Architecture Critic David Dillon On Dallas Houses

The Dallas Morning News architecture critic has savaged local developers, architects, builders, and real estate agents for decades. Is Dallas finally doing something right?

Why Is David Dillon Smiling?
The Dallas Morning News architecture critic has savaged local developers, architects, builders, and real estate agents for decades. Is Dallas finally doing something right?

The name David Dillon has been synonymous with Dallas architecture, or more accurately, with the frequent upbraiding and only occasional extolling of it, since the early 1980s when he joined the staff of the Dallas Morning News. Dillon has made plenty of people mad. More than a few have threatened to get him fired. “Architecture criticism is fairly political,” he says. “It deals with economics, local government, and real estate; its the type of criticism that costs people money.” But being outspoken doesnt seem to bother him. “If you want to be liked, then you shouldn’t be an architecture critic,” he says.

Dillon has a masters degree and a doctorate from Harvard University in literature and art history, and he was a Loeb Fellow at its Graduate School of Design in 1986-87. He has written 10 books on architecture and urban planning as well as the new plans for Washington, D.C., and the White House and Presidents Park. He is also a contributing editor to Architectural Record, Landscape Architecture, and other professional journals.

We asked Lee Cullum, a distinguished print and television journalist in her own right, to find out whats on Dillons mind these days.

DAVID DILLON’S 5 FAVORITE HOUSES
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT

5314 Swiss Ave.
5831 Nakoma Dr.
3805 McFarlin Blvd.
6122 Deloache Ave.
9624 Rockbrook Dr.

Dallas has a reputation for big hair houses and suburban sprawl. But our city is young, and inevitably we are going to have new construction. Are there principles that could make our growth as visually congenial as it is dynamic?
DILLON: Keep in mind that Dallas is nearly built out, particularly to the north, so that much of the new construction you’re talking about is going to be infill of one kind or another, either new buildings on leftover lots, or recycled older buildings. The sprawl of the last few decades is becoming unsupportable. Dallas is going to be a much denser city.

As for visual congeniality, Swiss Avenue provides some fundamental lessons about good design, good planning, and good architecture. Except for a couple of twins, no two houses are alike, which is quite different from the cookie cutter subdivisions in which the main differences seem to be the number of gables and odd roof pitches. Yet Swiss Avenue remains visually coherent because of the proportions of the individual houses, and the way they relate to their lots and to the street. What makes Swiss Avenue work, in other words, is not style as much as planning and urban design.

You find the same thing on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, Park Avenue in New York, and other great streets. When you look at the towers and the townhouses, no two are alike; what holds things together is a shared understanding among architects and developers, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, about height and setbacks and connections to the street, about not blocking someone else’s view, about being a good neighbor. Dallas needs as much of that as it can get.

A well-designed house generally makes a good neighbor. What are some of your favorite houses in Dallas?
DILLON: One is Howard Meyer’s house on Nakoma Drive in Greenway Parks. It dates from the early 1950s and is easily his best house. There are also a dozen or so contemporary houses in Dallas, all done in the last decade, that are superb: the Rose house by Antoine Predock and the Rachofsky house by Richard Meier. Steven Holl did a wonderful house for the Prices out in North Dallas. These are all high-concept, designer houses, and very good ones. Dallas is developing a base of sophisticated clients who commission major architects and manage to get good work out of them. There’s also a group of Dallas architects, mostly younger, who are doing excellent residential work. I think of people such as Ron Womack, Max Levy, Gary Cunningham, Lionel Morrison, Joe McCall, Dan Shipley, and of course, Frank Welch. Dallas has bulldozed a lot of its best commercial buildings, so its architectural legacy could well be its contemporary houses.

The Rachofsky house is one of the best-known houses in the city, at least among a certain social strata…
DILLON: It’s interesting that in Dallas the owners of these designer houses are opening them up to the public. They still own them, of course, but theyre also using them for benefits, fund-raisers for the museum and the opera, and social service organizations. It’s commendable. Try finding that on Long Island.

Given the Rose and Rachofsky examples, would you say the combination of enlightened clients and exceptional modern architects might make Dallas the next great modern American city?
DILLON:
Clearly whats putting Dallas and Fort Worth on the cultural map right now is contemporary architecture. People are coming from around the world to see Renzo Piano’s Nasher Sculpture Center and Tadao Ando’s Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The two cities are now promoting themselves in national magazines as art and architecture centers, whereas a few years ago it was all J.R. and Billy Bob’s. And we’ll soon have, I hope, another group of distinguished modern buildings in the Arts District from Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas, and others. So the trend of increasingly sophisticated clients hiring good architects is very encouraging. The talented local guys are still doing mostly residential work, and I’d like to see them get a shot at important civic and cultural commissions as well.

