Is Dallas architecture still so bad?
Four decades ago, in May 1980, Blondie was at the top of the charts, The Shining won at the box office, and the Dallas skyline was a mainstay of national television. It was there every Friday evening in prime time, accompanied by that indelible, driving score: the bleached grass between the Trinity dams gave way to possibility with the rise of the camera of a gleaming glass city. And then the title, capital letters in yellow outline: DALLAS.
It looked so glamorous what it was about. Dallas the show was the epitome of Dallas the city: rich, bold, beautiful, and undeniably # 1. Unfortunately, it was fiction. Dallas looked fine in a montage on the small screen, but the reality? In the same month of May 1980, the cover of D Magazine asked an awkward question that spoke a different truth: “Why is Dallas Architecture so bad?”
The story should have had a sound effect: air pours out of a balloon – fsssssssst. Dallas’ inflated self-image was so pierced that this paper hired its author David Dillon as an architecture critic to fuel the civic endeavor.
Forty years later, when the coronavirus forced us to rethink the way we live in the city, we are at an opportune moment to take stock, to see how Dallas has done over the past few years , and imagine how it could be redesigned for the better. And so to the title question, but with a twist: Is the architecture in Dallas still so bad?
There is only one possible answer, and it defines this city of contrasts and contradictions: yes and no.
What was wrong?
But let’s go back to 1980. What was so wrong then? Dillon’s report begins with the devastating firing of a corporate architect from Houston – and it really hurt. “Dallas is a different city when it comes to architecture. Very conservative, uncomfortable with something new. I couldn’t sell a corner there to save my life. “
Dallas was too conservative, too rule-bound, too obsessed with short-term economic gains, too committed to the automobile, too little vision of its business and citizenship. There was no culture of architecture. The only school of architecture was the young program at the University of Texas at Arlington, and that wasn’t even in town proper.
The result: boring island buildings and empty streets. “You can count on one hand the number of downtown commercial buildings that acknowledge the existence of a pedestrian public.”
For Dillon to hear about it, Dallas barely had a skyline, and that was only thanks to the recently completed Reunion Tower and attached Hyatt Regency. If you had to take an out of town visitor to a place in town to make an impression, this was it. Granted, it’s hard not to love the place in all of its reflective glory, but the less glamorous truth is that it is an auto-centric convention hotel that is on the wrong side of the railroad tracks.
The facts were best articulated by the architect Henry Cobb, who later built what is still the best office tower in Dallas: Fountain Place. “Dallas is at a crossroads now,” he told Dillon. “On the one hand, it has to avoid purely arbitrary inventions, mere things; On the other hand, it must be avoided that dozens of homogenized buildings are created that are simply dropped on a construction site and abandoned. The aim is to create a real urban context. “
Dallas in 2020
OKAY. Now, let’s go back to the present and play Dillon’s game: If that visitor returned to Dallas for the first time in 40 years, where would he or she go?
The answer is obvious and speaks for the positive development of the city in the following decades: Klyde Warren Park. With that, Dallas now has a legitimate front door and a civic assembly room that is no coincidence over a freeway. The park has made Dallas an unlikely national model for advanced urban planning, though its founders seem determined to compromise it with a poorly thought out expansion project and a tricky fountain.
The emergence of the Bishop Arts District as a pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use community of small, independent businesses was another positive story that made headlines across the country. But like Klyde Warren, it struggles with its success, which has been shaped by developer-driven superstructures and the gentrification of older Latino families and businesses.
When Dallas tried to make a “big development” the results were poor. Despite massive public investment, Victory Park is only just emerging from its status as an anodyne, corporate non-place in an area that has a semblance of humanity.
There are currently a number of megaprojects on the horizon – for the area behind the town hall and for rooms connecting Victory and the city center – that could fall victim to the same placeless superstructure.
On a purely formal level, Dillon’s call for ambitious architecture has been answered by signature architects with a fair number of signature buildings, including a runway with trophy buildings in the Arts District. The results vary in value, from the wonderful (Nasher) to the curious (Wyly Theater) to the downright monstrous (Museum Tower).
The city’s taste for statement architecture is best illustrated by the two white tire bridges designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. You are certainly making a statement, but what exactly is it? Yes they are pretty. But they are also overpriced, revised, overbuilt, unnecessarily conspicuous and there are no promised paths for bicycles and pedestrians. They represent exactly the “thing” that Cobb warned about in 1980.
