The Aristocrat: Gabriel Barbier-Mueller

Developer Gabriel Barbier-Mueller’s lineage is as impressive as his art collection. But his greatest  masterpiece yet may be the Azure—Uptown’s almost-completed, $150 million, 31-story residential tower.

SUITED UP: Gabriel Barbier-Mueller stands beside an authentic suit of Japanese Samurai armor. He and his wife own 1,300 similar pieces.
photography by Dan Sellers

Gabriel Barbier-Mueller owns a lot of stuff. For instance, the 50-year-old native of Switzerland owns Harwood International, a Dallas development company that, in turn, owns 16 blocks of Uptown and is building the $150 million, 31-story Azure tower there. Gabriel—everyone just calls him Gabriel, because you can’t do justice to “Bar-bee-aay Mule-er” without an outrageous French accent—also owns four homes, including a $2 million enclave in Preston Hollow and a house on the French Riviera. Together, he and his wife also own 1,300 pieces of authentic Japanese samurai armor, one of the largest private collections of its kind. And, on his own, Gabriel owns the title of Texas’ Honorary Consul to Switzerland.

Oh yeah, Gabriel also owns a book. It’s an encyclopedia, actually. A French encyclopedia. And it’s old.

“I have a French dictionary and encyclopedia from the end of the 19th century,” says Gabriel, who is fluent in English, French, and German, and does pretty well in Spanish, too. “You look up Texas. It says, ‘Tejas, also known as Texas.’ There is no mention of Dallas. About North Texas it says, ‘Vast plains inhabited by Indians and Commanchees where a man traveling on horseback is surrounded by grasses taller than he is on horseback.’”

Gabriel smiles, clearly amused by this little historical tidbit. Then, he continues, explaining that the book dates roughly from the same time Baron Georges Eugène Haussmann redesigned Paris. Actually, Gabriel just calls him “Haussmann,” as if Haussmann were someone we all might know offhand, like Napoleon or Nowitzki.

“At this same time you have ‘Tejas,’ Haussmann is piercing Paris’ avenues and creating the Paris everybody loves today,” Gabriel says. “And Paris has been around already 1,800 years by then. So, you have to put these things in perspective. It took Paris 1,800 years to resemble the city we know today. And just 100 years ago in this region of Texas we have grasses higher than horses. Now, look at Dallas today. It’s amazing.”

Maybe you didn’t catch it through Gabriel’s Swiss accent. So, let’s summarize. Let’s even add a little something for clarification. Gabriel’s point is that Dallas is developing far faster than Paris did, and that Dallas is only now starting to see the kind of development which, in the coming decades, could make it into a city everybody loves. Kind of like Paris.

Gabriel Barbier-Mueller, you see, is an optimist. As such, he sees potential in things others may dismiss, and beauty in things that the rest of us might take for granted. To wit, dusk. “When I first moved to Texas in 1979, I used to take photographs of the sunsets every night,” says Gabriel, who, in 1979, was just a couple years out of college and in pursuit of a career in real estate. Perfect match, that: If nothing else, Dallas in 1979 had a lot of real estate. So, Gabriel left his family home in Geneva and settled here.

“The sky was so big in Texas,” he says. “And the sunsets here are second only to Maui. So I took hundreds of photographs. I had them everywhere. I would put them in the bathroom, anywhere. I finally stopped taking them after 25 years.”

Dallas. Maui. On par.

Bet you can’t find five other CEOs of international firms who would put Dallas in such company. That is, unless they were criticizing. But, Gabriel isn’t like a lot of other CEOs. Which is not to say that he doesn’t think the city needs changing. It’s just to say that Gabriel figures he can enact the change himself. His ambition may be contained to 16 blocks in Uptown and a smattering of high-end projects around the globe, but it’s still big. He wants to make Dallas, at least one large tract of it, into a city where people walk to work, to play, to—as Harwood’s marketing materials call it—“life.”

 “I used to complain about Dallas,” Gabriel says. “Then I just decided I was going to do something about it. That’s why we started accumulating land here. I am determined to transform the whole of Uptown into a walkable space.”

Remaking a neighborhood, one building at a time
Dallas. Walkable. You look the CEO and founder of Harwood International in the eye when he says this, and you think he’s just giving you developer spin. He’s got condo units to sell in Azure, after all. The cheapest of them is $400,000 for 1,000 square feet, which includes a large, outdoor terrace. So you ask Gabriel to repeat this belief again and again. And then one more time, just to be sure. Each time, he does not betray himself. He really believes Uptown will someday, maybe someday soon, become not just a collection of pricey condos and offices, but a “vertical village,” one where people will leave their cars parked and will stroll from Azure or the W or another yet-to-be-built tower on a tree-filled property to the McKinney Avenue Contemporary or the Nasher Sculpture Garden or some quaint, not-yet-built café. They’ll do this, even though that walk might be long, and even though it will take them across high-speed traffic arteries, and even when it’s 95 degrees outside. He believes this partly out of idealism—sprawl is bad—and partly because Harwood is banking its fortunes on this vision as one of Uptown’s biggest landholders.