As our local architects continue to establish themselves, I hear debate about always importing celebrity architects when the talent may well be right in our own back yard.
DILLON: Renzo Piano, Tadao Ando, and other celebrity architects raise the bar, and that’s good because it can inspire others to do better work. But you shouldn’t chase superstars for every important commission. A good architectural culture is like a good local economy. You can’t import everything; sooner or later you have to grow your own.

Beyond that, Dallas doesn’t need more trophy buildings as much as it needs a lot of small, smartly designed infill and background buildings. We’re a bit low on connective tissue right now.

Let’s talk about your least favorite houses.
DILLON: I dont know if I can. There are so many to choose from.

McMansions are out of control in Dallas, blowing the scale of streets and entire neighborhoods. They are mostly air, with huge volumes, but comparatively little usable space, unless you like state dinners.

What do you think about the Workman house on the corner of Preston Road and Armstrong Parkway? That’s quite something. What was the inspiration for that house?
DILLON: I have no idea. Hansel and Gretel? It’s got some art nouveau touches that remind me of Antonio Gaudí and other details that might come from the back lot at Warner Brothers. It’s a little over the top for my taste, but I have no quarrel with eccentricity as such. Some of my favorite houses in Dallas were designed by Charles Dilbeck, who was a very fanciful architect who did tract housing as well as fancy estates. He built them by the dozen all over the city, and most of them are wonderfully quirky. I like Dilbeck’s work a lot. He took chances, didn’t mind being laughed at sometimes, yet usually managed to create at least one special room in most of his houses.

You once wrote, tongue-in-cheek, that Richardson, Plano, and North Dallas are designed in a Georgian/Spanish Colonial/Early Texas/Romanesque style. Do you still think that’s the case?
DILLON:
I think that hodgepodge is still the vernacular for most of that area. It’s not work that interests me except as a reflection of local banking and real estate interests. Lenders like safe, traditional houses that they can turn quickly with little risk, so they tend to discourage more inventive work that doesn’t fit the stereotypes. I’ve had a number of buyers tell me that they had to knock their real estate agents down and sit on them to be shown anything south of LBJ. For that reason, it’s encouraging to see Diane Cheatham developing a small modernist neighborhood near Forest Lane, using some of the best architectural and planning talent in the area. It’s an experiment worth watching.
 
The Dallas City Council recently approved an ordinance to try to curb the excesses of the McMansions. Do you think it will work?
DILLON: I don’t know. I haven’t looked at the details or how it will be implemented. But I am generally in favor of neighborhood conservation districts, such as the one Greenway Parks recently approved. What makes Greenway Parks special, obviously, is all the common open space threading through the neighborhood. Most houses open onto it rather than onto a street or a big circular driveway. Many of the houses are quite modest as well; even the larger ones are not grandiose. The whole place just feels right, which is why it’s one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Dallas.

What’s the state of McMansions here? Should they be curbed?
DILLON: McMansions are out of control in Dallas, blowing the scale of streets and entire neighborhoods. They are mostly air, with huge volumes, but comparatively little usable space, unless you like state dinners. They loom over their neighbors. So I think it’s fine for the city to set some limits on them, to put the good of the neighborhood ahead of self-important architectural statements.

What about preservation ordinances?
DILLON: The same. We should have had tough preservation ordinances here 20 years ago. Now we’ve got one with more teeth, so we may save some buildings, which is good. But preservation ordinances work best when they address basic issues such as height, massing, setbacks”the things that affect the public realm. If you can get those right, the other things will usually take care of themselves. Unless you’re doing a restoration, you shouldn’t be specifying the color of the window trim or the width of the molding. That gets silly.

What about the amendment to Dallas development code that says accessory buildings such as guesthouses, greenhouses, cabanas, and bathhouses have to relate in very specific ways to the main house?
DILLON: I have more trouble with that because it puts aesthetic decisions in the hands of building inspectors, who aren’t qualified to make them. Leave those issues to the architects.

