After years of meetings and conversations, designs, financial hand-wringing, infighting, and speculation, the latest — and, for now, final — venue in the Dallas Arts District, City Performance Hall, will open on September 14.
It is, with its eastward- and westward-facing monolithic concrete walls, little entry steps, and street-abutting glass façade, the most unremarkable building on Flora Street. Simple and pragmatic, unassuming and uninspiring, the $40.45 million venue wasn’t designed by a so-called “starchitect.” It doesn’t flash like the Winspear Opera House, or befuddle like the Wyly. It isn’t the elegant acoustic machine that is the Meyerson, and it doesn’t possess the graceful beauty of Piano’s Nasher Sculpture Center. It is not ugly, but you would never call it beautiful. It is a building that is functional, approachable, and unpretentious. And in terms of Dallas cultural architecture, it is a remarkable achievement.
You know the City Performance Hall is different as soon as you enter it. Unlike anything else on Flora, walking inside the new venue is a complete non-event. Three steps and you are in, hardly transitioning from the street. When you enter the two-story lobby, you are flanked by tall concrete walls and you face terraced wood-paneled risers and the doors to the interior hall. To the left, one of the walls half-hides a staircase. During the tour, City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs director Maria Muñoz-Blanco referred to it as the venue’s “grand staircase.” If there was a hint of irony, I didn’t catch it. There is nothing grand about City Performance Hall, which is both the architecture’s intention and achievement.
The building was designed by Chicago-based firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (the firm behind Chicago’s Sears Tower and John Hancock Center), and the entry is just one way the building tries to level the distinction between street and theater, performer and audience. The front-facing glass façade helps blend the exterior and interior space, and at night, when lit, it acts as a proscenium, presenting the lobby to passers by. Two side hallways lead from the lobby along the side of the interior hall all the way to the backstage area. The connections can be blocked off during performances, but they have been left open for easy access, we were told, so that children dropped off in front of the building for youth performances can easily navigate their way backstage. Inside the hall, the orchestra seating dips as you approach the stage, but two wings fitted with handicapped seats rise right up to stage level. If there are awards ceremonies where handicapped people need to access the stage from the audience, Muñoz-Blanco explained, they can go straight from the orchestra to the stage. When imagining the City Performance Hall, designers seemingly thought of everyone.
Well, almost everyone. The big question surrounding the new City Performance Hall is whether it really serves the needs of the Dallas arts groups that saw themselves as locked out of the Arts District’s larger, busier, and more expensive venues. In terms of accommodating a variety of performance needs, City Performance Hall is surprising flexible. The lobby as well as a wide landing — which sits up in one of the building’s wings, suspended from the walls like a tree house — are designed so that they can be configured in a variety of ways for performances or other functions. A catwalk basket that hangs from the second floor balcony overlooking the lobby can be easily fit with lighting and other staging equipment. There are no permanent box office or concession stands. Instead the building is fit with a variety of alcoves, out-of-the-way corners, and nooks that can serve the function. Inside the hall, alternating seat widths create optimal sightlines through the hall (though you still may want to avoid the far back corners of the balcony), and adjustable banners, undulating textured concrete walls, a disappearing orchestra pit, and movable prosceniums allow for additional functional flexibility and acoustic fine-tuning.
The venue offers a visually pleasing performance space. The longer I stayed in the interior hall, the longer I wanted to be there. I visited the space for a tour, but I was disappointed there wasn’t a concert. I’d love to see a chamber opera, a stage production, a small scale musical, a film or a lecture in the space. This could be the ideal home for the opening night of the Dallas International Film Festival. It is a more comfortable place than the Wyly to spend a day listening to lectures. The lobby and stairwell are enticing blank slates, and creative artistic directors could easily find a way to transform them into unique settings for dance, intimate concerts, or minimal theatrical productions.
Pricing, however, is where the real controversy begins, because as much as City Performance Hall was seemingly designed with many kinds of audience members and performing groups in mind, it also lacks, what some say, are key considerations, such as a black box theater, practice studios, or a gallery space (all of which are planned for future, unfunded development phases). And just as it was during construction, City Performance Hall has already come under fire by some who say that the space is too expensive to use. Others say that the administration of the space prior to opening has been too unreliable to allow for use in the 2012-2013 season.
The problems with cost and accessibility get at one key conceptual flaw with the new building. The new venue strives to be open to all, to embrace and include. But being all things to all people is as admirable a goal as it is an impossible one. The current friction stems, in part, from the realization – and accompanying disappointment – that City Performance Hall will not work for some groups.
During the tour of the new venue, Jack Hagler, a partner with Schuler Shook, the theater planners and lighting designers who worked on City Performance Hall, said that the quality of the new venue will challenge some arts groups to “step up their game.” That comment may be taken by some as arrogant or unsympathetic, but there is also a difficult honesty to it. Arts groups wanted the city to provide a quality venue in the Arts District, but quality venues come with strings attached—namely, increased cost.
City Performance Hall will be more expensive than staging a season at SMU’s Caruth Auditorium or some other comparable venue. But wasn’t that precisely the point of building a new venue: the idea that such a venue, a pristine performance space located in the Arts District, could bolster the long-term health and sustainability of a variety of performing arts organizations because it benefits from the way the Arts District can build audiences through increased visibility and cultural synergy? Sure, it will cost more to use the City Performance Hall, but isn’t it worth it because being in the Arts District is worth it?
That, in the end, is the question that is really at play with the opening of the new City Performance Hall. Yes, a nicer facility will cost more to use, but those costs will be worth bearing for arts groups if they see the benefits of the new facility and its location as worth their while. Should a theater or musical group stage a season at City Performance Hall or find a home at SMU’s Carruth Auditorium or some other venue? How groups answer that question will reveal whether or not Dallas’ art groups see real value in the idea of being in the Arts District. And if the Arts District delivers these values, then arts groups will find it beneficial to stretch their budgets and use the City Performance Hall. If they don’t, if these groups don’t succeed on Flora or find the increased costs associated with the new hall worth what they are receiving in return, then that will say something about the broader concept of our defining cultural project
It is seems appropriate. The dressed-down building at the end of Flora Street, the one not named after a wealthy patron or designed by a name-brand architect, but rather built by the people of Dallas for the people of Dallas — this place may, in the end, have the final word on the real value of Dallas oh-so-grand cultural investment.