5 Frustrating Things about the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts

It's been too long since I last had a stay in Dallas, but a recent trip finally gave me the chance to check out the AT&T Center for the Performing Arts, which was completed back in October. By now, plenty of articles (mostly positive) have been written on the two major new constructions here, Norman Foster's Winspear Opera House and REX & OMA's Wyly Theater. Far fewer words, however, have been dedicated to the Center's outdoor spaces, which are the only parts of the complex that are always accessible to the public. In my own visit to the site, I was shocked to find that the project planners, too, seemed to have forgotten about these outdoor spaces, leaving them with several inadequacies that effectively overshadowed the dizzying amount of starchitecture (Foster, REX/Koolhaas, Pei, Piano!) occupying these few blocks in the downtown area. Having eagerly awaited my first experience of this new urban space's heavily promoted grandeur, I left the Center feeling more frustrated than anything else. Here is why:

1.) The difficulty of a pedestrian approach from surrounding neighborhoods.

The Center for the Performing Arts is largely bounded by major highways that lead into and out of the downtown Dallas area. While this condition allows dramatic views of the complex from passing cars, it does so at the expense of the pedestrian approaching on foot.

My walk to the Center took a particularly arduous eastern approach. While the Center's northern edge is bounded by a sub-surface freeway, the eastern edge is defined by an enormous series of rumbling overpasses. These monumental constructions essentially cut off the site visually from its eastern surroundings, making it difficult to apprehend until you are right upon it. More problematically, they present an intimidating sensory barrier that is sure to discourage residents of East Dallas from considering their own walking trips towards the Arts District. Thick pillars shudder under the weight of the heavy traffic above, which bombards the spaces underneath with a constant and inescapable drone. The Texas heat, as unbearable as any, cannot be tempered in this concrete no man's land. Worse still, attempts for a quick escape are foiled by confusing surface-level traffic patterns and pedestrian signals. The city has evidently attempted to mitigate these problems by landscaping the underpasses with mulch, rocks, and small plants. However, these efforts appear as bandaids to a bullet wound.

The North Dallas Expressway provides a less than welcoming gateway
to the eastern edge of the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts.

Approaching the Center from the north and west is also a daunting task at present, as one must pass over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway via the noisy and barren N. Pearl St. bridge. Happily, the city and its private partners have recognized this problem and are already beginning construction on Woodall Rodgers Park, a 5.2 acre urban green space that will cover the existing Freeway between Pearl and St. Paul streets. The park, which is scheduled to open in 2011, is sure to make a walk from the Arts District to the burgeoning Uptown Dallas district more pleasant. However, I can't help but feel that like the Center's Sammons Park (see below), the promise of this new outdoor space is probably being overstated. It is especially suspicious that a park expressing "connectivity" as its central purpose is still surrounded on all sides by streets that are open to car traffic. More on this as the Woodall Rodgers Park develops.

2.) Flora Street, Fairmount Street, Leonard Street, & Crockett Street.

These four streets, which run directly through the Center for the Performing Arts, are perhaps the single most baffling element of the completed project. If a large part of the initial intent behind the Center was to create dynamic new outdoor urban spaces for Dallas, this goal was nullified the second that it was decided to allow car traffic into the heart of this site. Yes, the planners have attempted to soften the roads by varying material colors and textures, but this has done little to disguise the reality that these surfaces are rough, hot, and ultimately designed for cars instead of humans. Worse yet, the roads required that awkward metal barriers be installed along the boundaries of each individual building site, ensuring that each respective building would be further separated from the others by distinct visual edges.

Where dynamic and accessible green spaces could have tied together the Center's
competing starchitecture, we get only concrete, asphalt, and cars.

It's maddening to imagine how wonderful these public outdoor spaces could have been for the city of Dallas, which noticeably lacks any sizable downtown outdoor area for gathering or relaxing. Large swathes of trees, bushes, small plants, ponds, and rock gardens were certainly possible here, and would have provided welcome sources of relief from the surrounding areas of concrete and car congestion. Such outdoor spaces would have also established a clear link between the competing buildings of the Center, and their development in lieu of more roads would have delivered a whole new set of riders to the city's rapidly expanding public transit system.

Instead, the cars are invited in, and any chance of the Center becoming a place that people might want to hang around in after shows is forfeited. It's interesting that in the lead up to the project, the plaza between these buildings was boasted to be bigger than London's Trafalgar Square. That certainly sounded impressive back then, but now seems like an empty statement. In the end, size doesn't really matter much when it is dedicated to the automobile and not the pedestrian.

