J. Erik Jonsson enlisted Pei to design City Hall as a part of Goals for Dallas, a rebranding effort after the JFK assassination. Photo by Kelsey Shoemaker.

Architecture & Design

I.M. Pei’s Legacy Will Forever Loom Over Dallas

He designed masterpieces in the Meyerson and Fountain Place, but we glimpse Pei's humanity in Dallas City Hall, a misunderstood creation that helped shaped the city.

I.M. Pei, the famed modernist architect whose shadow and influence looms over Dallas, passed away yesterday at age 102.

The Dallas Morning NewsMark Lamster and KERA’s Jerome Weeks have remembrances of the man best known in Dallas for his hulking, concrete City Hall and his elegant and inspired Meyerson Symphony Center. The juxtaposition in Dallas of those two works of Pei’s oeuvre tell the story of a singular, influential architectural talent, and of the role architectural personalities like Pei’s have played in shaping our city.

In Dallas, the story of the 20th century is often condensed down to a singular traumatic event and a city’s reaction to it. In the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, in 1963, Dallas was known as the City of Hate, and city leaders sought to brand the place out of this nasty dilemma. J. Erik Jonsson, the founder of Texas Instruments who became the mayor charged with leading this rebrand, turned to the architect I.M. Pei for help and inspiration.

Chinese-born Pei, like many architects of his generation, was a product of the Harvard School of Design and an ardent admirer of Swiss-French architectural visionary Le Corbusier, though he had also cut his teeth as a young architect working for New York mega-developer William Zeckendorf. As Morton Meyerson recalls in Lamster’s piece, Pei wasn’t just an architectural talent—one of a handful of architectures whose practice helped create the idea of the “starchitect.” Pei was also a salesman.

“I. M. Pei is the greatest artist and salesperson I’ve ever met,” Meyerson tells Lamster. “He is totally unique. I’ve met great artists, architects, musicians; I’ve met great salesmen; I’ve met great executives. But I’ve never met a person who had all of those characteristics.”

That personality proved a perfect addition to Jonsson’s civic initiative called “Goals for Dallas,” an effort to rebuild Dallas’ reputation from the ashes of the infamy of the assassination. Pei embodied a gentle disposition toward the post-modern project. In the aftermath of a broader global trauma—the horrors and devastation of World War II—the pragmatic, functional elegance of Pei’s architecture, achieved largely through inspired variations of simple geometric forms, kept an eye on monumental architecture of the past while conveying the hope and promise of a blank slate, a new start.

Pei’s contribution to Goals for Dallas is perhaps this city’s most misunderstood building, Dallas City Hall. Completed in 1978, the triangulated concrete behemoth looms over a gargantuan concrete plaza. Within a few years of its completion, urban-minded advocates were already inviting people like William Whyte to Dallas to figure out how to make the plaza amenable to actual people. Dallas City Hall is such an imposing site that it was an obvious choice as a cinematic stand in for the headquarters of the Omni Consumer Corporation in the dystopian sci-fi parable Robocop.

Anyone who has ever attempted to navigate its labyrinthine corridors and split levels knows that the building does more than symbolize impenetrable institutional bureaucracy—it forces you to experience it. I have been attending meetings there for 15 years and I still occasionally can’t find briefings and meeting rooms. Viewed in the context of its position on the southern edge of downtown, the leaning concrete shard appears as a kind of metaphoric levee holding back the tempestuous tides of southern Dallas.

And yet this was not Pei’s intent. The design was a product, like most of Pei’s works, of a process of public engagement and conversation. He intended in its long, squat profile and transparent, glassed façade to function as a counterbalance to the towering monoliths of the Dallas skyline and serve as an approachable “symbol of the people.” In its failure to achieve this vision, Dallas City Hall brings together much of the contradiction and paradox that is the legacy of late-20th century of architecture. Ideals of equality, democracy, and freedom are translated into forms that teeter on soullessness and have ravaged urban landscapes and worked against liberating progress.

But Dallas is lucky to have another building by Pei that displays everything that is inspiring and beautiful about the best work of the architect who also gave Paris its beloved glass pyramid at the Louvre. We are so used to calling the Morton Meyerson Symphony Center one of the greatest symphonic halls in the world that we can lose sight of just what a remarkable achievement the building really is. The Meyerson is the only truly great work of architecture in the Dallas Arts District, and its story brings together all the aspects of the way Pei’s personality and style matched Dallas’ sense of ambition and purpose.

Vastly over budget and rushed to completion, Pei persuaded his benefactors to not skimp on the quality of the Meyerson’s materials, the ambition of its construction, or its unconventional approach to twin-functionality. The Meyerson’s basic shape is that of two rectangular structures intersecting at an obtuse angle. It creates a space that is experienced both as a crystalline public plaza permeated by light that dances through its curving walls of windows, and as an interior hall that is a perfectly tuned temple of music. Pei—and acoustical designer Russell Johnson—did not build a hall for music, but rather created a building that itself is a kind of musical instrument. It is, as former Dallas Symphony maestro Jaap van Zweden once called it, “the pearl in the crown of this city.”

In addition to these two telling examples of the work of one of the 20th century’s most significant architects, Dallas has the office towers: One Dallas Centre (1979), Energy Plaza (1983), and Fountain Place (1986). These structures’ architectural legacy must be weighed against the impact the skyscrapers have had on the hollowing out of Dallas’ urban core—replacing street life with parking lots that serve the towering totems to neoliberal might. But here too we have a range of architectural success, and a building for which Dallas can be sincerely grateful.

Fountain Place—those twin shards of glass that balance scale and simplicity with an almost balletic elegance—is quite simply the most beautiful building in the Dallas skyline. Along with the Meyerson, it stands as the proud legacy of a man whose vision and humanity are bound up in the history and built form of a city that invited I.M. Pei to help chart a new way forward.

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