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Architecture & Design

Why Is Dallas Architecture So Bad?

Because we’re trying to look like too many other cities - big and boring.

Editor’s Note: This story was first published in a different era. It may contain words or themes that today we find objectionable. We nonetheless have preserved the story in our archive, without editing, to offer a clear look at this magazine’s contribution to the historical record.

“Dallas is a ’gimme another one of those’ city when it comes to architecture. Very conservative, uneasy with anything new. I couldn’t sell an angle there to save my life.” The vice president of one of Houston’s top architectural firms said it, and few people in Dallas who know anything about architecture would disagree. Although there is an estimated $300 million in new construction in downtown Dallas, there are few good buildings. When you ask why, you get various explanations: The average Dallas client cares about location, plumbing, and air conditioning, not design; no Dallas architectural firms are sufficiently strong and self-confident to do good work in spite of dull clients; Dallas is a new city, with little architectural heritage to refer to; no one at the top of business and banking is willing to blaze the trail for good design; the general public doesn’t know anything about good architecture and consequently doesn’t insist on it.

The last is popular among architects and developers, and highly questionable. Regardless of what the public “knows” about architecture, it certainly isn’t indifferent.

Before Reunion Tower and the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Dallas’ skyline consisted of a flying red horse and a glowing phallic column atop the Republic National Bank, which put it in roughly the same category as Omaha and Indianapolis. When Dallasites talked about their sublime skyline, it was more from wishful thinking than direct observation. Reunion and the Hyatt changed all that by giving the city a genuine landmark building, a civic symbol that expresses visually many of the things Dallasites like to think are true of the city as a whole. It is chic, glittery, futuristic, a bold anchor for the entire west end of downtown; it calls up images of affluence, high fashion, and self-confidence, things the rest of the country imagines Dallas to be. A few months after it was completed, the Hyatt had passed the postcard test—and worked itself onto menus, corporate logos, party decorations, even the credits for the 10 o’clock news. Today it is difficult to remember what the skyline looked like without it. When friends come from out of town, the obvious move is to drive them past the Hyatt or take them up to the ball for a drink, not simply because this is a pleasant way to pass a few hours but because the experience answers the inevitable question, “What is Dallas really like?” As architecture, the Hyatt matters because it’s a clear statement about the city. It’s a good quick read.

Philip Johnson’s Thanks-Giving Square also matters, although for different reasons. As a design it is far less successful than his Water Garden in Fort Worth, which functions as a true public square. In contrast, Thanks-Giving Square’s high walls back people off instead of inviting them in, the way a roadblock diverts cars. And the attempt to combine a water garden with a chapel, restaurants, and truck terminal reflects a distressing Dallas tendency to get as much as possible out of every square foot of ground. If a skating rink could have been worked into the plan, one suspects it would have.

And yet, Thanks-Giving Square works, as anyone who’s tried to get in on a warm spring day realizes. Secretaries and stockbrokers jostle one another for a spot on the sloping concrete walls, while children slap at the cascading water (No Wading Allowed!), and older people, with nothing particular to do, sun themselves on the grass. It is tempting to say that Thanks-Giving Square is popular by default, because it is virtually the only green space downtown. But that is only part of its appeal. It is a triangle in a sea of squares and rectangles, an intimate space in the midst of cavernous, impersonal ones. It provides a change of pace in an otherwise monotonous downtown, and together with Reunion says something basic about what people want a downtown to be: a place with variety, a sense of proportion and human scale, surprising views mixed with familiar reference points, a place with some drama, some uplift, yet in which the observer is not intimidated. The public understands these things as well as the architects and planners, and responds enthusiastically when given half a chance.


Downtown Dallas currently provides few such opportunities. A city that gives tickets for jaywalking and sleeping on benches in front of City Hall and forces street vendors to sell food prepared and wrapped in some sanitary kitchen 10 miles away doesn’t really understand urban life, however well it may understand ordinances. People come to city centers to talk, argue, window-shop, and show off. But right now, most people go to downtown Dallas to work and shop, period. It’s a one-shift area. Many Dallasites would probably agree with the executive who admitted that the only time he went downtown was to sign a note at the bank, and that now that interest rates were so high he probably wouldn’t be doing that very often.