3.) Sammons Park.

Elaine D. and Charles A. Sammons Park is described on the DCPA site as a "10 acre urban park that will embrace and unify the venues of the AT&T Performing Arts center...a lush urban oasis, a dynamic cultural destination in downtown Dallas". The real thing is a far cry from that description. Surely the Park's planning was doomed to yield a piecemeal outcome once roads were brought into the mix, but even the small parts of the site that Sammons now occupies have not been well executed. The Park's trees, which are already at a mature stage, seem sparsely organized in a way that does not relate to the architecture. The "large expanses of grass" that DCPA promised are actually not very large at all, and get regularly interrupted by larger expanses of concrete. The largest designated outdoor performance space, Annette Strauss Artist Square, has been pushed to the northwestern corner of the Winspear Opera House (next to the highway), a move that appears to have been forced by the need to leave enough open outdoor space under the building's front canopy. A sloping ramp down into the Wyly Theater, which was intended to be covered with water and trees, has been reduced to yet another large, thinly planted concrete surface due to budgetary constraints.

And then there are the cars. Lexus, which is sponsoring the Broadway Series Inaugural Season, has made certain that its corporate support is well known by positioning three of its cars in the open spaces outside the venues - one car in front of the Wyly, the other two in front of the Winspear. Even the architectural efforts of Mr. Foster, Mr. Prince-Ramus of REX, and Mr. Koolhaas of OMA cannot trump the presence of these automobiles, which at the moment are the primary visual elements in the mostly empty space between their two buildings. It's almost as if the Center's benefactors were worried that the streets surrounding each of these buildings would not be enough to remind theatergoers that this town is dominated by a culture of cars. After all, what shame is there in a little redundancy to get the point across? Plenty, in this case.

The areas in front of the performance venues are reduced to mall-like shrines for Lexus automobiles.

4.) The Center's failure to reach towards a broader populace.

With its luxury car-park, expensive venues, and lack of substantial park space, the Center for the Performing Arts is going to have a tough time shedding the elitist label that it has been burdened with ever since private funding first started coming through in the earlier part of the last decade. The fact that luxury apartment buildings keep sprouting up in the general vicinity of the Center only reinforces the notion that the most common visitors to this site will likely be the wealthier urbanites that are primarily interested in seeing an occasional show and leaving. Even the best new strategy for pedestrian access, the aforementioned Woodall Rodgers Park, has been geared towards engaging the wealthy and expanding Uptown Dallas District, while connections to the poorer neighborhoods of East and South Dallas have been left unaddressed.

In between shows, the Center for the Performing Arts does not possess any sort of draw to those who might be passing by, and it certainly has not yet become an urban destination for Dallas residents. In fact, as I walked around the Center and its venues, I never encountered a single person, although the weather was pleasant and nearby streets in the city were full of activity. It was an eery reminder that more often than not, the character of the spaces between buildings and not the buildings themselves is what governs a sustained public presence in urban areas. Here, the close proximity of two glimmering new constructions by some of the most famous architects in the world was evidently of little consequence to the citizens of Dallas. Why would it be? The buildings themselves are closed during most hours, the outdoor spaces surrounding them are devoid of program, and the carefully manicured grass and rough concrete surfaces are hardly inviting places to sit down and take in the day.

Few people seem to be drawn into this "lush urban oasis"

5.) The project hype & associated imagery.

Over a year ago, I made a brief post about a series of models of the Center for the Performing Arts that were on display at the Trammell Crow Center in downtown Dallas. Looking at the images of these models now, I realize that they misrepresent the spaces between buildings. Many of the landscaping elements, including the trees and gardens, are either overstated or nonexistent. The reflecting pool in front of the Winspear Opera House, which is barely noticeable on the finished site, is modeled as a significant part of the approach to the building. No cars are shown on Flora Street, which is crowded with pedestrians that are spilling over from the Winspear Opera House towards the Wyly Theater, letting on a false sense of connectivity between the two buildings.

The text and renderings that accompany the Center are similarly misleading. Sammons Park is hardly the "lush urban oasis" that it is touted as, and might better be described as "the small amount of green space that could fit between the roads, cars, concrete, and buildings". The Center is not a "dynamic cultural destination" but rather an empty urban space that is periodically enlivened by the activities that occur within each respective venue. The spaces directly around each building, shown in various irradiant images (see below) to be bustling with life, felt much less invigorating on the day that I visited, when no special events were planned and the site was absent any people. To add insult to injury, the project imagery is abundantly displayed on large boards at the edge of the site, allowing the discrepancies between the dream and the reality to become much more apparent.

