Saturday, March 20, 2010

Section and its dimension

This is the longest post ever! A Chinese version of this appeared in print in Time+Architecture magazine (Shanghai) 2010/#2 on March 18. The theme of the issue is "section."

Reading the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre in Dallas

Chinese readers may know Dallas through the I. M. Pei-designed Symphony Center, the Nasher Sculpture Center by Renzo Piano, or the Mavericks. On October 12, 2009, a new landmark joined the associations with the city – the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre (Fig.1) in the downtown Dallas Arts District, home to the Dallas Theater Center, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, and Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico. The innovative “stacked” design by Joshua Prince-Ramus of REX (New York) and Rem Koolhaas of OMA (Rotterdam) immediately drew public attention and was renowned as “the first vertical theater in the world.”
Fig.1 Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre designed by REX/OMA.

Vertical relationships in architecture are usually represented by section drawings. Geometrically, a section is a horizontal orthographic projection of a building onto a vertical plane, with the vertical plane cutting through the building. From sections, one can read the connectivities between levels, as well as the spatial relationships in height. In the case of the new Wyly Theatre, the section exceeds the purpose of being a representational tool. It was deployed as a design tool. The building was conceived from sections. Design with section introduced the dimension of vertical thinking, an approach that turned the section from a two-dimensional technical drawing into a truly three-dimensional articulation of space.


The former Dallas Arts District Theatre (ADT) was a dilapidated metal shed (Fig.2). It was precisely its shabbiness that freed its resident companies from the limitations of a fixed stage and the worries of damaging precious interior finishes. Artists and directors had the freedom to easily transform the venue into the settings and atmospheres they envisioned. The ability to reconfigure and refinish earned ADT the reputation as "the most flexible theater in America."
Fig.2 The dilapidated metal shed of the former Dallas Arts District Theatre.

How to maintain the successful characteristics of flexibility in the new facility became the main design challenge. REX/OMA took the challenge and turned it into an opportunity to reimagine and reinvent theater design. Traditionally, theaters are organized horizontally, with the stage and auditorium located in the center and support spaces wrapping around them in plan - hence the names of front-of-house and back-of-house. One typical example is Charles Garnier’s Opéra de Paris (Fig.3), where the audience approaches from the front, ascending the stairs and entering the marble Grand Foyer that connected to a series of spaces for socializing during intermissions. The performers enter from the back into the backstage and rehearsal rooms. Napoleon III had his own special royal entrance on the side. And on the other side was the carriage drop-off. In the middle of all these, the lavishly decorated horseshoe auditorium is encapsulated side by side with the stage, visible from the outside only as a green copper cushion on top of the massive masonry structure.
Fig.3 Plan of Opéra de Paris designed by Charles Garnier.

To avoid the staticity of a rigid plan, REX/OMA introduced a sectional move. What if the theater was arranged vertically? Instead of laying out the program in plan, the architects stacked it in section (Fig.4 & Fig.5). Some backstage support and administrative functions were combined with the fly tower, and placed on top of the stage/auditorium. The lobby and ticketing were pushed underneath, one level below ground. The arrival sequence starts from a large outdoor ramp, descending as opposed to the traditional exhibitionist escalation. New terminology has emerged from this atypical arrangement: “below-house” and “above-house” replace “front-of-house” and “back-of-house,” and with the integration of backstage facilities, the fly tower has evolved into a “superfly.”
Fig.4 Concept diagram 1: introducing a sectional move.

Fig.5 Concept diagram 2: Lobby, performance hall, and "superfly" were stacked vertically. This design liberated the performance hall’s perimeter to enable direct contact with the urban surroundings.

The stacked design is not only unique but advantageous. First of all, it engenders the Transformer-like flexibility. Stage equipment at the bottom of the superfly covers the entire Potter Rose Performance Hall (Fig.6), which can hold up to 575 seats. The distinction between auditorium and stage has disappeared. The fly system pulls up not only scenery but seating. Each of the three 135-ton balcony towers, both stair towers, and the proscenium can be repositioned or lifted out of sight using sport arena scoreboard lifts. The entire ground plane can change height, tilt, or rotate, with the mechanisms adapted from opera houses. As a result, directors are empowered to manipulate at will the relationship between performers and audience through a wide range of configurations, including proscenium, thrust, arena, traverse, and studio (Fig.7). It can also be reduced to a large flat floor, providing the possibility to hold events such as parties and car shows in the off season. Moreover, with the superfly picking up all the pristine elements, the performance space itself can be provisional. The stage and auditorium surfaces can be cut, drilled, painted, welded, sawed, nailed, glued, and stitched, because they were intentionally designed with inexpensive materials. All these design decisions have enabled the theater to explore all forms of performing arts: classical and experimental theater, contemporary dance, musical performances, lectures and more (Fig.8). Compared to the sumptuous “jewelry box” of Opéra de Paris, the Wyly is a hi-tech “theater machine.”
Fig.6 Performance hall with stage equipments covering the entire space.
Fig.7 Different configurations of the performance hall.

