Wednesday, November 30, 2022 Nov 30, 2022
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The Dallas Institute ponders our future
By Chris Tucker |

EACH YEAR, the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture brings together noted intellectuals from around the world with Dallas’ own home-grown thinkers, business and civic leaders for some concentrated thinking on a very old question: How should we live, and in what kind of place?

The fourth annual “What Makes a City” conference held by the Institute in mid-May dealt with the question of “Growth and Undergrowth” in the city. And that latter word, undergrowth, immediately landed Institute superstars like William H. Whyte (The Organization Man) and Ivan Illich (Deschool-ing Society) in something of a paradox.

Everyone present during the two-day seminar knew about growth, though some (such as poet Wendell Berry) were deeply suspicious of it, while others (such as NorthPark developer Raymond Nasher) thought it generally a pretty good thing, more an opportunity than a problem for the city.

But undergrowth? By definition, the term seems to mean that which must just happen in a city, and happen unplanned, without the mediation of committees, task forces and planning experts. Some of the speakers-most notably architects Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi of Philadelphia-seemed aware of the paradox: Dallas, like most large industrial cities, has reached a point where that unplannable undergrowth must be planned, or it will be crushed out by that which is relentlessly planned, budgeted for and funded by bond elections.

“Undergrowth refers to those unplanned elements of city life that encourage people to want to be there-individual businesses and shops, people living in the city-not for convenience but because the city offers varieties of experience, diversity of people and the opportunity to need, care and rely on each other.” Thus the Institute brochure put it, and continued: “The city must be more than a fast-paced marketplace, more than a center of culture and art. It must have a rich and fertile undergrowth.”

Brave words, though cynics might ask whether such talk in traffic-choked Dallas does not amount to closing the barn door after the horse has been stolen. Questions from the audience, especially some aimed at Raymond Nasher, made it clear that some already feel the city has become a cold, glass-and-steel citadel where only the cash nexus holds people together.

It is the nature of such meetings to produce no pragmatic “solutions” to the problems of urban life; indeed, Institute Director Gail Thomas began by urging the capacity crowd at the Dallas Public Library to “leave doing at home” and engage in a “willing suspension of disbelief.” After all, Thomas continued, ideas themselves are “part of the unexpected undergrowth of a city that is not to be weeded out or cleaned up.” Herewith, a sample of the intellectual flowering of the two-day Institute:

? Architect Venturi praised cities that he called “wonderfully big, not brutally big,” saying this could be achieved by the use of middle-scale rather than big- or little-scale building. As an example, he cited the Plaza of St. Peter in Rome: grandeur at a distance, but up close, the messy vitality of small shops and “honky-tonk interests” that preserve the human scale. Venturi’s slides of his plans for Philadelphia streets featured giant apples à la Magritte looming from around street corners or squatting incongruously in otherwise staid greenbelts. “Our monumen-tality cannot be entirely serious,” he said. Venturi even defended the tacky streetfronts of Las Vegas, where each electric sign is an importunate neon finger crooked for our attention. “Even a jumble of billboards, in our situation, can give some small-scale relief so we do not feel our spirits overwhelmed by our own creations, he said.

? Bioregional economist Robert Swann blamed the banking system for the incessant “big-scale” thinking of our city planners. It’s more profitable for banks to make large loans to entrenched corporations than to encourage small businesses and spontaneous projects, he said. To counter this institutional bias, Swann created SHARE- the Self-Help Association for Regional Economies. SHARE makes loans to entrepreneurs and innovators who may seem too risky for orthodox bankers, like the Massachusetts woman who had no credit record and no previous loans, but who had a great idea to raise goats and sell goat cheese. Swann also introduced the revolutionary notion of a local currency, asking why prosperous sections of the country (Dallas, Silicon Valley) should be tied by a common currency to depressed areas like the Midwest grain belt. Gail Thomas seized on that idea, asking City Manager Charles Anderson to consider a Dallas coin, picturing Pegasus and City Hall, that would be legal tender within the city. (Who knows where it would end? Football fans might stuff their pockets with Boomerbucks or Dannydollars, which would no doubt gain or lose value depending on the quarterback of the week and how the team fared. Coin collectors of the future may clamor to get a 1985 Bent Tree half dollar, depicting Mayor Starke Taylor in full swing on the fifth hole, or a rare Monorail nickel adorned with Max Goldblatt’s smiling face.)

