… which I was, down there in the post about the Stanley Marcus home. But over in the DMN’s Arts Blog, theater critic Lawson Taitte was also speaking about the architect, specifically the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphreys Theater (left), and what the city plans to do with it, now that the Dallas Theater Center is moving to the Wyly Theater this fall. It’s a question I’ve heard pop up in local arts and theater conversations for many months now.
Lawson reports that the Office of Cultural Affairs is developing a master plan about What To Do with the Wright. “A team of a dozen distinguished consultants has been studying the history of the building … Now they’re seeking input from arts groups and the public at large. I went to the Tuesday meeting at the South Dallas Cultural Center. There’s another, open to everybody, at the Latino Cultural Center at 6 p.m. on Wednesday.”
The city is trying to balance the needs of arts groups and the desire to preserve the building while getting some real use out of it. Lawson goes on to recount his own contribution to Tuesday’s meeting — arguing that the additions and changes that were made to the lobby 20 years ago have always struck him as distinctly un-Wright — that is, Wrong.
I’m of the opposite opinion. No, not that the additions are very much in Wright’s manner. Rather, we should face a few facts about the Humphreys.
Chief among them: It’s simply not one of Wright’s masterworks. It wasn’t designed for that site — it was designed for a theater in Connecticut — and making a building respond or reflect the landscape around it was, after all, one of the chief insights Wright brought to modern architecture. So it fails that benchmark right off. The unsuitableness of the Kalita for that site is apparent in the way it faces up the hill and toward the Katy Trail, while everyone driving up gets to see what is essentially the butt-end loading entrance.
What’s more, several of Wright’s ideas about theaters didn’t work and have simply had to be corrected for practical, even first-aid reasons. For example, Wright hated all the wiring and lighting equipment dangling down from the typical theater’s lighting grid. So he developed those semi-circular metal slits you see in the auditorium’s ceiling. The equipment was supposed to be tucked away behind them, with the beams of light shining through the slits.
Or you might be able to see the slits, if they weren’t obscured by the pipes and lighting equipment that the Theater Center, over the years, has had to improvise up there to make the stage lighting actually work. Ditto the infamous slanted stairwells that found many an elderly matinee-attendee collapsed at the bottom. The stairwells were eventually straightened out — along with a lot of other improvements.
The Guggenheim (which the Kalita resembles, having been designed in roughly the same period) exemplifies Wright’s equally misguided and somewhat dictatorial notions about museums. But that building is so striking, even lovely in its dimensions and scale and curves, that it offsets the fact that, say, visitors can’t step back too far to look at an artwork or they’ll fall off the ramp into the lobby atrium.
The chunky, blocky Kalita, on the other hand, simply lacks the same graceful, coherent design. From many angles, one can’t help but think of a concrete bunker or defensive gun turret. So I don’t see why some additional (minor) changes shouldn’t be done, if needed, if this space is going to continue as a working theater — just as the lobby was added to and the management/support building was constructed off to the side and the parking lots and driveways have been re-routed around the building to make traffic flow more sensibly. None of those were in Wright’s original design, and you can’t say they haven’t helped.
I don’t see why an architect’s failures need to be preserved, even a great architect’s, particularly if we’re to continue using the building, but I’m well aware I’m in the minority here. It’s plain the city could never tear it down — not with the incredible outcry that would inevitably follow. It is one of only three theaters Wright designed, after all, even though how highly prized the building is by Wright’s fans can be adduced by the fact that it’s regularly left out of the illustrations in the hundreds of books written about the man and his work. Often, it’s not even mentioned.
Lawson is certainly ‘wright’ about one thing: Deciding on a future use/preservation plan won’t be that easy — beyond what I take to be Jac Alder’s perfectly sensible position, that theater companies should be allowed to continue to use the building and that it shouldn’t be turned into some mothballed museum landmark.