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Arts feature

Dallas bucks the trend

Henrietta Bredin talks to Spencer de Grey, architect of the new opera house in Texas

11 November 2009

12:00 AM

11 November 2009

12:00 AM

Henrietta Bredin talks to Spencer de Grey, architect of the new opera house in Texas

There can’t be a gesture much more brave and defiant than building a new opera house in the current doom-laden financial climate. Deep in the heart of Texas, in the centre of its freshly revamped arts district, Dallas has done exactly that.

The project was awarded to Foster and Partners and has been the brainchild and chief responsibility of Spencer de Grey, whose previous work includes the Great Court at the British Museum and the Sage music centre in Gateshead. It is of course possible for an architect to design a law faculty (as de Grey did in Cambridge) without being deeply conversant with the law but, as it happens, he is passionate about music, opera in particular, a regular attendee and extremely knowledgeable. The stash of tickets he has clipped to the noticeboard in his kitchen — for performances by English National Opera, The Royal Opera, at the Wigmore Hall, the Southbank, Sadler’s Wells and numerous other venues — is as thick as a deck of cards.

‘It was something of a dream commission,’ he says. ‘And the way in which the whole project was set up was very clever. Various buildings and institutions were already in place — the Booker T. Washington high school, which specialises in the visual and performing arts, I.M. Pei’s concert hall, the museum of art and the sculpture gallery — and a group of Dallas citizens got together and decided that this needed expanding. The opera company, which was founded in the 1950s, was based in a great barn of a place and desperately needed a new home. So they decided to build an opera house, also designed as a home for dance and for Broadway shows, and a new theatre. Rem Koolhaas submitted the winning design for the theatre. Once we were both appointed, the commissioning group effectively said, “Right, the prize for being appointed is that you will work together on the masterplan for the area.” That was extremely shrewd of them because, rather than having an independent body impose their ideas on us, we could work together, in everyone’s best interests.’

As it transpired, the site that had been designated for the opera house was too small so Fosters and Koolhaas swapped sites. Result. The arts district now possesses an extraordinary group of buildings, dedicated to both the visual and the performing arts. ‘What we’re very keen to avoid,’ says de Grey, ‘is creating a cultural ghetto. It’s good that we’re right next-door to the business district and we’ve been running something of a campaign to get the people of Dallas on their feet. It’s not a pedestrian culture but we’re working on that. There’s a plan for further regeneration of this area, including a planted bridge to connect it to the other side of the freeway. What’s needed now is to add retail to the mix, a cinema complex, residential and office space. Then the whole place will come alive.’

A major consideration when building in this part of the world is of course the climate, which tends towards the hot and sticky — it’s as much the land of air-con as of oil. I wondered if more environmentally sound solutions had been looked for. ‘It was one of my top priorities. When air-conditioning was invented in the early 20th century it completely altered people’s approach to architecture because suddenly you could build sheer external walls using glass or solid materials — you could simply pump in the cold air and the skin of the building could be anything you liked. That was a radical departure from historic building in this area, which traditionally had big verandahs with overhangs to provide shade and to encourage natural ventilation. We decided to go back in time and draw on that example to see if we could provide proper shade to the building, cut down on the gas-guzzling and help break down the divisions between inside and outside.’

The result is that the building sports an enormous, hot-Texas-sun-deflecting canopy, under which people can sit and talk, drink coffee and dawdle, before making their way into the opera house. ‘It’s enabled us to get away from that severe division between baking hot outside and icy cold inside…And it makes for an easier transition, a more welcoming one, between inside and outside, than the classic opera house style of being fronted by a huge and rather daunting portico.’

Turning things around, making the inside feel like the outside, and vice versa, is something of a Spencer de Grey trademark. He did it at the British Museum and he’s done it again in Dallas, in another way, with an architectural gesture of fabulous flamboyance. What is the colour traditionally associated with the interior of an opera house, the auditorium? Here, that colour has been transferred to the outside of the building, the glass walls of which are a deep, glowing, luscious, unequivocal, bright lipstick red.

Did he have to fight hard to make a case for this choice? ‘I thought I’d have to but in the end it wasn’t so much the colour but getting the right choice of material that swung it. We talked about painted concrete, terrazzo, ceramic tiles and then we found this laminated glass, which is two sheets of glass welded together and instead of the welding being clear it’s red, and astonishingly translucent. The opera committee took one look and made up its mind to go for it. What’s wonderful is that it changes character all the time…It can be very bright when the sun’s shining directly on it and rather mysterious when there’s less light. And of course when it’s lit up at night it absolutely glows.’

Immense care has been taken over the inside of the building as well — the seating, lighting and acoustic. De Grey and his team visited numerous opera houses, old and new, all over the world, before coming to the conclusion that the old-fashioned, horseshoe-shaped auditorium was the best, for both sound and sightlines. Those visits also informed the decision to keep the number of seats down to 2,200 (as opposed to 3,400 in the old house), so keeping the quality of intimacy that is so valuable in performance.’

Reviews of the opening performance of Verdi’s Otello on 23 October have tended to confirm that this was a good decision. Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times thought that the sound had richness and resonance and that the house was ‘singer-friendly’. Fine-tuning and adjustments in balance were, in his view, work-in-progress for the orchestra and its music director, Graeme Jenkins — any new space requires adjusting to.

All in all, Spencer de Grey must consider this opera house to be a fitting memorial to Bill Winspear, after whom it was named, who made the single biggest contribution of funds towards its creation, who was ‘probably the best client we’ve ever had, extraordinarily supportive and incisive in his commentary’ and who died before he could see the work completed. The inaugural gala performance would have marked his 76th birthday.

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