâs answer to smaller arts organizations wanting a presence here. But many of the nearly 70 groups surveyed desired smaller performance spaces, and many canât afford rental fees $1,400 and up.
The facility that opened this past week is only Phase 1 of a master plan. The complete design calls for adding two small âblack boxâ theaters, flexible performance spaces, on the west side of the present building, and an education, art gallery and cafÃ© wing on the east.
But the Dallas City Council figured a project probably twice as expensive would be a hard sell for a bond election. So this is only the biggest of the three planned performance spaces, plus main lobby and backstage amenities; landscaping at the sides delineates the planned additions, even the swoops of adjacent roofs to come.
Unfortunately, the City Performance Hall lands with a thud. Outside, its sole expressionist touch is the flowing ribbon roof, which follows the interior spaces. A performing arts venue, of all things, deserves a faÃ§ade bolder, more articulated, more inviting, than that drab curtain wall.
At least, unlike the remote Winspear and Wyly, the building does come right out to engage the sidewalk. At night, when most performances happen, passers-by will see crowds milling around in the lobby.
Breaking up the lobby into two levels seems arbitrary and off-putting. But the space is high, wide and light-filled, expanses of glass giving lively views of the Arts District and skyscrapers beyond. Side walls are the same 18-inch-thick concrete slabs seen outside. A cinder-block wall partitions off the performance chamber, some of the blocks slotted to dampen the acoustics. Thereâs no permanent box office, but tables can be placed as wished.
The floor is pebbly polished concrete. The ceiling is lined with strips of white oak in varied thicknesses, with sound-absorptive batting behind. (Without such treatments, a big space with so many hard surfaces would be very loud and reverberant.)
Still, itâs acoustically lively, and the lobby has been conceived as an alternate performance space. Between two sets of steps leading to the higher level, a spread of built-in oak bleachers faces the glass faÃ§ade. A staircase on the east side, with a spacious landing, supplies lively geometries.
Isolated by double sound-lock doors, the shoebox-shape theater is loftier than youâd expect for a mere 750 seats, allowing plenty of space for sound to bloom. A succession of convex white-oak reflectors overhead helps project sound from stage to audience. The single balcony, accommodating one third of the seats, is higher than you expect, too, and slightly cantilevered out from the walls. This, too, favors more enveloping sonics.
Check out the walls
The walls are the buildingâs most striking feature: roughhewn board-formed concrete, the horizontal slabs in apparently random lengths and depths. This helps disperse sound and break up echoes, but when lighted lends an interesting sculptural effect.
Thirteen acoustical banners, of double-layer wool, can be lowered over the walls by remote control. When fully retracted, the room has nearly three seconds of reverberation, ideal for choral and some chamber-orchestra music; when lowered, the banners allow drier acoustics for speech, theater or amplified music.
Crisply modern seats and floors on side terraces continue the white oak accents, as does the finish of the orchestra shell, which can be deployed or stored in about two hoursâ time. The same open metal-grille railings, with oak caps and grips, are used in both the theater and the lobby.
The generous stage, 108 feet wide by 40 feet deep, is fronted by an apron that lowers to provide an orchestra pit that can accommodate a fair-size chamber orchestra. The proscenium can be narrowed by pull-out panels for smaller-scale presentations.
Backstage spaces are anything but glamorous, and apart from hallways thereâs not nearly enough room for members of larger ensembles. That was one of the compromises. But thereâs a surprising amount of natural light from big windows, a rarity in back-of-house areas.
If the rest of the City Performance Hall master plan is ever funded and executed, the counterpoint of parallel ribbon roofs, swooping up and down, will provide more visual interest.
In the meantime, if the new building can be made financially viable for smaller area groups, it promises a very fine performance facility, filling in a gap otherwise unserved in the Arts District. And the airy, open interior is one of the districtâs handsomest spaces.
AT A GLANCE: City Performance Hall
Address: 2520 Flora St., Dallas
Size: 60,000 square feet
Cost: $40.5 million
Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Chicago
Architect of record: Corgan Associates Inc.
Landscape architect: Caye Cook & Associates
Theater consultant: Schuler Shook
Acoustical consultant: Jaffe Holden
Contractor: McCarthy Building Companies Inc.
Four days of opening festivities conclude Sunday. The performances are free and open to the public. Info: 214-671-1450. dallasculture.org/cityperformancehall
Noon: Le Theatre de Marionette. Hall stage.
12:15 p.m.: Mariachi Quetzal. Hall lobby.
1 p.m.: Orchestra of New Spain. Stage
1:30 p.m.: Lone Star Wind Orchestra and LSWO Percussion Ensemble. Lobby,
2 p.m.: Jason Davis. Stage.
2:30 p.m.: Greiner Middle School Summer Strings. Lobby.
3 p.m.: Lone Star Wind Orchestra. Stage.
3:30 p.m.: Maharlika Dancers. Lobby.
4:30 p.m.: Dallas Chamber Symphony. Lobby.
5:30 p.m.: Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico. Lobby.
6 p.m.: The Womenâs Chorus of Dallas. Stage.