Pedestrian shopping malls, so successful in Boston, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Philadelphia, are still opposed by downtown merchants because, among other things, they eliminate parking spaces. Like most southwestern cities, Dallas has developed an unnatural dependency on the automobile, generally at the expense of street life. Historically, downtown Dallas was a highly urbane place, with shops, hotels, and offices organized into a tight, cohesive fabric. At the moment, Dallas is mainly a series of towering glass boxes interrupted by parking lots. Visitors are constantly surprised to find sidewalks suddenly playing out in mid-stride, or else being sliced in two by a major traffic artery. It’s a major logistical problem to walk from, say, Union Terminal to the warehouse district, or from City Hall across town to the Southland Center. Downtown sidewalks are simply part of the street grid, not places for people. They provide few opportunities to pause and rest – thus the popularity of Thanks-Giving Square – few inducements, in fact, to do anything except trudge on from one block to the next.



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Dallasites also like to boast about the climate and the tradition of great open space, although as Edmund Bacon, former Executive Director of the Philadelphia Planning Commission, pointed out several years ago, they usually experience both from the comfort of their air-conditioned sedans. Ours is not an ideal climate. Much of the year it is too hot, too bright, too windy; it’s a climate of sudden shifts and extremes, for which downtown offers few compensations in the form of arcades and plazas and tree-lined malls. Dallas could learn a lot from Mediterranean cities about how to protect pedestrians and shoppers from sun and heat – except, of course, that this might mean giving up a certain amount of prime retail and commercial space at street level. And if there is one principle that is followed religiously by Dallas developers, it is this: Use every square inch you can. Build right to the sidewalk, and collect as much rent as possible. You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of downtown commercial buildings that acknowledge the existence of a pedestrian public. One Main Place has a large, sunken plaza that could use a lot more landscaping and a lot less concrete; the plaza in front of One Dallas Centre could turn out to be an important public place, as could the enclosed garden/atrium in Plaza of the Americas. But that’s about all. Marbled bank lobbies do not count as public spaces.

Other cities are well ahead of Dallas on this point. In Houston, for example, I. M. Pei’s new Texas Commerce Tower will occupy only the back third of its lot, the remainder being given over to public park and plaza. The result promises to be considerably less intimidating than Pennzoil Place across the street, which is not at its best at ground level. In New York City, the Office of Midtown Planning has devised a series of zoning incentives to increase pedestrian use of all new buildings in the area. In return for a few more floors of rentable space, developers are being required to create public spaces on the lower floors of the new buildings, including indoor plazas and malls. The Citicorp building now has a retail mall on the lower three floors, and the Philip Morris Building, designed by Ulrich Fran-zen, will house a branch of the Whitney Museum. Even the Tandy Center in Fort Worth, in most respects a dull, off-the-shelf project, has a branch of the public library in the shopping mall. There are presently few incentives for this kind of development in Dallas. “We’re still overly concerned with punitive measures here, ” says architect and planner Dave Braden. “The city likes to read the rule book to developers instead of giving them incentives to do something really good.”

Dallas has begun construction of an all-weather skybridge system, following the lead of Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and other cities. As one might expect, the bridges now connect only office buildings and parking garages, but plans call for them to be tied into the retail core; as the experience of other cities has shown, they work best in areas of high density, much less successfully on the fringes. Edmund Bacon proposed a skyway system that would begin at the Convention Center, run through City Hall and the library, and spill into the second floor of Neiman-Marcus. The idea, Bacon explained, is to direct the “golden flow” of convention traffic into the retail core instead of allowing it to be dispelled aimlessly around the periphery. While Neiman’s would undoubtedly endorse the idea, it’s unclear how other merchants would react, particularly those at street level. But at least the skyway system is a means of tying the downtown together without adding more traffic islands and one-way streets.

It’s far more difficult to do anything about scale and texture downtown, even though both are extremely important to the overall experience of cities. Every summer friends return from Europe with stories about this quaint little city or that, by which they usually mean a city of narrow, crooked streets, sidewalk cafes, and old, humanly scaled buildings – terribly inefficient by American standards, yet obviously alive. At $50 a square foot, it’s difficult to convince a developer to think small, just as the predominance of the International Style in high-rise buildings, with its emphasis on smooth finishes and high gloss, makes it difficult to think in terms of texture and ornamentation. We have to rely upon older buildings for that, and occasionally a newer one, like Republic Bank. Like most new cities, Dallas has systematically bulldozed most of its older buildings, leaving the Adolphus and the Wilson block and “Big Red” to remind us of the delights of ornamentation and detailing, all the glorious excess that somehow says “man-made. ” What we do have is a warehouse district that is largely intact. Most of the buildings date from 1900-1920, are constructed of brick or reinforced concrete, and are four or five stories tall. If properly developed, this area could become a significant architectural counterpoint to downtown, along the lines of Boston’s Quincy Market or Minneapolis’ warehouse district. What’s lacking is some cooperative commitment from banks, developers, and the city. Five years ago, bond money was appropriated for the development of a mall along Market Street, but it wasn’t until March 1980 that bricks were laid. At this rate, the warehouse district will be completed at about the same time that Plaza of the Americas makes the National Register.

