- This is the latest in Art & Seek’s series about notable design elements in the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts:
. the Wyly Theater’s unconventional structural engineering
. the thinking behind that engineering
. the Winspear Opera House’s solar canopy
. the Winspear’s striking, red glass auditorium
. plus the clear glass skins on both performance halls
- KERA radio story:
- Expanded online story:
From a distance, the Dee and Charles Wyly Theater can look like a modern, metal box — just another grey, medium-rise office tower.
But upon closer inspection, the surface of the Wyly turns out to be rippled. Corrugated. This latest addition to the downtown skyline will actually be covered with 466 aluminum tubes. Each tube is suspended vertically from the top of the 10-story building. They drape down the sides of the Wyly like a giant metal curtain.
Or they make it look like the world’s biggest pipe organ.
Project architect Vincent Bandy of the design firm REX says that the creators of the Wyly Theater had a problem. They had to keep the building under budget. But they also wanted to make it more impressive, more striking than its size might permit.
BANDY: “The building is kind of small. Even though it rises like a sort of a mid-rise building, its footprint is only about 100 feet by 100 feet. It’s actually 132 feet up from the ground. But it’s only about 80,000 square feet. It’s much, much smaller than the Winspear, for instance.”
And when the Winspear Opera House is just across Flora Street and it has seven stories of red glass, you’ll want to find ways to make your building stand out.
The solution was to make the Wyly appear monolithic – as though it were a single unit without ordinary windows or doors. As if it had “no scale,” as Bandy puts it. That way, viewers won’t get an easy sense of the building’s true size.
BANDY: “When you’re not able to read something like, say, a window or a door or something that you know, we felt that it’d give the building a kind of presence.”
In fact, the Wyly’s exterior almost looked even more unusual than it will.
BANDY: “At one point, and this has been years ago, we had a black, rubber skin. It was like a liquid, applied skin. It was actually quite interesting. But as the process continued on, the client group felt that that was too much risk for them. And so the aluminum came as the result of a study of what we could do for a certain amount of money.”
The tubes are what’s called a “rainscreen” — somewhat like a “curtain wall,” but for the exterior of a building. That is, the tubes are not structural or load-bearing. What holds the building up is a complicated and unconventional bit of structural engineering. The tubes do provide some weatherproofing and cut the sun glare on the windows. But as for the heavy-duty weatherproofing, that’s done by an interior layer of insulation just behind the tubes. This ‘two-wall’ set-up may sound overly complicated but it’s actually fairly common among a lot of high-grade buildings.
What’s not so common are the aluminum tubes. Although the Wyly may not grab the eye immediately, the way the Winspear does, it can cause a viewer to wonder, Is that plumbing? And then take a closer look.
The tubes themselves were custom made by a firm in Argentina and shipped to Houston. The company, Tisi, specializes in architectural metalwork: louvers and panels. Esteban Erlich is TISI’s project coordinator for the US; Dante Martinez Tisi is the company president.
ESTEBAN: “We fell in love with the project very early on. We usually do stuff either that moves or that has some kind of complication or is away from the standard. They’re all very custom.
DANTE: Are very custom. You never use the same material in another project. Every project have his dyes, his solution. Each is a special, very different job.”
[What's not seen yet in either the photos or the video is the "tapering" that will cause the tubes to gently "crimp" inward from a full round diameter to more of a fin or louver shape when they pass over the windows and then swell back out to their full diameter again. This will be accomplished, after all the tubes are in place, with a series of cone-like shells positioned at those sharp-edged points that now give the tubes a stop-start appearance at the windows and the roof-top deck.]
At the construction site, Jeff Wagner (left) is senior project manager for McCarthy Building Companies, the general contractor. He points to a cherry-picker and a construction crane 10 stories tall. Workers are using these to bolt together sections of the tubes — called extrusions — into a single piece, more than 100 feet long.
WAGNER: “The extrusions come over in about 20-foot pieces. The extrusions are made in Argentina and they’re shipped over in cargo ships, in cargo containers.
Then they’re assembled in individual units, and the way they do that is they raise em up with the crane, slide another piece underneath, bolt em together, raise it up another 20 foot, add another extension until they’ve got about five pieces installed in one unit. And they raise em up and they hang them from the top of the building from an anchor.”
Up top, each tube is anchored to the Wyly with six bolts – just like the bolts in a hardware store.
The Wyly’s surface looks rippled because the aluminum tubes vary in diameter from 10 inches to three inches. That means they’ll expand and contract differently in summer and winter because the tubes have different amounts of aluminum in them, and the metal will expand or contract with the temperature. So each tube is designed to move up and down independently — the tubes may be bolted at the top but along the way down they are connected only by a slotted, sliding mechanism at each floor.
The Wyly looks silver-colored but it’s not bright and glittery like many of the downtown skyscrapers around it. That’s because the aluminum in the tubes is much like the anodized aluminum in a screen door.
WAGNER: “When you first see it, it doesn’t grab your attention. It’s not neon lights and flash. But what it is, it’s very elegant. When you look at the exterior wall; and you look at it, you’ll find yourself looking at it more and more because it’s very, very elegant. It’s very beautiful building.”