And, he believes this because people have told Gabriel that he could not succeed in Uptown before—that Dallas wasn’t ready for what he wanted to do. He proved them wrong. Twice.

This morning, Gabriel began his day by living a realized part of his vision for Uptown. He took both coffee and a conference call to Geneva from his regular seat in the elaborate, 1.5-acre gardens outside the Centex building in Uptown.

You want eco-friendly? The gardens between the Centex and Rolex buildings—both Harwood properties—are built on top of, and mostly obscure, a parking garage. Here, instead of blacktop, rows of sculpted trees flank bright green, open spaces. Everything  is crisscrossed by crushed-gravel walking paths that crunch softly underfoot. This is right in the middle of Uptown and it is on top of a parking garage. But you could be forgiven for thinking the gardens looked a lot more like a small Parisian park than a Dallas office complex.

A really hot, small, Parisian park, that is. It’s already 96 outside. “But it’s always about 10 degrees cooler under the trees than it is in the sun,” Gabriel says, optimistically. “I love sitting here in the gardens on a day like today. On my conference call, everyone said that it’s gray and raining in Switzerland. But it’s sunny and warm here. That’s one of the perks of living in Texas. People complain about the heat, but I love it.”

Gabriel has loved Texas since the late ’70s when he came to Dallas on a tour with the Modern Museum of Art’s International Committee. If you’re Swiss, or a serious art collector, you probably already know why he was on the tour. Barbier-Mueller isn’t just a mouthful of a name, it’s also a museum in Geneva with an offshoot in Barcelona, the home to arguably the world’s biggest and most influential collection of indigenous art. Today, Gabriel is vice chairman of the museum his parents, Jean Paul Barbier and Monique Mueller, founded in 1977. The museum was begun with a combination of artworks owned by Gabriel’s grandfather Josef Mueller and by his father Jean Paul. (It’s worth noting that Jean Paul today, like his son, goes by the surname of Barbier-Mueller. The hyphenation is a Swiss thing.)

After the Barbier-Mueller museum opened, Gabriel traveled, looking for interesting collections and potential acquisitions. He spent six solid months in Indonesia. The Texas trip was shorter, but no less influential. Here, Margaret McDermott, a noted arts patron and widow of Texas Instruments’ co-founder Eugene McDermott, took Gabriel to a ranch near Dallas. “There used to be ranches near Dallas that were not surrounded by suburbs,” Gabriel notes wryly. From his first glimpse of the giant Texas horizon, he was hooked. “A few years later, when it came time to seek a job, I remembered Dallas fondly, and I just decided to ask real estate companies here for work.”

Residential real estate management was Jean Paul’s business, and Gabriel had spent his summers home from school working with Dad. But, after graduation, he didn’t want to do business in Switzerland. He wanted to find an English-speaking  city. “Instead of going to New York or London or Washington to work and improve my English, I decided to come here and learn how to drawl,” he says.

For the record, Gabriel does not drawl. Instead, he speaks English with an accent that’s peculiarly Swiss, a bit of German sharpness mixed with nasally French. It’s charming in sort of an Inspector-Clousseau-meets-Colonel-Klink kind of way. 

However he sounded to Texans, Gabriel found work immediately. He did deals initially for Dallas real estate stalwart Henry S. Miller, buying and selling properties. Then he set out on his own, mostly developing in suburban Dallas. “I was doing a lot of cafeterias in the suburbs,” he unhappily recalls.

More happily, Gabriel met his wife, Ann. She was the daughter of Gene and Mary Ann Smith, owners of the still-operating E-Bar-S Ranch in Sunnyvale. Gabriel admired that she was a true Texas girl in the old-school sense—from the land, comfortable with horses, all that.

Married and out on his own, Gabriel needed capital partners to back his development ventures. Early on, his biggest was Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller. But his father sold his stake in Gabriel’s efforts as soon as his son achieved his early, major successes. The first of these came in 1983 when Gabriel went to the head of Rolex—the very same legendary watchmaker whose headquarters are just a mile from the Barbier-Mueller museum in Geneva—and offered him a proposition. Gabriel would build the man an office tower where Rolex could establish a service and parts facility to serve Central America. He proposed putting this tower in Uptown Dallas.