It’s easier, of course, to point out what’s missing architecturally in a city than to explain how to go about filling the gaps. Bad architecture frequently just happens, whereas good architecture requires planning, commitment, pride, and a conceptual reach that goes beyond the bottom line and the fluctuations of the economy. Dallas undoubtedly has these qualities, but with a few notable exceptions they aren’t showing up in its architecture. “Well, we’re a young city, ” apologists say. True enough, compared to Boston and New York. But Dallas is approximately the same age as San Francisco, Houston, and Atlanta, all of which have attained a high degree of architectural excellence in spite of their youth. It’s interesting that Dallas thinks of itself as young, tough, and aggressive when it comes to business, and merely adolescent when it comes to design. At 140 years old, the rhetoric sounds a bit tired.

Most cities with national reputations for architecture and planning also have strong and vocal schools of architecture nearby. Boston has Harvard and MIT, Philadelphia has the University of Pennsylvania, Minneapolis has the University of Minnesota, Houston has Rice, and so on. Whether the teachers are practitioners or the molders of practitioners, the presence of these schools raises the level of discourse about the built environment in ways that are unknown in Dallas. Here, architecture surfaces as a public issue mainly in connection with zoning; the talk is largely about quantity rather than quality. By and large, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts ignores architecture as a subject for exhibition. Last fall, the AIA-sponsored “Celebration” fizzled through a combination of bad timing and general apathy, although a similar event has been going on in Houston for four years, getting larger and more popular each time. The closest school of architecture is at the University of Texas at Arlington, a new school that is just beginning to find a direction. Its impact on Dallas architecture so far has been minimal and will probably stay that way for several years to come. Among the local architectural community, it has the reputation for being a source of competent technicians rather than fresh thinking about design.

One often hears the complaint from Dallas architects, including the very best ones, that most of the important commissions go to outsiders. This is probably true, though no truer than in Denver or Minneapolis or many other cities. But statistics are not the issue – quality is. If a city gets second-rate work from imported, nationally known architects, it should kick itself, but if the buildings are good, responsive to local needs, it makes no difference who did them. A city can’t have too many good buildings, and the local architects who live with them can be inspired in the same way that painters can be inspired: by seeing other paintings. Dallas’ record on this issue is mixed. I. M. Pei, for example, has done two first-rate buildings in Dallas, and Welton Becket probably transcended himself with the Hyatt Regency. Philip Johnson, on the other hand, has done far better work in Houston and Fort Worth than in Dallas. Thanks-Giving Square might have been done more successfully by a local architect, one with more feeling for the city and the climate, but it’s just as important to keep in mind that the majority of downtown buildings, old and new, have been designed by local architects.

What Dallas architects need far more than patronage and a pat on the back is strong – one is tempted to say “inspired” – leadership at the highest levels: from the major banks, which could be the Medici of Dallas and aren’t, from someone with sufficient taste and clout to go after the very best work possible. Any building is a collaboration between architect, client, and available resources. Assuming enough of the latter, then whether a building turns out to be good or bad depends on how well architect and client communicate. Theoretically, the client defines the needs and the objectives of a project, and the architect interprets and translates them into a design. In actual fact, one is usually in control. Someone once asked Houston developer Gerald Hineshow far he pushes the architect on his projects. “Until he says that he’s going to quit. Then I know I’ve pushed far enough.”



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Architectural history contains numerous examples of how the taste and determination of one client brought a great building into existence. When Mrs. Phyllis Lambert, daughter of the president of Seagram Distilling Company, saw the initial drawings for the company’s new headquarters in Manhattan, she threw up her hands in disgust, convinced her father to put the project on hold, and then set out on a world-wide search for the best architect and design she could find. She found both in Mies van der Rohe, who, because he didn’t have a license to practice in New York State, hired Philip Johnson as his associate. The result was possibly the finest metal and glass skyscraper ever built, the Seagram Building.

In Minneapolis, Kenneth Dayton, president of Dayton-Hudson Corporation (Target Stores), almost single-handedly brought in Johnson/Burgee to design the IDS Center, and was instrumental in the selection of Kenzo Tange to design the Minneapolis Institute of Art and Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer to design Orchestra Hall, recognized as one of the finest performance halls in the country. The de Menil family has worked more quietly for the arts and architecture in Houston (the Rothko Chapel), as has Ruth Carter Johnson in Fort Worth (Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth Water Gardens).

