Rem Koolhaas at the Wyly

Rem Koolhaas at the Wyly

First, a few comments on the building itself.  After all, it's the first time we've been in since a summer hardhat tour.  We all gathered in the "underground" lobby waiting for the doors to open.  The lobby is obviously more finished than it was several months ago, but the amenities are still pretty industrial.  Nonetheless, the lights (fluorescent tubes extending down from the ceiling) and the brushed metal walls are eye-catching.  And the view as you sit on the long vinyl bench looking back up the entrance ramp to the Winspear Opera House is beautiful.  One problem we noticed:  the single staircase to the theater doesn't really accomodate enouigh traffic to get a full house in quickly...but we like the draped chain mail magnetically attached to the walls.  The theater house itself is cozy.  The chairs are firm, but comfortable and the space is really quite intimate when the blackout curtains are down, as they were today. 

And it was indeed a full house.  Charles Wyly himself, along with other ATTPAC muckety-mucks like Mary McDermott Cook, Deedie Rose and CEO Mark Nerenhausen.  Also in the house were several AIA'ers including Bill Booziotis, Mark Wolf and Mark Gunderson.  The rest of the seats were filled with architects, architecture lovers and students.

But enough scene-setting.  What about the main act?  Koolhaas, decked out in a green pullover to match the seats and walls (It really IS his signature color.), was forthcoming and enlightening.  He explained that as he prepared for the talk, the research he did on past work demonstrated to him a consistency and "boring persistence of certain ideas."  Ironically, however, those certain ideas are pretty breathtaking. There was nervous laughter as he mentioned that he'd like to give a brief history of architecture and a Greek temple flashed on the screen.  Thankfully, Koolhaas quickly skipped forward quite a few centuries to concentrate on the architecture of mid-19th century New York, especially Coney Island.

One wouldn't think that Coney Island would be such an inspiration for this most modern of architects, but it truly seems to be.   With the amusement park as context, Koolhaas contrasted the "spontaneous Modernism" of America with the more codified manifestos and movements of Europe at the time.  He showed representations of what he called an "embrace of artificiality" (night swimming with artificial illumination) and the hourly displays of the burning of Pompeii.  To him, the fairgrounds design was a city of unrelated towers that created spectacle and became the model for the future eclectic American urban skyline. 

And, Koolhaas pointed out, with the advent of the elevator in the 1850's, architecture changed forever.  It was now possible to "stack" functions on top of each other in small spaces.  For example, an athletic club could have exercise rooms on top of a golf course on top af the swimming pool.

Which brings us to the design of the Wyly Theatre.  One could hear the excitement in Koolhaas' voice as he discussed the opportunity he had had to filter the 3000-year-old tradition of the theatre through the relaitvely young 150-year-old technology of the skyscraper.  Showing how he took the traditional horizontal arrangement of the theatre tower, the front of house (lobby) and back of house (support spaces) and placed them on top of each other, Koolhaas showed images of other projects with similar themes...a library in Paris among them.  He stressed, however, that "verticality was not the point, but placing diverse activities in a small area."  He also mentioned (to the biggest laugh of the afternoon) that this verticality of the design helped keep the Wyly from becoming a "mini me" to the larger Norman Foster-designed Winspear Opera House across Flora Street.

Koolhaas also had comments on Dallas architecture, pointing out that his first visits in the 1970's convinced him that the city was "the epicenter of what is generic."  Strangely, it almost seemed a backhanded compliment.  He now (unlike then) admires the Dallas World Trade Center and thinks that the "restraint" shown by buildings in our fair city might actually be a good thing.

The last few minutes of the talk were concentrated on his building for China's Central Television Headquarters.  It too is "stacked," but turned in on itself like a 3-D square.  Quite a remarkable, visually arresting design.  Koolhaas concluded the lecture by suggesting we skip questions so we could "get back to our lives."  But he was gracious and stayed to talk to folks and sign autographs afterwards.

We'll be at the Norman Foster and Joshua Prince-Ramus talks tomorrow.  Look for our reports.  And make sure to come by DCFA to study the stacked design of the Wyly in the model and architectural plan we have on display.  We'll be open October 18 from 11:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m. as a part of the Art District's Spotlight Sunday.         

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