BREAKING OUT OF THE BOX

Dallas architecture comes of age, for better-and worse.

BORING, SAFE, UNIMAGINATIVE. That was how Dallas architecture looked just a few years ago.

But no longer. The conservative, button-down look has gone the way of white sheets and thin gold chains. In its place is a whole smorgasbord of styles-few of them inhibited, few bland. For two or three decades, the glass-and-steel box-long a modernist, no-nonsense architectural insignia-has dominated; its conservative profile is especially well-suited to the businesses that reside downtown. But downtown, of course, has never told the whole story. Out on the freeways there has been more daring-and less taste. Who has missed the blinding shimmer of the gold towers on Central? Or the blandness of the hulking monoliths on Stemmons? Today, as the boring box hums its swan song, some areas of town will sound an even louder cacophony. But others will sing with new style.

The trend in architecture is away from the ordinary, and the movement has spawned several wonderful new buildings, plenty of ersatz glitz and a few real dogs. Considering the sheer quantity of construction, the change is significant. This interest in innovation coincides with the biggest building boom ever to hit the city. By the time the boom levels off, we will have a radically new look and feel.

Of all the areas affected by the new experimentation-downtown, the freeways, North Dallas, Oak Lawn-only downtown is clearly benefiting. Many of its new high-rises are stylish and handsome. Away from downtown, buildings tend to be either novel for the sake of novelty, awkwardly proportioned because of height limitations, or badly suited to the neighborhood. Unfortunately, by the time everyone fully appreciates the excesses of the new look, we’ll have a crop of buildings that we’ll be stuck with for decades.

The new venturesomene hasn’t happened overnight. The precedent in downtown was set by One Dallas Centre, City Hall and the Hyatt Regency, all of which broke away from the towering infernal boxes set foursquare on a block. One Dallas Centre, for example, is prism-shaped, banded in tinted glass and gray concrete. It’s bankerish but elegant. City Hall is cantilevered to jut imposingly over an immense plaza. While it looks solid, as befits a city hall, it also looks tremendously self-confident. The Hyatt Regency masses cubes in an elegant silhouette and punches up the dazzle with sheets of cool reflective glass.

Since then, developers and architects have taken up a gauntlet of styles. Few are satisfied anymore with the old box; nor are they content simply to mold their building with glass, steel and concrete. LTV Center, the jewel of downtown, has faceted sides of expensive dark granite and the first roof-a campanile-to break the horizontal plane of highrise heights. The ARCO building, another gem, is coolly elegant; the new Dallas Museum of Art is a triumph of clean limestone lines that celebrate the art within.

Ironically, the new look is not home-grown. Most of the classiest new buildings carry out-of-town designer labels. New York-based I.M. Pei designed City Hall, ARCO, One Dallas Centre and the upcoming’ Symphony Hall and Fountain Place. Edward Larrabee Barnes gave us the Dallas Museum of Art; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill of Houston designed LTV Center.

It has always been a thorn in the side of local architects that plum commissions tend to be awarded to out-of-towners. But recently, there have been fewer complaints. Imported talent broke the taboo on innovation. They made good design prestigious and profitable, a message not lost on either local architects, developers or potential clients.

The simple economic fact of the matter is this: Good design sells better than ho-hum design. Gerald Hines proved that in a big way in Houston 12 years ago with Pennzoil Place, which was so stunning that when it was completed, its occupancy rate was 97 percent. In Dallas, Vincent Carrozza’s speculative building, One Dallas Centre, was also leased quickly. More recently, LTV Center, opening in a fairly glutted market, was 70 percent rented six weeks before its November completion date. In contrast, the undistinguished Olympia & York Tower of two years ago is still only partially occupied.

Aside from the fact that people would rather have an office in a handsome building than in a nondescript or ugly one, there is another economic factor: Market values for all rental space downtown have skyrocketed. According to developer Harlan Crow, the average rent for a downtown office in 1977 was $9 a square foot. Today, it’s $28. That means that builders can afford better materials, more attention to detail, and such space “wasters’-but people-pleasers-as setbacks, courtyards and landscaped plazas.

There are some other encouraging developments downtown. Finally-belatedly-we’ve begun to hang on to what little history we have. The West End, a peaceful section of brick-paved streets and low red-brick buildings, has been renovated and enlivened with restaurants, a nightclub, a theater and small offices. The Kirby Building and the Adolphus Hotel have been handsomely restored, offering the center of town a more gracious and humane air. At the other end of downtown, the restored Majestic Theater brightens up a drab street and lures people to town at night. The Farmers Market is due for a spruce-up and neighborhoods just outside the Central Business District (CBD) have been reclaimed from decay and weeds. Most of the renovation efforts have been executed very handsomely by Dallas architects. The old offers not just history, but a wealth of pleasing detail and a human scale that the new towers can’t.

Outside of downtown, there are less laudable developments. Freeway architecture is designed to catch your attention-billboard-style-as you zoom by. Bizarre shapes and glitzy glass prevail. Buildings are separated by “empty” unplanned stretches of land, which may or may not be filled in with garages, parking lots, fast-food joints, car washes, clothing stores, whatever. The resulting hodgepodge, like fishnet hose with Earth shoes, is disquieting, to say the least. Each building tries to outshout the other, and the result is visual babble.