Vincent Carrazzo

Dallas is still waiting for this kind of leadership. The closest it’s come is Erik Jonsson, who concentrated on the large public and institutional buildings that tell the rest of the country that Dallas is a city – City Hall, the regional airport, a public library. The first is a masterpiece and the second far-sighted; one can only speculate about what might have happened had Jonsson turned his attention to downtown. Vincent Carrozza’s One Dallas Centre is an outstanding building, but only one, and probably not prominent enough to start a revolution. Raymond Nasher has done several tasteful shopping centers and excellent small office buildings, but has yet to move into larger projects. Stanley Marcus, a national taste maker in fashion and retailing, has shown little interest in architecture.

The one person in Dallas with enough clout and money to change the shape of downtown is developer Trammell Crow. Like his Houston counterpart, Gerald Hines, Crow started out after World War II building warehouses, then moved into apartments, hotels, and shopping centers (Peachtree Center, Embarcadero Center in San Francisco). Anticipating the growth of Dallas as a fashion and merchandising center, he built the Dallas Apparel Mart and the World Trade Center, two of the most successful facilities of their type in the country. And the Loews Anatole is, by Crow’s and others’ estimates, one of the most successful new hotels in the country. Crow is a man of great energy and determination and considerable personal charm, who has yet to raise the quality of Dallas’ architecture. His local buildings range from gruesome to competent, but never rise to the standards of Pennzoil Place or One Shell Plaza, both Hines projects.

Among architects Crow has the reputation of being a meddler who insists on drawing the plans and specifying the materials on many of his projects, including the brick on the Anatole. “I love the timeless quality of brick, ” he says. “It reminds me of Rome. ” Says one designer who’s worked for both Hines and Crow: “Hines is very exacting and watches the numbers very closely, but he’s willing to let the architect be the architect. Trammell, on the other hand, likes to work the whole concept out himself and then tell the architect, ’Put a little finish on this, will you?’ The results speak for themselves.”

One Dallas Centre

Crow agrees that he and his staff participate actively in the design of his projects, and says it’s the only way to get them finished. “I’m only interested in projects that get built, and that means staying on top of things all the time. If you just turn a building over to an architect, he’ll ruin it on you. Hines may do more spectacular buildings, but I’ll take my organization over his any day.”

On the subject of hiring local architects, which he does often, Crow is equally emphatic: “There’s plenty of talent right here in Dallas. There’s no need to run off to New York every time you want to put up a new building. 1 feel a responsibility to support the local firms, give something back to the community.”

In addition to the nearly completed Diamond Shamrock Tower (Jarvis Putty Jarvis), Crow has plans for a 900, 000-square-foot office tower across from Catedral Santuario de Guadalupe on Ross (to be designed by Beran and Shelmire, architects for the Anatole and the World Trade Center), and a 40-story, 1. 3-million-square-foot building at the corner of Ross and Harwood, overlooking the site for the new Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. He’s also recently purchased a tract of land in the northeast section of Woodall Rodgers, near the proposed site for Symphony Hall. In other words, Trammell Crow has a great deal to say about how the proposed downtown arts district will look. This is small consolation to arts supporters, who privately mock Crow’s taste while standing in awe of his power. Crow, in turn, asks impatiently why he and other developers should sit on projects indefinitely while the arts groups decide if they want to buy this plot of land or that. One moment he’ll refer to them as the “artsy-fartsies”; the next he’ll reiterate his love for Dallas and say that he wants to see something good happen in the arts district. At the moment, however, it’s unclear what the solution will be.

The situation surrounding the new museum and the arts district only underscores how unsettled things still are in downtown Dallas. As Henry Cobb, architect of One Dallas Centre, pointed out at the dedication last year, “Dallas is now at a crossroads in its development. On the one hand, it has to avoid purely arbitrary invention, mere thingery; on the other, it has to avoid creating dozens of homogenized buildings that are simply dropped onto a site and left. The goal is to create a true urban context.”

Unlike most large cities in the United States, Dallas has a chance to do this. It is not locked in. Options remain. An estimated 20 percent of the 900 acres within the central core are undeveloped. The economy is strong, the corporate base is growing rapidly. The city is up for grabs architecturally.

Louis Kahn, designer of the Kimbell Art Museum, once described a city as “a place where a small boy, as he walks through it, may see something that will tell him what he wants to do his whole life. ” Perhaps in a few years, if the choices that are made now are enlightened instead of expedient, a small boy will look up at the Dallas skyline and decide that he wants to become an architect.


David Dillon

David Dillon