Fig.8 Performance hall during an event.

Another advantage of the stacked design is that it emancipates the performance hall from the envelope of ancillary facilities such as lobbies, ticket counters, and backstage facilities. The ground floor performance space is clearly visible from the outside, with transparent acoustic glass on three sides enabling direct contact with the urban surroundings (Fig.9). The operation of the theater has been demystified; passers-by can participate in the game of voyeurism. The optional vinyl black-out blinds make it possible to transform the interior atmosphere. Artistic directors can choose to close the chamber as a hermetic container where sound and light are fully controlled, or open to integrate the Dallas skyline as a backdrop of the show. In certain events, the two large pivoting doors on the perimeter can be left open (Fig.10), allowing the life of the theater to spill out and engage the surrounding urban park. Performances are no longer trapped within the walls. The threshold between fantasy and reality is now blurred.
Fig.9 Enclosed by transparent acoustic glass, the performance hall is clearly visible from the outside.
Fig.10 The glass pivot doors could open, allowing guest to bypass the lobby and enter directly into the performance hall.


The concept of freeing up the performance hall from fixed configuration and perimeter was clearly diagramed in section. But it was still a two-dimensional drawing. At the end, the building had to be constructed as a three-dimensional object. In the process of three-dimensionalizing the diagram, REX/OMA chose the most direct operation to add the third dimension: extrusion.

The result of extruding a rectangle is a platonic box. Compared to the prevailing overly complex geometries of today’s high-profile architecture, a box has a humble, almost too generic appearance. No blobby shapes, no glittery materials, nor flowery patterns. It doesn’t declare to the world that “I am a duck.” With a total floor area of 7,700 square meters, the Wyly Theatre is a relatively small building in the Dallas Arts District. Yet it has gained a strong presence (Fig.11). The stacked strategy certainly increased the height. But it is the simplicity of its platonic form that contains the power similar to the mysterious black monolithic in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It strips off any scale references, causing confusions when one tries to read its size. It is this ambiguity that brings the eye-grabbing qualities to the simple geometry. Strength without aggressiveness. The notion of “icon” does not necessarily call for extravagance or wackiness.
Fig.11 The Wyly Theatre in the context of downtown Dallas Arts District. An iconic presence was achieved by simplicity.

If a building is designed as an extrusion of the plan, the elevation would read continuous vertically, unless the architect wants to add on details due to aesthetic reasons. One good example of theaters of this kind is SANAA’s De Kunstlinie in Almere, the Netherlands (Fig.12). The entire building was extruded from an orthogonal plan, with only the two large theaters four to five times taller than the rest. The facade is almost a direct vertical trace of the plan. Glass and opaque panels stand next to each other, running full height of their own segments of the vertical plane. But in the case of the Wyly, the building appears to have two shapes stacked vertically – a solid box (superfly) sitting on top of a glass box (performance hall). This volumetric relationship manifests the vertical nature of the basic concept. The massing is not a vertical extrusion of the plan, but a horizontal one based on the section.
Fig.12 De Kunstlinie in Almere designed by SANAA.

When you get closer, you will find another level of detail on the surface of the opaque superfly box. Clad in a palisade of aluminum tubes, the facade has a rippled texture that looks like a giant stage drape curtain. Strangely, this tubular skin resembles the original ADT’s corrugated metal enclosure, but here as a more elegant version. Composed of 466 anodized aluminum tubes in total, the facade was pre-fabricated in Argentina and assembled on site into six different panel modules with random repetitions. The tubes came with six different profiles, varying in diameter from three to ten inches to create the rippled effect (Fig.13 & Fig.14). Geometrically, a tube is the extrusion of a circular cross section. In the case of the Wyly, where the tubes were hung vertically, the cross section became the plan. This creates an interesting directional contrast between the extrusions of the general massing and the facade.
Fig.13 Six combination modules of the aluminum extrusions on the facade.

Fig.14 Aluminum tubular facade mock-up.


