Apr 10, 2008

The Kalita Humphreys Theater, Dallas

On a sloping site overlooking Turtle Creek, a couple of miles from downtown Dallas, stands one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s final projects, the Kalita Humphreys Theater. The Theater was completed in 1959, nine months after Wright’s death, and it represents the culmination of Wright’s thought about theater design. In an era of popular Broadway musicals and Hollywood films, Wright’s Kalita Humphreys Theater represented a commitment by both architect and client (the Dallas Theater Company) to live, local theater as a communal ritual, an almost religious experience, free from the taint of commercial entertainment. Initially supported by wealthy patrons and built in one of Dallas’ wealthier areas, the Theater may have originally reserved the communal experience for a rather exclusive audience, but with the donation of the theater to the city in 1973, the emphasis on maintaining a vital, local theater has continued to the present.

With few other buildings nearby, the Theater stands alone as a Wrightian sculpture in the landscape. The building itself comprises softened geometric forms made from Wright’s signature adobe-like concrete: its plasticity suggests both solidity as well as a mud-like connection to the earth. Jutting out of the sloping limestone site, both the materials and colors also provide visual links with the local topography, recalling the design of Wright’s earlier Fallingwater. While it is difficult today to imagine the 1950s context, the site was probably more serene and picturesque. Now, condo towers on the other side of the creek compromise the view, while low-rise housing developments are encroaching on the site from behind. The Theater’s position in a natural setting away from downtown Dallas’ commercial center coincided with Wright’s vision of an ideal decentralized city, Broadacres, where civic culture was to be placed on the peripheries rather than in the city center. While the Theater is, in a typically Wrightian manner, intimately connected with its natural surroundings, in a typically Texan manner, it is also intimately connected with the parking lot. Arrival at the Theater was to be strictly by car – while admirable in many respects, Wright’s Broadacres version of urbanism seems out of step with 21st century moves to reduce auto-dependency.

The Theater’s lobby space is horizontal and low, with a band of small, high windows that doesn’t capitalize on the view over the creek but instead directs the audience towards the theater experience within. Inside the performance space, the circular stage broke with conventional theater design of the early 20th century, dispensing with the proscenium arch or “picture frame” through which an audience views a play. By tearing down the proscenium arch, Wright and his client, the Dallas Theater Company, aimed to create a more intimate experience between audience and performers. In addition, the semi-circular seating arrangement was also intended to highlight the communal experience, as the audience have a more intimate relationship with each other (in contrast, for example, to the more individual and voyeuristic experience of the increasingly popular cinema). This intimacy is further enhanced by the low-hanging balcony and human scale of the space. Other technical innovations of the Theater included a revolving circular stage with the central drum above for lowering scenery, and sliding balconies. Wright also famously claimed that there was not a single right angle inside the theater, consciously challenging the crisp geometric forms of 1950s International Style modernism.

The young Frank Lloyd Wright worked as a draftsman for Adler and Sullivan on Chicago’s Auditorium Theater in the late 1880s, his first experience with theater design. Wright’s next theater project was a 1916 project for a theater in Olive Hill, Los Angeles, for his patron Aline Barnsdall. Several versions were proposed but none ever built. Common to all of these designs was a significant reduction in the proscenium arch, and one even had a semi-circular seating arrangement similar to the much later Dallas theater. Interestingly, Barnsdall was planning to work with Norman Bel Geddes on the Los Angeles theater, and Bel Geddes had also proposed a theater design without a proscenium arch in a 1914 exhibition. Wright’s theater plans were adapted in 1932 for a proposed theater in Woodstock, New York, which was not built, and then later adapted again for another proposed theater in Hartford, Connecticut, which was also not built. Finally, in the last years of his life, Wright had the chance to put his innovative ideas on theater design into practice with the Dallas commission.

While the rejection of the proscenium arch may have been innovative in the interwar years, by the late 1950s, the idea of breaking down the barriers between audience and actors was no longer radically new. Bertolt Brecht, whose “epic theater” theories from the 1920s called for the elimination of the “fourth wall” separating audience from actors, had been dead for four years. Interestingly, the sources of Wright’s communal theater were not completely derived from such European avant-garde theater ideals, with his interest in Japanese kabuki theater perhaps providing an alternative source for both the revolving stage and the intimate connection between audience and performers. Finally, a brief comparison with the Theater’s contemporary, the Guggenheim Museum in New York (also completed in 1959) may further illuminate Wright’s celebration of communal culture and intimacy. The Guggenheim’s famous internal spiral ramp encourages a more intimate viewing experience than conventional rows of rectangular galleries, with visitors constantly aware of others moving up and down the ramp (the Kalita Humphreys Theater also includes internal ramps) – Wright’s “space in motion” highlights not only our awareness of the architecture, the art, or the performance, but also our awareness of each other.

All images by D.J. Huppatz