Cheer Up Dallas: At Least You’re Not Abu Dhabi

That’s the takeaway from this Economist blog post which picks up on Blair Kamin’s takedown of the Arts District in the Chicago Tribune. The Economist goes over the problems with the Arts District that Kamin points out and then posses this zinger: “But surely it is possible to spend even more money to create an even duller arts district.” 

It turns out it is: Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, which will cull together a team of starchitects to create branches of the Guggenheim, the Louvre, and a natural history museum. The Abu Dhabi project is also running into some PR problems: an artist boycott of the Guggenheim over the working conditions of those building the new museums. But like Dallas, the question remains: does a “if you build it, they will come,” philosophy hold water.

But setting aside this public-relations disaster, which could significantly hamper the Guggenheim’s work in filling this museum, the Saadiyat complex poses a larger question: will people come? Is it enough to build these gigantic monuments to modernity (in an otherwise not-so-modern and remote place) and assume that the razzle-dazzle will lure the tourists? Dallas’s experiment illustrates the flaws in developments that consider the needs of architecture at the expense of people. A culture district without the glue of wandering pedestrians (or an atmosphere of working artists; or let’s face it, streets) may struggle to earn its keep.

Comments

  • Marianne Laflange

    The situation of public spaces and the arts district’s planning decisions makes one wonder who exactly is consulted in the early planning stages of such projects.

    As an aside, I just drove back from the down town Neiman Marcus store in my 1968 French blue 2CV, after attempting to source a vintage Pucci neck scarf to conceal my increasingly wrinkled neck – as a woman of my advanced years has no option but do, and noted that the Main Street Gardens Park is remarkably dysfunctional in appearance and in purpose. Better there than not perhaps, but why does Dallas find it so difficult to pull off such simple feats as parks when there are so many models out there already?

    It has a quasi-architectural ‘design’ of asymmetrical angles and a large patch of barren and expensive-to-irrigate grass. As a Parisienne and Londoner, used to mature parks and gardens small and large, this was a missed opportunity for intimacy, quietness, reflection, perceived oxygenation, and so forth. Many more trees would be nice. A place to learn to play boules, perhaps. A place to read Hemmingway (a personal friend of my parents) on one’s new Kindle deeper into the park’s acreage and away from the street; enjoyable activities for city workers after work, or at lunchtime on a spring day. It would be nice if there were cafes and bars nearby, where one might drink Pernod and eat olives. But there aren’t. Instead there is a large patch of grass tokenistically fringed by sidewalk park appendages, such as the occasional self-conscious bench or small tree and a single purpose-built cafe. Its very design implies ease of policing as its paramount remit. Anyone who steps into the open space in the middle is therefore conspicuously too far away from a respectable car -Dallas’ signifier of law-abiding citizenry – and is therefore easily picked out in a DPD gun-sight should they do anything weird. Like start to relax.

    It’s not as if I propose Dallas’ first dogging park, or Hampstead Heath’s seasoned and time-honoured cruising copses; merely a space broken into more intimate spaces with shade, benches and perfume from flowers, the tweeting of bird song – much like one might strive to achieve in one’s own garden (backyard) or patio.

    As usual, the inter-connectivity and function of space is ignored completely in favour of random ‘design’ as if its perceived virtue is more as a graphic plan of sub-Diebenkorn-like appeal that would register ‘artistically’ from satellite perhaps. This is the reason that Dallas falls flat on its face time and again. It doesn’t take into account fundamental human requirements because it doesn’t seem to value such things. I have no idea why this should be so. Beautifully laid out flora would have been nice – instead, it’s a sort of barren turf concourse – and the already unfashionable lime green bus-shelter motifs give the gardens a ‘Greyhound bus’ feel, further exacerbating downtown’s sense that its only foot traffic are vagrants or people too poor to buy a decent enough attorney to get them off their DWI. Adding insult to injury – as usual – is an idiotic piece of signage that says ‘Park’ in illuminated three-foot-high letters; which at first I took to be a sign for underground car-parking for the park itself. Drive-thru park anyone? Maybe if they designed
    something that actually functioned as a park they wouldn’t need the sign to tell them what it is. The vulgarity of such signage beggars belief. Can you imagine this at the entrance to Central Park, Regents Park or where ever? It is so undignified.