The glowing renderings of both the Wyly Theater and Winspear Opera House (above),
which continue to be displayed across much of the finished site, are overblown and misleading

The Dallas Center for the Performing Arts tries to have its cake and eat it too, and ends up suffering mightily from this strategy. While the city and its donors have made a bold move in devoting so much time, land, and capital to the cause of developing new public spaces, they have done so under the mistaken belief that these spaces could draw in crowds of pedestrians even as they continued to cater heavily towards those who would rather drive everywhere. Until the powers that be here can shed their focus from this convenience of the car, a most detrimental of cultural conceits, Dallas may never truly achieve the kind of world class public places for gathering and recreation that it has gone for so long without.

So to those orchestrating the continued development of the Arts District, I beg of you: Shut down these roads to anything but a pedestrian. Remove the obtrusive emblems to your corporate sponsors. Devote more space and resources to the "lush urban oasis" that is supposed to exist amongst these buildings. In short, return to the original purpose of this development, stated 32 years ago in the 1978 Carr-Lynch report: "...to bring the arts into the lives of the people of Dallas, in an immediate and personal way, in the course of everyday life" [1]. If things remain as they are, it's hard to see that happening.

Editor's Note: Parts of this article had erroneously credited the Wyly Theater to REX when in fact it should have been credited to both REX & The Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). Our apologies for the oversight.

[1] http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/ent/stories/DN-district_0608gl.State.Bulldog.222cdd6.html


Get on the Bus! said...

Just as a heads up, the improvements under the highway were largely sponsored by the Bryan Place Neighborhood Association. There were some funds provided by the city, but the work was by the neighbors directly to the East of the Arts District.

Needless to say, they want an 'avenue for the arts' very badly, and having walked/bicycled there numerous times, I echo your sentiments.

larchlion said...

You are absolutely right on all of the above. Glad someone else is saying it instead of me. I think people have grown tired of me pointing out the flaws in the District.

One thing that I didn't see addressed was building's role in creating the platform for success of urban public spaces.

At the very least buildings need to either form space or stand out as sculptural objects. Some can even do both as the Winspear at least attempted, and to a lesser extent One Arts Plaza. I think the Nasher was successful at this.

Some of the buidings do acknowledge the role in shaping space but are undermined by various forces as you point out: the barriers of the highways, the lack of a contributing urban context, which is undermined by clustering all of these facilities together, or thru clumsy design such as the bizarre plantings in front of the Winspear or the sunken ramp to the Wyly.

Buildings have to create order out of the space, both internally and externally. While the insides of the Wyly are fascinating, that shouldn't mean that it is exempt from completely ignoring its external role within the City.

howard said...

i've not been there or seen it. this just points out, however, how a lot of buildings disregard anything outside of their doors within a few feet of where you can take a real kick-ass photo of the structure.
without getting too gaia on everyone, there is a whole dynamic of relationships to which a building must respond to incorporate itself into any fabric - urban, semi-urban, suburban, ex-urban,rural,etc.
few are very successful at it, heck, most don't even align cornice heights at the first floor downtown!
with all the green going on in legislation this kinda stuff should be recognized as not good for the soul.

Anonymous said...

It is too damn hot in Texas to really enjoy outdoor public spaces. This is why they ignore it.

Anonymous said...

not a person in sight, anywhere on the photos.

Anonymous said...

Some criticism is justified, however the Woodall Rogers Park is being built as a deck park above the Woodall Rogers freeway (such as the Big Dig in Boston) for the very purpose of providing a massive area of public space and connectivity between Downtown Dallas, the Arts District and the Uptown area.


Tim said...

As grand as the architecture is, the entire project is an urban design fail. I believe it was master planned by none other than Peter Calthorpe himself, sadly. This should be a clear lesson to all cities that bigger does not always equal better. The area is going to need years of diversified residential development if they are to ever achieve any kind of critical mass in this area. This goes for the park over the Woodall Rogers as well. For years this "oasis" will be best for those appreciating it from the towers that surround the area.

Anonymous said...

As a young college grad I am disheartened to see such waste in a place that truly "could have been."
My thoughts trace back to my travels in Valencia, Spain where the famed Santiago de Calatrava created a beautiful "City of the Arts" that was unified in its beauty and purpose.
Alas, I may never experience anything unified in a city devoted to glamorous self-interest. Shame.