High-wire acts and heavy props, used to build the gravity-defying steel “bird cage” on concrete stilts that frames the tallest little theater in Texas, stole the show from myriad balancing acts that combined into a command performance at the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts.

The “most challenging thing” about the 132-ft-tall Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre was the structure’s instability until it was complete, says Jeff Wagner, senior project manager in the Dallas office of McCarthy Building Cos.

Photo: DCPA / Jeffrey Buehner
Glass-walled performance hall looks more like an office tower lobby than a theater.

The construction manager at-risk and concrete contractor knew that business as usual would not work for this reverse game of pick-up sticks. So it set aside its habit of hiring the lowest bidder and approached subcontractors it knew it could trust. McCarthy also hired a sequential construction engineer and gathered the structure’s heavy hitters, including the engineer of record, for 20-plus meetings over 21 months to choreograph the steel-and-concrete show. “Everyone put aside individual needs and worked at what was best for the project, which was not easy to do because of the risk involved,” Wagner says. “It was amazing to watch the formwork guys thinking about steel erection,” he adds. “At times, I thought we might be wasting time and money but the meetings paid off tenfold,” he says, adding that the 98%-complete job is on schedule to open in October and within budget, with only a $20,000 bankruptcy-related claim.

The 600-seat Wyly, to house classical and experimental theater and exhibitions, is part of the $354-million Dallas Center for the Performing Arts. DCPA also includes a 2,200-seat opera house, an outdoor performance venue, two underground parking garages and a 10-acre park. DCPA, which will give the complex to the city as a gift, declines to break down costs.

The unconventional frame, which rests on six perimeter columns and a perimeter shear wall, was born of a radical design by REX/OMA, Joshua Prince-Ramus (principal in charge) and Rem Koolhaas. Instead of a theater’s typical horizontal layout, with support spaces surrounding the auditorium and the stage fly sticking out like a sore thumb, the box’s contents are stacked and stuffed, like a club sandwich, above and below an at-grade performance chamber that fills the building’s 109 x 94-ft footprint. In another bold move, the architect made three of the chamber’s 27-ft-tall facade walls from clear glass, merging indoors and out. The giant picture window on the world has two operable glass doors that create a 20-ft-wide, 27-ft-tall opening to the plaza outside. The window, which has shades and blackout curtains, had to meet stringent acoustical standards. Above the window, the building is draped in vertical aluminum tubes, reminiscent of the corrugated-metal shed of Wyly’s predecessor, the Dallas Theater Center. The 90-ft-tall metal drape ends above the window wall, as if the curtain is going up for a performance.

The machine-like hall can be configured three ways: proscenium stage, thrust stage and flat floor. Two balconies move in and out or fly up­­, emptying the chamber. The lobby, backstage areas and mechanical rooms are in three concrete-framed basements. Everything else is above the chamber, except elevators, which climb outside the east wall of the box, and an extension for loading docks and set assembly (see cutaway, p. 36).

“The litmus test for Wyly was the ability to transform the theater into any of three performance configurations in eight hours, using two stagehands,” says Prince-Ramus, principal of REX Architecture P.C. (REX was known as OMA New York, equally owned by Prince-Ramus, as sole principal, and Koolhaas, founder of the Office of Metropolitan Architecture, Rotterdam, when DCPA engaged the design architect in 2003. In 2006, Koolhaas sold his interest, and OMA NY was renamed REX.)

Prince-Ramus says height was introduced to provide an icon. That was a challenge: The 80,000-sq-ft building is competing with the Dallas skyline and the much larger opera house. Stacking the building’s functions would also bring rehearsal and other support spaces into closer proximity and camouflage the stage’s fly tower. “Our fear of the stage tower was overcome by making the stage tower a building with other uses,” says Koolhaas.

The theater in a tall body shocked DCPA at first. But the green light came in June 2004, when the scheme was presented. The major donor, “Mr. Wyly, said, ‘Yes, I’ll put my name on it,’” says Michael Korns, DCPA’s theater project manager.

Intense teamwork was not limited to construction of the structure. “A lot of the job’s technical challenges were not just solved by the architect-engineering team but in a collaboration with the subs,” says Pat Ankney, principal...