    Perhaps a set or printed instructions could be useful too, reminding citizens how to use a park and the DPD that people have a right to be there. Or maybe a traffic cop on horseback with a loud-hailer – like one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse – could be positioned in the middle of the lawn bellowing instructions: “People of Dallas, be using the park – you bast**ds, sit on the grass now! Be liking the park! Be liking it a lot! Show more appreciation! Start acting in a public way, like the signs say! You there, with the picnic! Be adding more salami to that sandwich! Homemade mayonnaise is banned in the park – can’t you read the signs! You have twenty seconds to comply! Be enjoying the shade from the lime green quasi-architectural accents, then move along…and visit the arts district for some free jazz in a cordoned-off ‘semi-public’ section of street near the DMA with some slightly balding men with Hawaiian shirts and pony tails – and be enjoying that too – you inglorious bast**ds…!!! “, etc

    The problem with it is, it doesn’t know if it’s a park, gardens or a parking lot. Either way, strangely, it breaks the rhythm of the city streets and remains looking more like a scraped lot than a park. I say back to the drawing board with that one.

    The arts district meanwhile may only be part way in to its program – but it’s abundantly clear already that the whole place has been overly planned and controlled in the wrong sort of way. There is no provision for a good restaurant, or something surprising or great to emerge of its own accord, as far as I can tell. The reason for this is that such things are very difficult to transplant all at once in a ‘North Park-ish’ way – which is what the arts district most closely resembles so far in terms of its thinking. All of which is why a more integrated model with existing architecture would have been more revitalizing and ultimately successful.

    However, what is done is done, and there is no turning back, so the very real question of how to inject life there instead of stage-managing glitzy and squeaky clean quasi-events becomes more and more pertinent. Dallas is so very anal, or as we say in France, ‘tres anal’. Sous le posterieur. Avante le derriere. Taken as a whole, (a-hole) the city, it has to be said, is one of the least pretty on the planet. And then it has the little pockets of overly controlled ‘anality’, ‘les petite analities’ which only serve to highlight the shortcomings. As much as I want to admire The Winspeare, for example, and as much of a fan of Norman Foster as I am – the opera house has the presence of a DFW terminal in terms of its outward functionality – the manner in which it sucks its visitors back into the parking lots after the performances is very airport-like it its overly efficient ‘transit system for subterranean induction of audiences’ effect. Which would be great for an airport. But it is Huxley-like in its contribution to the street culture in keeping betas and gammas from coming into contact with epsilons, and so forth. Its presence, as such, is a very unfortunate mirror to America’ s general current political state of polarized view and perception. It is overly bourgeois to its detriment therefore.

    A great restaurant, for example, requires pre-existing buildings of historical value – all of which the rest of down town possesses. It comes as no surprise that when an otherwise average restaurant such as ‘Local’ or ‘Bolsa’ opens, in buildings that relate to the actual street and have interesting, though modest, architecture and histories, that people flock to them from the get-go. In such instances, the food only has to be passable, and the place will be successful. So imagine this on a bigger scale, without dumb culinary of interior design gimmicks but with truly great food. Compare the success of Jeremy King/Chris Corbin’s various restaurants in London: The Ivy, La Caprice, J. Sheekey, The Wolseley, St Albans. All great in their own way (many are re-vamped incarnations of former great restaurants and no longer under their management) – but the one that failed was St Albans, the most contemporary and self-consciously ‘new’ one. The others leveraged the
    historical and cultural value and tradition of the buildings that they were in (or the history of the restaurants themselves). Thus, to simply implant a brand new building, order in a chef, an interior designer, etc does not a great restaurant make. Dallas does not seem to have a clue what a great restaurant is, or should look like. It has never had one it would seem. It cannot have a great arts district without one however. This is a matter of grave concern that should be addressed with real seriousness.