Actually, almost no one at the time called it Uptown. Instead, the area immediately north of Woodall Rodgers and east of the Dallas North Tollway was known by Dallasites as Little Mexico. If it was known at all. After the first phase of the Tollway opened in 1968, Little Mexico, an already poor area, had gone into a protracted decline. “This area was all dilapidated properties at the time,” Gabriel says. “There was nothing else here. Not one other office tower. But I believed there would be.

“So you can just imagine. I was only 26 and I’m going to the head of Rolex to convince him to do this. When he told me to go ahead I was both elated and scared to death at the same time.”

No one thought the Rolex building was a good idea. “My father-in-law thought I was nuts,” Gabriel says. “He said, ‘Everyone here is moving to the suburbs.’ But I was Swiss. Rolex was Swiss, too. And people just figured we didn’t know any better.”

What Gabriel knew, or at least hoped, was that suburban sprawl wouldn’t go on indefinitely and that Rolex would be the first of many big buildings to land on that side of downtown. And, indeed, not long after the Rolex building—with its gleaming, mirrored façade and modern interior—was completed, the Crescent opened nearby.

Then, nothing. Not one more office tower in Uptown until 1992 when Harwood announced it would build a facility two blocks from Rolex. Without a signature tenant. During a recession. The Dallas Morning News rightly declared: “Proposed tower raises skepticism.”

Something else Gabriel was doing was prompting questions, too. Already sold on the potential for Uptown to grow, and starting to turn financial backers onto that vision, he began buying up the land that flanked both the Rolex and that spec building—today the Dallas headquarters of Centex—and razing the homes there. In their place, he was, of all things, planting trees. In Dallas.

“Everybody said, ‘Why are you doing this,’” Gabriel recalls. “Trammel Crow gave me an Urban Forestry award for it. I said, ‘What is urban forestry?’ But the trees were how we got Centex to move in. They said, ‘Well, we’re now seeing the platform for future building and future neighborhoods here.’ Centex came, then Jones Day [the prestigious law firm] moved into our next building at 2828 Harwood. Then we built parking buildings. Then the arena came. Now Nobu has moved in and hotels and residents. Uptown is considered the No. 1 property market in Texas. It just took 25 years.”

Competition comes to the Uptown party
“Hello Mr. Marty.”

Gabriel is at his regular table in Marie-Gabrielle restaurant, a half-cafeteria, half-formal dining room inside the Centex building that Gabriel named for his daughter. He actually has two regular tables, one on the patio and another inside when it’s too hot. Today it’s way too hot. Still, the inside seat has afforded Gabriel a view of the restaurant entrance, and he’s spied “Mr. Marty” Collins on his way in. “How are you?” Gabriel asks, extending his hand to the president of Gatehouse Capital, the developer behind the nearby W Dallas Victory Hotel & Residences.

It is simultaneously a friendly and ridiculously uncomfortable exchange. Gabriel leans closer as Collins, who says nothing more than “Hello,” walks past. “That’s my biggest competitor,” Gabriel whispers, then launches into a detailed explanation of what differentiates the condos being built at the W—part of the sprawling Victory project that’s tied to the American Airlines Center—from those at Azure. Suffice to say this explanation has a lot to do with the difference between a modern art lover and a Ghostbar regular.

Whichever. As Mr. Marty’s presence in Gabriel’s restaurant attests, Harwood International is no longer alone in Uptown. A long list of developers have joined the Uptown build-a-thon: Gatehouse, Hines, Hillwood Development Corp., Billingsley Co., Hall Financial Corp., Hunt Consolidated, and more. They’re adding as much as two million square feet of office space to the Uptown and downtown area over just the next two years. Plus, they could bring as many as 50,000 new residents to the new condos and townhomes that are under way.

Ask Gabriel, who was in Uptown 20 years before Uptown was cool, whether he thinks the arena and Victory—whose tax breaks he finds unseemly—if the interest in Uptown is all thanks to the sports venue, and he says, flatly, “No.”

“The arena is a good thing,” he says. “But development was already happening here. Rolex was here. The Crescent. Centex. On the other side, the Meyerson. So, it’s not all because of the arena. It’s a whole collection.”

The point is debatable, of course, but it doesn’t really matter now. The fact is, a lot is happening in Uptown. What’s now worth debating is whether all this development will pay off. Early condo sales in the area have been strong—Azure was 35 percent sold before it was halfway built. But no one truly can say whether W and Azure will both fill up, whether the Ritz-Carlton residences will cannibalize those at the Stoneleigh. Gabriel, to his credit, admits to some uncertainty over his biggest project ever, the $150 million Azure.

