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Developer Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Revolutionizes Uptown With the Azure

Gabriel Barbier-Mueller is converting a former warehouse district on the edge of Uptown into a stylish European-inspired neighborhood.
By Mary Candace Evans |
DAPPER DEVELOPER: Gabriel Barbier-Mueller hopes to revolutionize Uptown.
photography by Dan Sellers

Swiss-born developer Gabriel Barbier-Mueller has an ambitious plan to convert 17 blocks on the northwestern edge of Uptown Dallas into Seattle. Or Vancouver. Or Paris. Or even a combination of the three, taking the best from each city and, with modern architecture as the baseline, melding them into one. A neighborhood where people spend time outside riding bikes and walking, or sipping an espresso at a sidewalk cafe. Early on he asked Dallas dignitaries, such as the late Stanley Marcus, to describe a place they loved—a city that created a vision. He took notes. Those ideas were eventually incorporated into his newest project, Harwood, a veritable Champs-Élysées amid a former warehouse wasteland bounded by Harry Hines Boulevard, McKinnon Street, and Wichita Street. Like many of the area’s new developments such as Victory Park, it will mix luxury high-rise living with street-level, fashionable shopping and restaurants. But Barbier-Mueller is taking it further, adding such overlooked staples as a grocery to the mix, and has found ways to get, and keep, people moving outside. “We did our research. We know what’s missing—milk, eggs, bicycles,” he says. “To that we will add trees, comfortably wide sidewalks, contemporary light poles, art in the lobby visible from the street.” He wants pocket parks, bike rental kiosks and dedicated bike lanes, flower vendors, tables and seating for outdoor chess games, small European-like museums, dry cleaners, and a Chelsea deli-inspired convenience store where you can grab an espresso along with a quart of milk and a loaf of fresh bread. Pedestrian walkways with fig vine-covered walls will muffle traffic and create a micro oasis. He’s piping in classical music and adding benches adorned with philosophical musings in the parking garage.

He even tantalizes our noses.

“When you walk into Neiman Marcus NorthPark, you know you’ve arrived by the smells of ladies perfume,” says the former Latin and philosophy major who finished his studies in Geneva, where his father is the largest apartment developer in the city; development is in his blood. “In the same way, a whiff from Harwood’s Samurai Espresso Bar reminds you of a rich, pleasant environment surrounded by art on your way to work.”

The Rolex and Centex buildings are a part of Barbier-Mueller’s Harwood neighborhood.
photography by Dan Sellers

Barbier-Mueller has meticulously planned how Harwood will affect our senses, from the corner waterfalls to the brightly-colored shop flowers. Crunchy gravel paths in the gardens will appeal to our ears and remind us of a tidy, pretty European park, he says, not of an office building.

With all this, Barbier-Mueller hopes to create the kind of pedestrian friendly, invigorating energy that comes naturally to most European cities. But how to do this when we lack the natural resources of, say, the Alps? Too, Dallas bakes for half of the year on asphalt parking lots. Like a Disney theme park, Barbier–Mueller will manufacture a cooled down environment by planting mature shade trees to shelter street life from the blazing sun. “Big trees say this neighborhood looks established, it’s not a twig planted yesterday,” he says.

Done right, he expects the trees to cool the neighborhood by as much as 15 degrees, he says.

A tree fanatic, Barbier-Mueller carries tree tags in the trunk of his car and selects eye-catching arbors at nurseries for his projects. 

MODERN LUXURY: The amenities Gabriel Barbier-Mueller has secured for the Azure are numerous—hotel-like luxuries, private parking garages, and kitchens designed by Studio Becker.
photography courtesy of Azure

“A tree is a living thing,” he says. “I think they are beautiful.” For Harwood, he is planting live oaks, birch, magnolias, and sweetgums, which offer excellent shade and turn purple in the fall, and is even experimenting to see if olive trees, which he admires, will flourish here.