What’s even more worrying is that Cobb’s fear of shabby, homogeneous architecture and lack of urban context has also come to fruition.
To see this phenomenon, one only has to travel through Uptown or West Dallas, which have been overrun by a typology that has defined Dallas architecture: the beige apartment building, four to five stories high, with no discernible style, and taking a full city block . Entire neighborhoods have been wiped out and replaced with this kind of cheap, generic building that can only house a developer’s balance sheet.
It is true that these building types are a national scourge, but their presence is perhaps worse in Dallas, where they both exacerbate and exacerbate the city’s other challenges. especially the dire condition of its sidewalks and streets. It’s easy to miss a lousy building in a dense urban network; A lousy building standing naked in open space along a high-speed artery is a much bigger problem.
Improving the city’s connective tissue is the most important thing that can be done for architecture in Dallas. If the COVID-19 era has shown us anything, it is necessary to have widened sidewalks (without constant blockages), more trees to provide shade and reduce the heat island effect, a protected network of bike paths and a “radiused” end Corners (that privilege of turning cars over pedestrians). Dallas needs a diet – a street diet.
Escape from corporatism
Much of the city’s poor building is a product of its strong economy. Developers can be expected to prioritize profit over civic welfare, especially from out-of-town corporations whose architects outside-of-town are putting cuttings on our streets.
The city’s major architectural firms are certainly not to blame, although the standard of their production has improved over the past four decades. Stalwarts such as Corgan, Gensler, HKS, Omniplan, and Perkins and Will reliably produce solid – and occasionally extraordinary – work. Indeed, architecture has become a net export for Dallas as companies operate not only locally but internationally.
The maturation of the architecture school at UTA (where I am a professor) has contributed to this growth; The school has become a mill for the city’s architecture industry, and its enrollment numbers are increasing and diverse – a major factor is a profession that has a poor record on that front.
But the truth is that the city’s vibrant architecture business has not resulted in a vibrant creative culture. The product: a flood of generic office towers made of reflective glass.
I’m not against glass towers, but there is no excuse for banality, and too many glass cases – even good ones – can lead to sterile, inhospitable spaces. There are other inventive and efficient ways to clad buildings. One of the best in town, the Republic Center, is clad in punchy, patterned aluminum. Also to be avoided are stick-on LED lighting displays, cheap replacement products for a real three-dimensional architectural expression.
City regulations also suppress better design impulses, especially parking requirements that no longer make sense if the city is to consider expanding public transport, accessibility and the benefits of shared commuting.
There are few small, independent practices in Dallas that drive architectural innovation. Women and minority-run businesses are rare. No Dallas architect since Gary Cunningham has won the Architectural League of New York’s prestigious Emerging Voices Award, the most important signal of promising talent in the profession, and that was back in 1994.
What’s the problem? In the corporate environment of the city, it can be difficult for a young company to make a purchase. The small, bourgeois projects that are the lifeblood of young practices are dominated here by the big guns that can outperform the smaller ones with larger budgets and labor. Classroom options are limited to UTA, which is outside of the city center in the suburbs of Arlington. The focus is between Dallas and Fort Worth as well as the rest of North Texas.
These terms explain why the most significant independent studio to emerge in the city is the nonprofit BC Workshop, which undertakes public interest work that is outside the standard realm of corporate architectural practice. With projects like the Congo Street Initiative and the Cottages at Hickory Crossing, the company has succeeded in combining community development with modern design – a rare achievement.
In addition to its architectural work, BC engages in urban advocacy projects, many of which focus on preserving communities that have traditionally been neglected.
It is impossible to think about the quality of Dallas architecture without also thinking about its preservation, which has never been a civic priority. Dallas has consistently and persistently self-destructed for the same reason it took an interest in Statement Architecture – because creating the new zippy thing suggests that it’s new, that it’s relevant, that it’s awesome.
But Dallas is no longer a new city and has not been for a long time. If you keep tearing down your architecture, the message you are sending about its value is clear: it is a single use product and nothing more.
You could say Dallas is at a crossroads again. We’ve come a long way and made some progress, but somehow we seem to be back at the crossroads we were at 40 years ago.
Maybe we should fix it this time?