    For now we are stuck with mediocre places in strip malls or horribly pretentious overblown places in hotels. And people wonder why Dallas has a reputation for being perceived as superficial. It continually repeats the same mistakes.

    So, who the hell makes all these decisions? Why are we as citizens left puzzling and complaining, instead of enjoying the city as it might be enjoyed. Not good enough Dallas. Time for a major re-think before it’s too late. I’m not holding my breath for Woodall Rogers either. Tradition here dictates it will be a f**k up of Six Flags/Wet ‘n’ Wild proportions. If only it could be like NY’s brilliant Hi-Line project. Something thoughtful, witty, imaginative and genuinely usable. Here’ s hoping. I’m holding my breath and counting…

    Do we even want to connect to uptown? Uptown is mostly awful and getting more and more like the Costa Brava by the minute with its god-awful overblown Spanishy-looking grotesqueries and faux Parisian lamps. Has anyone driven up Cedar Springs recently?

    Word for the day: Bourgeois. Pronunciation tips: there is an ‘r’ in the first syllable. It’s not ‘boojewah’, it’s bourgeois. It’s extremely bourgeois to not even know how to pronounce ‘bourgeois’. It’s beyond bourgeois to recreate Dallas in the image of a bad holiday resort. In case its not obvious:

    From Wikipedia:
    “In some modern usage “petite bourgeoisie”, a class that lies between the workingmen and the capitalists, is used, usually derisively, to refer to the consumption habits and tastes of the middle class and the lower middle class in particular.This is related to the meaning attributed to the expression “bourgeois mentality”, used to define the cultural worldview associated with Victorianism, in particular the repression of emotional and sexual desires, and the construction of an intensely regulated social space where the key desirable personal trait is propriety”.

    N.B. for the US, what would be considered the middle class here, is considered the lower-middle class elsewhere, and so on: upper class here, is middle class there… The reality of a class structure and the attitudes and politics they eschew are predicated on far more things than just wealth. Dallas, however, manifests a petite-bourgeois mindset in its approach to culture for the most part. This is an entirely pejorative statement I’m afraid to confess – but as a city founded partially on, and resolutely addicted to, retail, it should come as no surprise. It is also (obviously) to Dallas’s detriment. While its tastes and city-planning decisions speak of a petite bourgeois attitude, its more aspirational planning is entirely bourgeois in its desire to overly control and regulate.

    Fort Worth managed to pull off this bourgeois feat with a sense of dignity and functionality. It still eludes Dallas.

    This is how outsiders see Dallas. The only hope is to defy expectations and do something surprising and great in the reverse direction of what has been offered up so far.

    In conclusion, it is surprising and unfortunate that the function of new buildings and institutions at every level here are underestimated in terms of the enriching and revitalizing usage that architecture should perform in their more secondary or tertiary roles. As such, the placing of private art foundations, for example, are far better served in areas that already possess inherent interest but may be currently under-valued. Instead, more new initiatives often follow irrelevant condo developments or end up in empty suburban locations where they can do no possible good. They become isolated destination points that do nothing for their surroundings. There is only one promising small-scale new development that I know of that runs counter to this mistake.

    Who is the arts district really designed for? Was its desired effect fully considered from a truly functional point of view, or is it seen as a series of outward showcases with symbolic value as the primary concern? If it is the latter, then who exactly would be fooled by this? Every aspect of design is in effect a political decision.

    (Marianne Laflange is a philosopher and food critic who moved from Paris to Dallas in 1966 and has been unable to leave due to inability to find parts and a decent mechanic for her Citroen. Despite its excellent gas mileage, it only has an effective range of about four miles, so she has been confined to Dallas’ inner environs for over 45 years and has accepted the challenge as a sociological experiment of almost saint-like magnitude.)