Harwood maintains a tree management protocol as part of its property management system. Senior property manager Vickie Fentz, who is Disney-trained (Barbier-Mueller sends his top managers to Disney and the Bellagio in Las Vegas to study their management procedures), manages the arborists to make sure every Harwood tree remains healthy. You might say Barbier-Mueller is obsessed: He has even competed for the best magnolias with Howard Rachofsky. Harwood will include a series of rich greenbelts and shaded pocket parks with ponds, similar to the 65,000 square feet of gardens, walkways, and green belts that cover a bench-dotted parking garage and connect his nearby Rolex and Centex buildings, a concept he spotted in Vancouver.

To achieve his contemporary European design aesthetic, Barbier-Mueller hired Vancouver architect James Cheng, whose elegant glass monoliths help give Vancouver its stylishly sleek appeal. Cheng’s first residential high-rise building for Harwood, the Azure, opened its doors in the beginning of December. The $150 million, 31-story residential tower is Uptown’s tallest building. It is also Dallas’ first LEED-certified high rise, which means that it is 100 percent “green” from the construction phase to the finish out. The Azure’s floor plate—the horizontal layout of a building floor—is less than half of typical Uptown; Barbier-Mueller wanted taller and leaner, and to capture more sunlight. By building up rather than spreading out, the Azure boasts more than 2 acres of gardens below. He spent $5 million on the landscaping alone.

“If you want to conserve land, you have to go up,” he says. “We pay a premium to go higher, and it takes a greater investment of time to build a taller building—at least one extra week per floor.”

With Euro-sleek interiors, kitchens by Studio Becker from Germany, floor-to-ceiling glass and 10-ft ceilings, units range from $475,000 and up for 900 square feet to $5 million plus for a 5,000-square-foot penthouse with private pool. Barbier-Mueller has hired George Cameron Nash, one of Dallas’ top showroom owners and designers, to outfit several of his models. The Azure also sports a fancy garage package—dubbed the G-2—private, separate oversized, underground garages for all owners, complete with storage and a door.

Next up, with completion slated for spring ’09, is Saint Ann Court, a 27-story, $100 million commercial office tower complex with trees, more pastoral pockets including a 12th floor garden, aromatic ground floor cafés, art galleries, retail and fitness clubs, and a viewing art gallery to display Barbier-Mueller’s extensive international art collection. By 2020, Barbier-Mueller envisions Harwood as a thriving, established neighborhood with more than a dozen structures including three additional residential high-rise buildings and a luxury hotel. Completion may be more than 10 years away, but his long-range plans for Dallas started almost 30 years ago.

The son of Swiss art collectors and real estate barons, Barbier-Mueller came to Dallas in 1979 on an art tour to practice his English and fell in love with the wide, open spaces. He settled in Dallas to work for real estate baron Henry S. Miller. One of his first projects was converting a seven-story, 160,000-square-foot warehouse in the West End into an atrium office building, the Paramount. Barbier-Mueller pushed urban renovation so early many thought he was crazy; in 1983, he convinced the head of Rolex in Switzerland to let him build them an office tower in Dallas. At 1530 Main St., he renovated a 1927-era, ragged 17-story structure down from the Adolphus Hotel and Neiman Marcus, creating a European style, glass and steel walkway from Main to Commerce streets, bringing in one of the city’s first gelato shops, a European newsstand that sold foreign magazines and books, and a home-design store called Arresta, owned by Ken Knight. In the ’80s and ’90s when most developers were heading north to make millions off of suburban developments, Barbier-Mueller never left downtown. Harwood International has grown from a handful of employees in 1988 to more than 140, with offices in Dallas, London, Geneva, Zurich, and Beverly Hills. Each employee is gifted with a copy of Designing Disney’s Themeparks: The Architecture of Reassurance—Barbier-Mueller wants to provide those who live in his development with the same sense of security that Disney themeparks have with video cameras and command centers.

In 1979, he couldn’t get an espresso anywhere in Dallas. But he saw promise in the abundant sunshine and budding architecture—a city hall designed by I.M. Pei, a Philip Johnson
Memorial Plaza.

“What downtown Seattle is today, Dallas will be in 10 years,” he says. “Safer, cleaner, more interesting people, high design.”

And espresso on every corner.