Driving across the Jefferson Boulevard viaduct early one recent evening, a friend of mine looked at the new Dallas Convention Center Hotel and was moved to song. The hotel was testing its light system, which sends horizontal ribbons of light moving up and down the building. My friend sang:

Lite-Brite, making things with liiight.
What a sight, making things with Lite-Brite.

How could I forget the ’70s jingle? And my friend’s observation was spot-on. When it is lit up, the Convention Center Hotel looks like a child’s toy. It’s the latest in a long line of downtown Dallas buildings striving to stand out in their own but similar way, by dressing up in lights.

The tradition began in 1934, when the Magnolia Hotel was topped with the now iconic neon red Pegasus. As building and lighting technologies evolved along with architectural aesthetics, Renaissance Tower followed the winged horse in 1974, and its trademark lighted Xs down each side of the 56-story office tower seemed to compensate for its minimally detailed rectilinear black glass facade. Then came Reunion Tower, the world’s largest bilbo catcher. In 1985, Bank of America outlined its 72-story stacks of cash in argon green.

The phenomenon accelerated with the advent of LED (light-emitting diode) technology and as developers did whatever they could to stand out against an increasingly bright background. Every recent addition to the Dallas skyline has its own signature light element. The Hunt Oil Tower, completed in 2007, projects messages of encouragement upon its large, abstract “H” toward the local teams plying their trade in the American Airlines Center. Across Woodall Rodgers Freeway and eventual deck park is Park Seventeen McKinney, with its 19-story lava lamp. One Arts Plaza has its signature color-changing LED square. Chase Tower wanted in on the act, recently lighting up its outline and “keyhole” sky window with blue LEDs. Each building must have its own geometry and color combo. In a crowded house, toddlers learn at a young age that they have to scream for attention.

If signature lighting were driven by economic forces, the phenomenon would exist elsewhere. But it doesn’t. Comparable cities (or, better yet, competitors), those that have sprung to life almost entirely within the last 50 years—for example, Houston, Denver, and Phoenix—are rather subdued with their night lighting. Of course, the daytime architecture of those cities’ tallest, most pronounced buildings isn’t audacious either. For the most part, those cities’ downtowns are defined by browns and grays of glass and concrete. Yet each of the cities, I would argue, has a downtown that feels more vibrant on a Friday evening than Dallas’ does.

Vancouver, another young city of upward expansion, is another good comparison for Dallas. In recent visits, I have found only one building notable for its lighting. The Shaw Tower has a sleek, green-blue linear gradient that reflects off the Coal Harbour waterfront. A few Vancouver towers have found another way to differentiate themselves in the forest of green-blue glass. They are topped with large trees. Though the common perception of Vancouver is that it is dominated by high-rises, I found the spaces around them rather bland. Instead, you discover the vitality and personality of the city in the more intimate, lower-rise historic corridors, where the grit of reality replaces the sheen of the waterfront view.

The Lite-Briting of the Dallas skyline strikes me like the Xs on Renaissance Tower. The lights are an effort to compensate for what is missing. Downtown should be our center of gravity and place, of social and economic exchange, where we come because we’re attracted to others. Tourists don’t visit cities because they want to see in person the postcard view of the skyline. Aside from the Sears Tower (sorry, I can’t call it the Willis Tower), can you picture Chicago’s skyline? When you visit a city (or when you live in one), you don’t remember the postcard view. You remember your experiences, typically shared with others, in that place.

I remember when I got my own Lite-Brite. It looked like it was going to be a lot of fun. But after sitting there for 20 or 30 minutes, punching little plastic pegs through the black paper template, I grew bored. Running around outside with my friends was a lot more fun. 

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