Dallas is in a high-rise condo frenzy. We now have about 10 towers in the works or already built, and another 10 more in the pipeline. Do any of these have a chance of generating a real neighborhood?
DILLON: Good urban neighborhoods are usually blends of different cultures, different income levels, different ethnic groups. The new luxury high-rises are aimed at older wealthy couples or affluent young professionals. Many of the buyers are business people who live elsewhere, and for whom a condo at the Ritz or Azure is cheaper than staying at the Four Seasons 100 nights a year. Then there are people who have more money than they know what to do with, for whom this is their third or fourth residence. This is not exactly the profile of a lively urban neighborhood. What is missing right now in Uptown, which is where most of the action is, is apartments and condos in the affordable range. To have a vital neighborhood, you need that layer as well.

I learned about the 4 percent rule from you. It says that if 4 percent of a city’s population lives in downtown, it has a fighting chance. Dallas has about 3,000 people downtown now. The CDA hopes for 10,000 in 5 years. But according to the 4 percent rule, we’ll need 40,000. Can we get there?
DILLON: The 4 percent rule is just a handy way of talking about the possibilities for renewal and growth. It’s not an absolute. As you say, 4 percent of the metropolitan population in Dallas is about 40,000 people. If you include Uptown, we probably have 7,000 to 8,000 residents. Ten years ago our downtown had 250 residents, all of them living in the Manor House. So to be at 7,000 or 8,000 is encouraging. We have one supermarket, Urban Market, which is a good sign, if it can survive. The bigger lesson here is once people move out of the center city, and that can happen fairly quickly, it takes a long time to get them back. The exodus from downtown Dallas began in the mid-1950s, with passage of the National Highway Act and the availability of cheap home mortgages. We’re still trying to recover.

You were not at all happy with the new International Terminal at DFW. You called it bland and boring, a million-dollar bust where everything except the art falls into the dull, average category. Where did this terminal go wrong?
DILLON: There was no aspiration in the architecture. Whether that’s the fault of the client, the architects, the various boards, I can’t say. Maybe all three. It’s not a terrible building, just a bland and anonymous one. Here’s a place that 5 million people will pass through every year; for many of them, it will be their first impression of Dallas. And what do we give them? A terminal that could be in Atlanta, or Indianapolis, or a dozen other cities. There’s nothing there that refers specifically to this city, this place. We keep missing these opportunities on our big civic projects. American Airlines Center could have been terrific. Several of the competition designs were wonderful. So what did we end up with? A piece of retro ’30s architecture. For $135 million in public money, we should have gotten much more.
 
Back to the airport for a moment. You have said airports are to the 21st century what railroads stations were to the 19th century: settings for theater, ritual, and propaganda. They used to tell visitors where to go and to convey the essential nature of the place. If you were going to explain to people the essential nature of Dallas, what would you say?
DILLON: It’s a really hard call. We’ve certainly got plenty of entrepreneurial energy in this city. There’s genius in companies such as Texas Instruments, for example. Its also interesting that the founders – Erik Jonsson, Pat Haggerty, Cecil Green – were all outsiders. They had this wonderful chemistry. They were mavericks and adventurers. Dallas is also more diverse, ethnically and culturally, than it thinks it is. We are not a monochromatic, white bread city. We are a minority majority city, and we should be celebrating that more enthusiastically than we do.

You said Dallas has always been an “in-between” place. It’s in between the mountains and the oceans, between pinewoods and the prairies, between the oil fields and the cattle ranches, between Indian culture and Hispanic. Has Dallas resolved its in-between?
DILLON: We’re still trying to figure that out. But there’s no reason we should strive for a particular look or style, like Santa Fe or Santa Barbara. Most cities are melting pots. Yet whenever we have an opportunity to define ourselves more clearly, as in DFW’s International Terminal, we cant seem to do it. What’s our city motto? “Think Big, Live Large,” or something like that. Its so vague and abstract that you can’t tell what it means, or remember it for two minutes. Its a mirror of the problem.

You’re a very respected critic of architecture, and you’ve written some wonderful books. What would you say is the influence of a good critic?
DILLON: A good critic is, first of all, a good translator. For many people, architecture is a remote, abstract, and esoteric profession, full of isms and technical jargon. Certainly architects make it seem that way. So part of a critic’s job is to translate the language of the profession into terms that the person on the street can understand. A critic also has to be willing to take tough positions, unpopular positions, that architects or public officials cannot. You’re paid for your opinions. You have to do your homework and avoid the cheap shot, but you shouldn’t waffle. At the end of an article, a reader should know exactly where you stand. Some critics spend a great deal of time going around the world looking at latest this and the hottest that. I’m interested in those things, too, but the most important work I do is here.

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