If you went looking for Chicago’s arts district, you’d have trouble finding it. There is no clone of Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, with vaguely classical modern buildings clustered around a plaza with a splashy fountain at its center. Instead, Chicago’s theaters, movie houses and art museums are woven into the urban fabric, standing next to or across the street from office and government buildings. True, there’s a theater district, yet it’s anything but cordoned off from downtown’s hurly-burly. Go to the Oriental Theatre and you’re sure to spy State Street’s stores or the Daley Center courts building.

Here in this can-do, Sun Belt city, the picture looks entirely different. The Dallas Arts District gathers this city’s major arts museums and performance halls in a 19-block area to the northeast of the shimmering downtown skyline. The district is billed as the nation’s largest contiguous urban arts district, and that’s not its only distinction. It may be the only place on earth where buildings by four Pritzker Architecture Prize winners (in this case, I.M. Pei, Renzo Piano, Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas) sit within blocks of one another.

Is it a good idea to organize arts buildings in such a clear and concentrated fashion? Or does the more mixed-up Chicago way make better sense? I ask because, despite its impressive architectural firepower, the Dallas Arts District can be an exceedingly dull place. There are no bookstores, few restaurants outside those in the museums and not a lot of street life, at least when there are no performances going on. Even some of the architects who’ve designed buildings here privately refer to the district as an architectural petting zoo — long on imported brand-name bling and short on homegrown-urban vitality.

In truth, it’s probably unfair to make this stark comparison. Different cities organize themselves in different ways. Chicago is far more densely populated than Dallas and far less dependent on cars and freeways to get people around. More important, the Dallas Arts District and the area around it are far from finished, so any criticism must be accompanied by a large asterisk.

Just to the district’s north, in an audacious civic undertaking, Dallas is building a deck right over the sunken Woodall Rodgers Freeway. The deck, now taking shape in the form of massive concrete beams, will serve as a platform for a 5.2 acre park due to open in fall 2012. It could have as profound an impact on Dallas as Millennium Park had on Chicago. The park will connect the district to the lively Uptown neighborhood to the north. That will turn what is now a barrier into a bridge, making it easier for people to walk to the district and maybe even lending it the round-the-clock buzz it’s missing now.

There are different standards, to be sure, for what constitutes buzz in a sprawling Sun Belt city. Yet the arts district, now more than 30 years and $1 billion in the making, always has aspired to some form of traditional urbanity, where people of all backgrounds, even those without a ticket, could stroll along its main drag of Flora Street. Even the giant parking decks beneath the district’s museums and performance halls were supposed to funnel people onto the streets. Or so the theory went. On a recent springlike afternoon, with the sun shining and the temperature in the high 70s, there was hardly anybody on the sidewalks.

Perhaps this was a deceptive picture. On Sundays, families often stroll from the nearby Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a High Victorian Gothic edifice, to the district’s parklike open spaces, Maria Munoz-Blanco, Dallas’ director of cultural affairs, told me. On weekends and evenings, she said, the district is a pretty busy place. Some housing has been built in the district. All that will help put people on the sidewalks. Even so, the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system has no light-rail stops in the district, and city officials are still struggling to endow the district with day-and-night vitality.

At least the architecture lives up to its billing. Previous buildings — including Edward Larrabee Barnes’ vast yet understated Dallas Museum of Art (1984); Pei’s neo-baroque symphony hall (1989); and Piano’s jewel-like Nasher Sculpture Center (2003) — set high aesthetic standards. And the latest buildings, which opened in late 2009 in a section of the arts district called the AT&T Performing Arts Center, are no less ambitious.
The most innovative of them — the Wyly Theatre, by Joshua Prince-Ramus of New York-based REX architects and the Rotterdam-based Koolhaas — is a tall box sheathed in elegant aluminum tubes and arranged in an utterly unconventional way. The lobby is below street level, the theater (whose main hall typically holds an audience of 575) is at street level, and offices, rehearsal rooms and other facilities are stacked above. You get to the front door by descending a sloping concrete plaza, a feature some theatergoers understandably find perverse.

But there is a method to this madness: The stacked functions combine with diagonal perimeter columns to create a column-free interior that can be converted into different stage configurations — thrust, proscenium and flat floor — in just a few hours. It is, as Prince-Ramus puts it, a giant “theater machine” in which the balconies and even the proscenium can fly upwards and be rearranged in ever-changing ways. The innovative setup produces the desired flexibility and intimacy. After the opening, however, seats had to be outfitted with an extra layer of cushioning to assuage complaints about sore derrieres.

The more formal Winspear Opera House, by London’s Foster, is less experimental but more commodious.
A vast, overhanging sunshade shields the building’s lobby from the hot Texas sun. That allows the lobby to be glassy and transparent, revealing the blood-red interior walls that surround the concert hall and bring the opera’s drama out into a soaring, multitiered lobby. The 2,220-seat main hall, arranged in a time-tested horseshoe-shape, has balcony fronts faced in white gold leaf, which sounds tacky but isn’t. The space packs explosive spatial punch; music critics have given its acoustics good reviews.

These are, in short, buildings to be proud of, but their urban design is not ideal. The theater’s sunken plaza might as well be a moat, while the sleek opera house is set so far back from the property line that it almost resembles a suburban office headquarters. The buildings resemble stand-alone objects, not altogether different from the flashy office towers that loom above them.

But the park over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway could go a long way toward rectifying the district’s lack of urbanity. Indeed, it could be a model for other cities, among them Chicago and St. Louis, that have looked into “capping” or “decking” sunken highways.

Backed by city, state and federal stimulus funds as well as private donations, the narrow, three-block-long park was designed by Houston landscape architect James Burnett, who shaped the attractive contemporary park in Chicago’s Lakeshore East development. In contrast to Millennium Park, its focus will be on outdoor spaces that thread Dallas’ fragmented urban fabric, not spectacular objects.

Expected to cost more than $100 million, the park will have a curving promenade, framed by cypress trees, that takes visitors past features ranging from a dog park to botanical gardens. Quietly rectilinear restaurant and performance pavilions will provide places for people to gather. Ideally, architects said, the park and new housing will infuse the arts district with more foot traffic, turning the area’s imperfect present into a bright future.

“You’re seeing an arts district half-filled,” said Spencer de Grey, who served as Foster’s point man on the project. “It will be very different in a few years’ time.”

Perhaps, but hundreds, if not thousands, of new housing units are required to lend the district the urban density it needs to thrive. And the district still has deep-seated hurdles to overcome, from its lack of fine-grained urban texture to the way its older buildings turn their backs on the freeway to its lack of convenient light-rail stops. It would be sad indeed if Dallas, having imported some of the world’s best architects, wound up creating the dullest arts district money can buy.

Read more in the Chicago Tribune.