One of the noisiest areas around is at Central and Caruth, where the infamous gold towers, long an affront to passing motorists, have been joined by two much nicer buildings. Unfortunately, they compete. The new neighbor to the north is quiet, sleek and seemly-in cool blue mirrored glass, rounded in the front and squared off at the back. The other newcomer, Criswell Development’s romantic Eighty-Eighty Central, is Dallas’ most conspicuous “post-modern” design. Post-modernism draws upon historical architectural elements and uses them self-consciously, often with an ironic twist. In this case, gothic pointed arches are housed in a classical structure, with pillars and a pediment for a roof. All are appli-quéd on walls of tinted glass. In a different setting, say downtown, Eighty-Eighty would be pleasing. But as it is, it looks uneasy.

Stemmons Freeway (Inter-state-35) has its own brand of nouveau architecture-namely, the Crystal Palace, a.k.a. the IN-FOMART. Its delicate filigree of white steel and overall lightness of form looks out of place among the bulky structures on Stemmons. Based on the design of an 1851 building (however technologically advanced for its time), the Infomart seems ignorant of newer advances embodied in its function as a computer mart. What’s more, the original was set in a park and was built for a climate that rarely sees temperatures as high as 80 degrees. Taken together, these factors render the building peculiar for both its function and its setting.

But for architectural eyesores, neither Central or Stemmons comes close to the Dallas Parkway north of Belt Line. Dramatic, yes. Unusual, yes. But the new freedom in style is not matched here by taste.

Part of the problem is scale. Airport restrictions and FAA ordinances stunt the height of most buildings. To get a maximum return on leasable space, developers tend to go as tall as they can and then as wide. The result is one ungainly whale after another, beginning with the twin Spectrum buildings and continuing northward. The Spectrum may pair glitter with glass, boast beveled edges and scooped-out backs, but they’re still only poorly disguised oil tanks-without the honesty of oil. The Registry Hotel follows, a tall, narrow rectangle of ponderousness. Here, reflective glass is framed in heavy-looking granite; the frame is too large and weighty, the glass too blank. However, compared to Plaza on the Parkway under construction up the street, the Registry is decorum itself. It is an eclectic mess of styles that mix together as well as whipping cream and lettuce. The upended box is topped off with a sloping roof of red tile, the kind you see on Mexican haciendas. Atop 12 stories of reflective glass and brick struts, the roof looks peculiar indeed.

Old Oak Lawn also stands prey to a new architectural offensive. Although few of its new buildings are complete, the size of construction holes, the height of the fences and the number of cranes reveal that what’s going up is going to be wrong. No matter how tasteful the design, the new buildings are far too big, too tall and too imposing for the neighborhood. Like professional halfbacks joining a sandlot touch football game, they so dominate in size and power, they ruin the game for everyone else.

Much of the onus for these architectual improprieties is on our local pool of architects. But by no means is good architecture the exclusive province of out-of-towners. On the contrary, there are many fine projects by local architects, most on a small scale. To see good local design, you have to look to small firms, and these firms are not designing high-rises. Instead, their vernacular is houses, condos, small office buildings, strip shopping centers, restorations. Their handsome handiwork is visible in such disparate locations as the Addison Jetport, a showroom for Pella products on Cedar Springs, an opthamologist’s office on Lemmon, a house on St. John’s, a strip shopping center on Mc-Kinney and Knox.

Just why the best local architects aren’t doing high-rises is a difficult question. Historically, clients and developers of high-rises have either felt more confident of big-name outsiders or have insisted on the kind of safe, off-the-shelf buildings that design-oriented architects deign to produce. As a consequence, lacking the experience and staff for larger projects, small but able architects don’t get the assignments that perhaps they should.

Given time, the situation could change, particularly if more developers-who dominate the building scene-become more sophisticated about design. They’ll discover they don’t always have to go to New York or Houston to find capable, imaginative architects, nor do they have to settle for mediocrity from Dallas architectural firms. There is plenty of talent here in Dallas.

We know, because we went looking for it.

Drawing on the results of a questionnaire sent to members of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, numerous interviews and hours of driving around Dallas, D compiled a list of the best architectural firms working in the city today.

Some of them, like Enslie Oglesby, Bill Booziotis and James Pratt, have been producing good work in Dallas for years. Others, while mature and experienced, have only recently set up offices of their own here. George Woo, for example, left I.M. Pei’s Dallas office this year to establish his own firm. Frank Welch, whose idiom is houses, moved his operation from Midland to McKinney Avenue in 1984. Among the best of the outside firms to open in Dallas is Rosetti Associates, a branch of a well-regarded Detroit firm. The only really big firm in this group, and the only one that designs mostly large-scale buildings, is OMNIPLAN, formerly Harrell and Hamilton, established in 1956.

In addition, a number of Young Turks are having an impact on Dallas architecture. Ken Siegel of Townscape, Larry Good and Stan Haas of Good, Haas & Fulton, David Dillard, Gary Cunningham, and the trio at Archi-Texas (Craig Melde, Gary Skotnicki and Mark Scruggs) form the nucleus of a new generation of Dallas designers.

Taken together, these architectural firms offer hope for a vibrant, livable city in which people can stand on their own ground and know themselves. Developers, are you listening?

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