Observations: Dallas opera – without the soap

The word Dallas triggers two default visions: the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza, and the credits sequence of Dallas, the big daddy of television soaps. Decades later, the city still carries the same look of an arbitrary eruption of glass and steel towers rising from an almost featureless tabula rasa. But now, something big and red created by Sir Norman Foster and his design director, Spencer de Grey, has given Dallas a bold new cultural signifier.

The big red thing is the new Winspear Opera House, which takes centre stage at the $354m AT+T Performing Arts Center. The Winspear is Foster + Partners' first opera house and its design obliterates – for the moment, anyway – a criticism that many of the practice's recent buildings are just too sleekly seamless.

The legendary architect Louis Kahn, whose exquisite Kimbell Art Museum is in nearby Fort Worth, used to ask: "What does this building want to be?" The Winspear wants to be a public space; indeed, much of its internal ground-plane is part of the Arts Center's vast plaza. The only "object-architecture" in the design is the 2,200-seat auditorium, wrapped in three layers of glass whose crimson middle seam has immediately become the Center's instant icon.

The international consultants, Theatre Projects, were key to the scheme as a whole, having recommended the creation of Dallas's arts district. They imagined an American opera house designed for the needs of 21st-century performance, but inspired by the European horseshoe form. The result is a very steeply raked auditorium, with audience and performers unusually close together; the acoustics are said to be superb.

Spencer de Grey, an opera buff, is plainly thrilled. "And what's really terrific," he adds, "is that the city's about to build a park over the top of the freeway next to the arts quarter, to directly link the residential district with the city centre. This is very good news, culturally."

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