Imagine a high-rise theater equipped with a glass-walled performance hall that possesses the ability to morph into three different seating configurations. Now imagine that this building is constructed from the top down with a minimal use of structural support columns. Sound impossible? Skeptics said it couldn’t be done, but the recently opened $84-million AT&T Performing Arts Center (AT&T PAC) Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre has proven the cynics wrong. Located in northeastern downtown Dallas, the 12-level, 80,300-sq-ft multiform theater is the only one of its kind in the world — and not just because of its unique architecture.

“Typically, theaters are constructed horizontally so that the back house and support spaces are located behind and to the sides of the stage,” says Bryon Pfaff, MEP project manager for the Texas division of McCarthy Building Companies, the firm that constructed the theater. “With this project, everything is vertically stacked, so you’ve got the main performance chamber located at ground level, and the support spaces are located above and below this main chamber.”

Resembling a tall steel box thanks to the use of exterior aluminum cladding, three of the performance hall’s 30-ft walls are made from 2-in.-thick glass, giving as many as 600 patrons a view of the Dallas skyline when feasible (blackout blinds can be automatically opened or closed for performances). The fourth wall contains the elevators as well as the building’s support systems.

“The building’s footprint is fairly small — only 130 sq ft by 100 sq ft — yet the amount of conduit needed for the performance lighting and the video and sound was immense,” notes Pfaff. “One of the requirements was that none of the conduits or junction pull boxes could be exposed. So a big challenge was trying to find space for all that conduit.”

According to Pfaff, the extensive use of 3D drawings prior to installation along with a 3-layer “basket weave” of conduit within the 1-ft-thick floor slabs helped ensure everything fit. The theater’s distinctive seat towers, which allow for multiple seating configurations — proscenium, thrust, and flat floor — also tested McCarthy’s skills.

“The seat towers are basically three levels of structural steel bleachers attached to scoreboard hoists,” Pfaff explains. “Depending on the performance needs, the seat towers, which have removable chairs attached to them, can be lifted above the catwalk. This required us to devise a safety system so that when the seat tower drawbridges were lifted, they released a set of contacts that locked out the elevators and doors on that floor to prevent anyone from accidentally walking onto that floor and falling down three levels.”

As with most new construction, the Wyly Theatre contains a host of sustainable design features, including radiant piping in the lobby, chilled water beams, the liberal use of fluorescent lighting fixtures, and utilization of lighting and dimming controls in rest rooms, dressing rooms, and office spaces.

“The outdoor lighting consists of a vast amount of in-grade LED luminaires that were custom designed for this project,” adds Pfaff. “The difficult aspect is that the drivers for the lights live in the fixtures. It’s hard to keep them watertight.”

Despite the numerous challenges, the 33-month-long project finished on time, welcoming its first guests last fall.