For a long time the city of Dallas has been like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. It wants to be a contender, a world-class city. It already has a few of the prerequisites a skyline, an NFL franchise and a serious traffic problem. But until you have the full panoply of major cultural venues, you're Palookaville.
So for many years the city has been trying to put together an ambitious downtown arts district, an ensemble of museums, theaters and an opera house designed by marquee-name architects. And last weekend Dallas celebrated the opening of two of the final big pieces of the puzzle. One of them, the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, is the product of a collaboration between the Dutch architect-polemicist Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus of REX Architects. The other, the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, is from the mighty office of the British architect Lord Norman Foster. The buildings are so unlike each other they're barely on speaking terms, but in their different ways, they both answer what the city has been looking for.
It's taken more than three decades to fill in the blanks on the still-not-quite-completed Dallas arts district. The curtain went up on the master plan in 1977 and nearly went right down the next year when voters rejected a bond issue to fund it. It wasn't until 1984 that the first element was completed, the Dallas Museum of Art, designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes. Five more years went by before the debut of the Meyerson Symphony Center, a sweeping exercise in creamy culture-luxe by I.M. Pei. Then a long pause until the vaulted chambers of Renzo Piano's magnificent Nasher Sculpture Center opened in 2003.
Far from being a disadvantage, the piecemeal development of the 68-acre district was a blessing in disguise. Instead of producing an instant suite of palazzi frozen in their moment, which is a fair description of New York City's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Dallas put together a diverse sampling of work by leading architects from across three decades. And with the Wyly and Winspear, very diverse. It would be hard to imagine two architects more unlike each other than Foster, the meticulous inheritor of the principles of High Modernism, and Koolhaas, who has spent a lifetime sorting through those principles to see which ones had to go. Foster's buildings tend toward the serene and Cartesian. Koolhaas is apt to arrive at the ruptured and irregular. Foster is given to sleek materials and finely honed finishes. Koolhaas isn't above slapping what looks like AstroTurf on an outdoor terrace at the Wyly. Both of them have scored the Pritzker Prize, architecture's highest honor, but, to put it mildly, not for the same reasons.
It goes without saying that they've never been known as fans of each other's work. During the more than five years it took to bring the Wyly and Winspear from the design phase to completion, representatives of the two firms rarely showed up in Dallas at the same time, preferring arm's-length communication by e-mail and conference calls. Stories about the exasperation of the Dallas powers-that-be started turning up in the local press. As a further twist, three years ago the Wyly's co-designer, Prince-Ramus, who headed the New York branch of Koolhaas' firm, broke away to start his own outfit, REX Architects. Though Koolhaas remained connected to the Wyly commission, it was largely Prince-Ramus who saw it through to completion and gets credited as "principal in charge."