  • Jan van Toojerstraap

    Hey. Dis is great. How did I not meet Mrs Laflange at de residency yet?

    Jan back here again. Dudes, its hot here to be believings? Have it away I’m in Europe for a while to be making de really greats performancing in de placings near de galleries at Berlin. Here I’m to be making Bretton omelettes like my mother is showing me how to do, even though she is to be from Newcastle. In Bretton they are to be saying that you are not to be even mixing the eggs with a fork, but witte de witte a knife passing throujjh quite fast. You are not to be mixing fully the yolk witte de whites, for maybe just twenty seconds, if dat. A small sea salt and fresh grinding blacking peppers as well. Great.

    Den, using barley enough French Normandy butter to a grease de heavy pan – which needs to be a tantric sort of size, preferably 8″, on a moderate to high heat, you pour in de eggs and immediately tilting de pan, draw de eggs to one side as dey cooks, letting de uncooked eggs spill back acrossings. Do repeatedly, until de eggs are folding on tops. No more dan about 90 seconds. In Europe, dis is approximately 150 metres, or about 7kg. Den, fold omelette in half. De eggs should not be completely set or cooked through on de insides. Simpling! As dey say, if an omelette looks good, it probably tastes bad. I don’t know what de hell dis means – if it looks good, you made it right! But hey, dis is coojl.
    De inside should be running slightly.

    Dis is culture. Not so hard on, right! But Mrs Laflange is right about de Fascist police forcing and no hoojmemaid mayonnaise here in de parks here. Everywhere is de plastic jars like sports drijnks. In de Nederlands we majke de mayonniase, maybe to haff witte de witte de trout, dis is great, no? In Woodall Rogering, Jan is to be holding lessons on his own food kart to make French omelettes and mayonnaise and all de chefs witte de comedy embroidery jackets witte dere funny names haff to come and watch Jan and be tantric. Please to be no more Mac ‘N’ Cheejse witte de truffle oil. Dis is an insulting to everyone; de truffles, de macaroni and de cheejse. By de way, in Italy no one eats Mac and kaes. Dis was an invention from a box by some one called Mr Whippy or sometinks. Or Captain PlayDoe or sometijnks like dis.

    But all de crazy peojples in Dallas say, oh, haute cuisine, not thanks – mac and kaes, to die for! – only dey probably will be dying for it, becosh it is made witte paint from de Home Depot and powedered kaaes. Please. Like saving de whale, den save de Balsamic Vinegar, now save de truffles oil. You dere at de Mansion! You haff ADD witte de truffle oiling everytink in sight.

    So be more tantric witte de cooking. It’s more like making loves in de films of Ken Russell. You are here to be treating food like de bad pornos and facebookings. Dis is not too good at all.

  • Marianne Laflange

    Mr van Toojerstraap,

    With respect (barely), your English is dreadful, and your sexual allusions are puerile to say the least. However, your instructions on cooking omelettes are about right. You did not say how many eggs. I would say two per person is sufficient (tree perhas if they are small eggs) and are easier to cook at the right speed. Omelettes, apart from requiring good eggs, are very time based and require a simple and robust touch. Much like painting. If you cannot cook an omelette, you cannot paint either. This is why so many artists here are poor – they can’t cook. The two things are directly related.

    Please refrain from your smut. As a seventy one year old woman I find it insulting. However, I am prepared to meet you privately. I am interested in your ideas about the tantric in relation to culture. I will be wearing a scarlet and black printed Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress and will meet you at Main St Gardens Park at sundown.

    And that’s Ms Laflange, not Mrs Laflange.

  • Ron Shandy

    What’s wrong with Dallas as it is? Why should we have dumb old building restaurants and fancy left-wing arts museums? Who wants that stuff anyway? We got TV and sports. Is Mr Toojerstraap a liberal or what?