●William Criswell, chairman of the Criswell Development Co., said that downtown projects like his Fountain Place development contribute to the viable “undergrowth” of the city by providing places where diverse types of people can come together. Criswell said he was warned that such developments would attract “undesirables,” but replied, “Why would we want to keep them out? In the life-stream of a city, not everybody is going to dress and look alike.” On another subject, Criswell said that too many architects and planners today live in fear of being boring. There is nothing wrong with “sensible repetition,” Criswell said. He condemned” hotel lobbies four stories high” as being not so much boring as bombastic.

●Yale art historian Vincent Scully, an incredibly gifted teacher, enthralled the crowd with his impassioned paean to architecture as ritual, which he said gives concrete form to a city’s spiritual vision of itself-or lack of same. Scully made a striking point when he showed the debt of New York’s art deco period to ancient Mayan temples. The “setback” form of the Empire State Building, he said, makes the building much narrower than building codes required. The builder “gives up some rental space for glory,” Scully said. As for the persistent question of the Dallas Identity, Scully suggested the problems have to do with the newness of Dallas, a city where a very old family may have been here 50 years. Perhaps our insecurity about our image has to do with our uncertain relations to “the ancestors who are not here.” Scully declared that modern urban buildings are “an architecture of exile,” proclaiming city man’s detachment from his past and from his roots in nature. He quoted the anthropologist Levi-Strauss: “It will take a spiritual revolution to have man acquire modesty and stop worshiping himself; but in the meantime, Scully said, we are stuck with our situation. “We really can’t go home again, back to nature.”

● Perhaps not. But according to poet, novelist and farmer Wendell Berry, we had better try. Berry, by far the Institute’s most pessimistic critic of the city, spoke not so much of undergrowth as over-growth. “I’m sort of here by affirmative action, as the representative country person,” Berry quipped, but the rest of his talk was somber. He said he loved the view of downtown from City Hall, but “the people looked awful small.” In Berry’s view, the Dallas cityscape does not represent the many but the few- the wealthy and the powerful. “These buildings literally stand for some people,” Berry said, “and we are not to forget it.” The implicit message of our Promethean skyscrapers, for Berry, is the grandeur of their creators and their hubristic wish for immortality. Quoting Shelley, he said, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings/Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” Barry said that our architectural megalomania, like that of the ancient tyrant, must end in destruction. “They have always been wrong-about economics, about nature and about human nature,” Berry said. “These buildings are living on the exhaustion of their sources” and will eventually create a counterreaction of “minds that are not abashed by this ostentation.” These minds, he said, will start the noise of subversion. “And that noise goes like this: ’We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union. . .’ “

According to Berry, a livable city is the result of “a long conversation between the human and the natural.” He cautioned the audience to respect the limits of human will and to acknowledge the paradox of the human situation: We live in a “wilderness,” the universe, that is at once our sustainer and our destroyer, our Shiva and our Krishna. Berry warned that we are not keeping up our part of the conversation: “The economy, the biology, the streams and the earth have begun to tell us: ’No farther. Go home.’”

● Thomas Moore, the last speaker, gave the meeting an upbeat coda by offering a psycho-poetic whimsy with a point. Moore, director of Psychological Studies for the Institute and a practicing psychologist, suggested a “homeopathic” remedy for urban malaise. Rampant growth is a symptom of something needed, he said, so we should meet the challenge of our city’s bigness by intellectual and emotional growth of our own. “Big is beautiful, if it is not a neurotic attempt to scale the heavens.” Moore urged Dallas to live and govern with magnanimity, unobsessed with concrete (pun intended) growth. He reminded the audience that “magnanimous” comes from the Latin magna anima, or “great soul.” Our city is full of magnates, he added, but we often lack the magnanimous in our repertoire of civic qualities. For Moore, the solution is not to flee bigness and embrace a Luddite, level-the-Galleria mentality, but to grow and develop minds and hearts to match our buildings.