The City BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD

Architects are their own best publicists and poorest critics.

The myth that Dallas has no reason for being where it is will probably never die, even though it’s just a myth. There were lots of reasons for Dallas to be here – westering trade routes, the Trinity River, and the will of its settlers to bend nature, commerce, and the railroad routes to their needs. But everyone who has suddenly seen the skyscrapers rising above the mostly unfruited plain has been struck by the incongruity of setting and structures.

Like all myths, this one has served. It has served as a pretext for growth, for expansion, for covering as much of the available surface as possible. Sometimes it has also been used for a license for extravagance – the largest airport, the tallest building west of somewhere-or-other. Only occasionally has it provided an impetus to build with distinction.

That’s the message, unstated, of Dallasights, the handsome volume produced by the Dallas chapter of the American Institute of Architects for the national convention held here last June (and, of course, for the edification of the citizenry). It’s certainly the best coffee-table book about Dallas – it avoids the pretensions of The Book of Dallas and provides some substance to underpin its style.

It’s not the first survey of Dallas architecture. Aside from the excellent “Dallas from the Ground Up” show mounted by the DMFA last year (many of the photographs by Doug Tomlinson in Dallasights came from that show), there was a book produced by the Dallas AIA in 1962 for the national convention held in that year. The Prairie’s Yield: Forces Shaping Dallas Architecture from 1840 to 1962 is a better book than Dallasights – tighter, better written, more informative – though its range is narrower. In The Prairie’s Yield, three architects, James Harold Box, James Wiley, and James Reece Pratt, provided a history of Dallas architecture that served as a guidebook as well. In the margins of the history is a chronology of major events in art, architecture, and planning elsewhere in the world; we can see at a glance that at the same time that Dallas was getting the Republic Bank Building, New York was getting Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s Lever House and Mies Van der Rohe’s Seagram building. The Prairie’s Yield, long out of print, needs to be updated and reprinted.

In the 16 years since The Prairie’s Yield was published, a lot of people, ranging from Lee Harvey Oswald to Erik Jonsson to the Historic Preservation League, have altered the consciousness and configuration of Dallas. Dallasights attempts to document contemporary Dallas not by tracing the history of its architecture but by dealing with it generically. It has separate chapters on commercial buildings, school buildings, churches, hospitals, factories, and residences – all aspects of the Dallas environment. One of the virtues of this approach is that it gives the general reader a chance to examine the assumptions underlying some of the most familiar types of buildings on the Dallas landscape – the garden office building and the garden apartment complex, in particular.

Familiarity shouldn’t breed contempt for the office or the apartment complex, the most innovative developments in building in this part of the world since The Prairie’s Yield. Better a good apartment complex – a Willow Creek, for example – than an undistinguished skyscraper – a First International Building, for example. Box, Wiley, and Pratt were right to conclude in The Prairie’s Yield that “Dallas architecture is not great.” It still isn’t. But Dallasights shows us that there are Dallas firms working with style in unpretentious structures: Pratt, Box, and Henderson’s Dallas Garden Center at Fair Park, Fisher and Spillman’s Lake-wood Library and Callier Center for Communication Disorders, the Oglesby Group’s Richland College and American Heart Association building.

The problem with Dallasights is that it was written by 15 architects, so it inevitably lacks point of view and, more important, a critical edge. Thus, Donald Jarvis tactfully suggests that SMU’s campus exhibits “stereotyped design” and possesses “few buildings of merit.” One would like to hear what he really thinks of SMU’s dreary neo-Georgian hodge-podge and of the messy, rambling “contemporary” buildings, such as Owen Arts Center, that were intended to blend with that style. Harwood K. Smith’s survey of high-rise office building construction covers the scene but skirts critical aesthetic and environmental issues (such as the wind-tunnel effect created by sky-scrapers like the First International Building or the glare that Campbell Centre casts across the nearby residential landscape). Since Smith’s firm has been responsible for many of these buildings, including First International, the second Campbell Centre, the Zale Building, and One Brookhollow Plaza, it would hardly have been possible for him to speak critically about the taste of his clients or his firm.

Dallasights is intended to be part celebration, part guidebook, so it would have been a surprise if it had turned out to be tough-minded and uncompromising in its view of the quality of Dallas building. But somebody needs to be tough-minded and uncompromising about it. In his essay on planning, Walter Dahlberg sums up a common “pioneer attitude” by quoting a mythical resident’s statement: “My granddaddy settled this land and, by God, it’s mine to do with as I please.” As Dahlberg points out, Dallas has commissioned and then ignored planners ever since 1910, when a group hired George Kessler to come up with the first comprehensive city plan. Kessler was the first of many whose ideas were rejected as too visionary, though his Turtle Creek greenbelt gives us a hint of what might have been. Kessler proposed a thorough-fare linking Fair Park and downtown; 68 years later, that idea’s time still hasn’t come. The city government likes it, but the voters still regard it as a frill.

Dallas needs Dallasights, but italso needs a propagandist for goodtaste, for sensible planning, forbuilding on the human rather thanthe imperial scale. Architects won’tdo it; they have to butter their breadby buttering up their clients.

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