“With Azure, we don’t know,” he says between delicate sips of a tomato gazpacho. “There is no market data that we could have bought that would have told us that Azure would be successful because nobody has done it before here.”

True, no one has ever built a residential tower this big and this upscale in Texas before. Maybe just as importantly: Harwood International has never done anything like Azure. It’s the company’s first-ever residential tower. Numero un.

Still, it’s not a complete departure for Harwood. Like the firm’s commercial projects, Azure is high-end and aimed at a certain class of customer: the upper-class. “On our commercial projects, we cater only to tenants who have a reason for high-level design and services, because it’s either strategic to them for their customers or because of the kind of employees they’re trying to attract and retain,” Gabriel says. “So we have to find those businesses for whom high-level design is important—a Rolex, a high-end law firm, financial firms, hedge funds.”

Selling Azure, it turns out, is actually a little easier. “Oh, residential is more fun,” Gabriel says. “With office buildings, you’re selling to the CFO, COO, CEO, and it’s all about the price and efficiency. With residential, people want to meet you, know why you’re doing what you’re doing. And you can charge for the emotional response you generate. In a residential building, we just have to say, ‘This is the best mousetrap.’”

The armor, not the sword
Gabriel is walking briskly through the lobby of the Centex building. Clad in a brown suit, with a brown, striped shirt, no tie, and wearing a pair of those European driving shoes, the rubber-soled kind, he resembles a younger, fitter, more Swiss Jacques Pepin. He’s got a meeting to go to, like, half an hour ago and he’s trying to get this magazine writer off his tail. So, he only stops briefly to acknowledge the two giant glass boxes that dominate the otherwise sparse, modern space. In the boxes are a pair of wooden Japanese samurai warriors on wooden horseback. Their armor—everything from the helmets down to the elaborately decorated boots—are genuine 18th Century items from Gabriel’s personal collection: 1,300 different pieces of samurai armor.

This particular display is stunning, but Gabriel offers little explanation, save for a joke, “This is something my wife didn’t want me to keep at home, so I brought it here.”

Later on, after his meeting is over, he gives more details. The samurai collection sprung from his desire to find a niche in his family. The Barbier-Mueller museum specializes in indigenous, or “primitive” art. Basically, this is really old stuff, made by people who were not trained as artists nor made their living as artists. The creations are sometimes crude, true, but they have also influenced some of the biggest names in modern art. Picasso, for one.

Gabriel’s first niche was American Indian pots, which he decided to collect on the advice of his biggest Dallas mentor, someone named Stanley. “The first art I ever bought with my own money, I must have been 22 and living in Dallas,” Gabriel recalls. “Stanley Marcus sent a guy to my office who had some interesting pots from New Mexico. I bought some right then.”

About 10 years later, he turned his attention to Japanese armor. “I was in Paris,” Gabriel says. “We had just finished renovating the interior of a building and I had the check in my pocket from the project when I saw some armor in the window of an antique dealer. So I just walked in and bought it.”

You’d expect him to drop a little Sun Tzu on you here, explaining that what drew him to the armor was its ferocity, the same kind of ferocity one needs in business. But let’s remember, the Barbier-Muellers have neutrality in their blood.

“I’m only interested in the armor, not the swords,” he says. “Swords are really an aggressive device. But I’m interested in the sculptural and visual impact of the armor, not it’s military use.”

Of course, collecting art doesn’t pay the bills, which is why both Gabriel’s father and grandfather both worked hard to support their artistic outlay. Gabriel does the same. But unlike his forebears, Gabriel has found a much stronger connection between art and commerce. It has nothing to do with reading Sun Tzu, but instead, with visiting a museum.

“I went to see the Wallace Collection in London when I was 14 and that had a big impact on me,” Gabriel says. “That big mansion on Manchester Square has just this incredible collection of paintings, of furniture, of armor that was collected by four generations of men. I was tremendously impressed. Because, in collecting, that’s what you’re trying to do—share the experience of looking at different civilizations through their creations, through their art. Those creations last.”

So, too, do buildings.

“I’m lucky to be in a business where you get tangible proof of success,” Gabriel says. “If you build a bad building with bad architecture, it’s a legacy that will follow you. But if you get the right team for a project, you really get to create something good and lasting.

“One day people will come look at the buildings we’re putting up in Dallas today, and they’ll say, ‘This is what Dallas of the 21st Century created.’ That’s what people do when they go to Paris and Rome and so forth. And that’s why we believe we should go the extra mile in working with good architects and creating buildings that are good for the community. Because a fair amount of them are going to be around for quite a while.”

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