The Wyly Theatre’s simple cubic appearance has successfully kept its complex interior in disguise. Peeling off the aluminum tubular skin, you will discover inside the extruded box a puzzle-like assembly of interlocking spaces in various sizes, shapes, and height (Fig.15 & Fig.16). Back-of-house spaces dedicated to performers and administrators are integrated and tightly packed into the superfly box. The intertwining nature of these spaces is best described by the architects themselves on REX’s website:
The patron’s lounge - which doubles as a second lobby - is connected to the small rehearsal room (Fig.17), which doubles as a black box theater. Both are looked upon by a conference room (Fig.18) that can serve as a control booth for the black box theater, and which is connected to the administrative offices above. The administrative offices adjoin the costume shop (Fig.19), which can be viewed from the education room, adjacent to an outdoor terrace on the 9th floor (Fig.20) that serves as an exterior break-out area for the main rehearsal room, which has access to a collective bar and terrace for the entire company with panoramic views over the city.
Fig.15 "Superfly" concept model. Spaces in various shapes and sizes were tightly packed in a cubic container.
Fig.16 Open cross section of the Wyly Theatre.

Fig.17 View to the conference room/control room from the small rehearsal room/black box theater.
Fig.18 The conference room overlooks the small rehearsal room, and is connected to the administrative offices above.
Fig.19 The costume shop and the education center above.
Fig.20 Urban skyline view from the 9th level outdoor terrace.

This is more than a simple extrusion. It resembles a Soma Cube, a 3x3x3-cube puzzle assembled from seven distinctive three-dimensional shapes. Here, the traditional notion of floors has been diminished. The location of floor slabs was determined through the negotiation between spaces with their specific requirements in height. Just as the layout of the walls in Le Corbusier’s free plan, the sectional layout of the Wyly is the equilibrium of forces between the rooms. The similar compositions of plan and section have yielded equal richness in horizontal and vertical spatial relationships, hence the richness of a labyrinthine experience. In such a complex organization, there is no single linear path. A singular, or “typical,” section becomes inadequate – you need a series of them, something like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to decipher the manifold spatial relationship.

The incorrespondence between a simple exterior and a complex interior provides another interpretation of the “theater machine” analogy. Machines, especially those of the digital age, tend to have a clean outer look despite the numerous tasks they are designed to perform. Back in the first machine age, “form follows function” was the golden rule. A closer look at James Watt’s steam engine reveals a boiler supplying heat to water to create high-pressure steam, which causes the piston to move in the cylinder, and then the crankshaft turning the piston’s reciprocating linear motion into rotation. Each component performs its job and therefore bears a form specific to the function. Such specificity does not exist in the case of a computer. There is the CPU – it is supposed to think, the hard drive for data storage, and RAM modules, which are in charge of short-term memory. But they have no registration of their functions on their forms. More confusingly, all the components are enclosed in a case with a cubic shape that has no direct relationship with what the machine does at all. The invention of the microchip has overturned the design axiom and loosened the relationship between form and function.

In fact, REX’s take on form and function is not to prioritize either one in itself. “We proffer the term ‘performance’ instead: a hybrid that doesn’t discriminate between use, organization, and form. We free ourselves from the tired debate over whether architecture is an art or a tool. Art performs; tools perform. The measure of high performance is relative to each project and the positions established with our clients.” The rational design approach and an objective gauging system are clearly expressed in the manifesto. At his TEDxSMU speech right before the Wyly opening, Prince-Ramus explained the three steps of REX’s design process. First, define core issues. What are the constraints and challenges of the project? Second, take joint positions with your client. This is the moment when architect and client collaborate to inject visions together. And only after all this is done, should the architect start to put forward architectural manifestations. Under this methodology, design is no longer a myth of genius behavior, but rather a collective effort. The team produces options, and the standard of criticism is simple – it is to see if the design manifests the position that the architect and client jointly took, and if it addresses the core issues successfully.

The Wyly Theatre is typically a result of such a design process. The unprecedented design was not an innovation for innovation’s sake. It was a solution based on the architect-client joint positions on the root problems of the theater both as a cultural institution and an architectural type. The strategy to design through section was not the original defining premise, nor the ultimate desired goal. Rather, it was the bridge between challenge and vision, not only responding to but further elaborating the flexible, improvisatory nature of the ADT's original home. The new Wyly Theatre building is performative art, and at the same time, a performative tool.

Image Credits: 4, 5, 7, 13, 14, 15, 16: REX/OMA; 1, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 17, 18, 19: Iwan Baan; 10, 20: Tim Hursley.

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