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Architecture & Design

How (Not) To Get Ahead In Architecture

For more than 40 years, Gary “Corky” Cunningham has gone after projects no one else wants. He’s not done yet.
| |Photography by Elizabeth Lavin
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Gary Cunningham
Cunningham has worked on many places of worship during his career, including Cathedral of Hope (left) and Temple Emanu-El (right). Elizabeth Lavin
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How (Not) To Get Ahead In Architecture

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The polished concrete Gary Cunningham is standing on, a gleaming gray mirror reflecting the spring sunshine filtering through three-story-tall windows, was once covered in almost 2 feet of pigeon shit. “About up to here,” he says, leaning over to indicate a spot just below his knee. 

The late architecture critic David Dillon once referred to Cunningham as “a burly guy, a linebacker, lumberjack type.” But the 69-year-old—Corky to his friends and more than a few colleagues—is more like a former wideout now, tall and rangy. He’s been vegan since 2008. With his barely tamed gray-going-on-white hair, his appearance suggests installation artist or post-punk bass player. He somehow looks exactly like a guy named Corky Cunningham.

We’re on the ground floor of an old Dallas Power & Light substation, one of five scattered in various neighborhoods around the city, built in the early 1920s and abandoned in the late 1950s. It’s a big block of neo-Georgian brick and limestone not far from Knox Street, hiding in plain sight from the joggers just a few strides away on the Katy Trail. When Cunningham first saw it, almost 40 years ago, it was a trash pit and ad hoc aviary, empty for two decades. The accumulated droppings were practically sedimentary rock. It took a month to clear them out, another month to sandblast the rest of the building clean.

Cunningham found what he was looking for along the way. The building and everything else.

The young architect had been hired by Mort Meyerson and his wife, Marlene, to turn the structure into a home for them, inspired partly by the loft conversions they had seen in New York’s SoHo when they lived in the city in the early 1970s. The couple had only a few guidelines: they wanted to recycle and reuse as much as they could. They wanted a serviceable place to live and entertain. And they wanted the open third floor to serve as a concert hall. It happened to be almost the same length and width as ones they had seen in Vienna.

Cunningham was an unlikely choice at the time. Today, he is one of the most respected and accomplished in his field. You’ve no doubt seen at least one of the many projects he’s worked on: the Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center, Temple Emanu-El’s expansion, the Cistercian Abbey Church. Certainly Half Price Books’ flagship store on Northwest Highway. He was the local architect for Philip Johnson’s Cathedral of Hope

“Historically, one of the great architects of Dallas, for sure,” says Dallas Morning News critic Mark Lamster, who puts him in the tradition of Texas regional architecture alongside David R. Williams, O’Neil Ford, and Frank Welch. In 2019, the Texas Society of Architects gave him its O’Neil Ford Medal for Design Achievement, which rewards a body of work produced over at least 20 years.

That kind of acclaim was a long way off back in the 1980s. After spending the beginning of his career doing commercial work for the global giant Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum (now known as HOK), Cunningham had gone out on his own a few years earlier. He had picked up an award or two and earned a reputation for his inventive approach, but had barely enough clients to stay afloat and didn’t have a huge portfolio or a signature project yet. Getting the Meyerson job was a bit of a fluke.

Meyerson had no idea which architects could pull off what he had in mind. In fact, he didn’t know any architects at all. “I wasn’t in that business,” the former Perot Systems CEO tells me later. (He was in China the day of Cunningham’s visit.) “I was in technology.” The only people he knew who dealt with architects were the partners at the development firm Luedtke, Aldridge, Pendleton. He asked for a recommendation, and they told him about Cunningham, who had done a building for them in the area.

“They said that he was young, but he had a [degree] from UT—I’m a UT graduate,” Meyerson says. “So I met him, and I think we hired him in the first meeting, as I recall.”

The Meyersons and Cunningham had the same vision from the start—respecting the integrity of the building—which only clarified as they saw how well the structure held up as they stripped it down and cleaned it up. But the couple left it up to him to bring it to life. Instead of framing it out with two-by-fours and sheetrock, Cunningham built a series of freestanding structures, so as not to disturb the shell surrounding them; original paint is still visible in places. He brought a modernist sensibility to the interior space but executed it with industrial-grade materials, constructing a future out of its past. A 20-ton crane and chain fall that were used to move transformers dominate the open living area of the first floor, as you might expect a 20-ton crane to do. The architect did not have to sell the Meyersons on many of his ideas.

“Marlene didn’t like the idea of glass floors, because she was nervous about falling through,” Cunningham says. “So I ordered a piece. I put it right up there”—he gestures to the third floor—“and I had her and Mort stand there. I took a sledgehammer and it took about 20 hits to actually start to push through the glass. She goes, ‘OK, you can do it.’ The relationship was like that. Mort would call me at 6 in the morning. Marlene’s even called me at 10 at night. Mort would bring everyone bran muffins in the morning.”

The project, which came to be known as the Power House, took a year to complete; the Meyersons finally took residence in 1989 and have lived there since. (Marlene died in 2017.) Cunningham hasn’t been here much in the intervening three decades, but he still remembers every detail, every decision, knows every cut and fastener and finish. The wired glass, they had to find a company in Minnesota to manufacture it for them. The original Reddy Kilowatt sign outside, they tracked it down in Wichita Falls and had to rebuild it because it was crushed. The ragged edge of a window leading to the courtyard, they had jackhammered an opening intending to clean it up later but they liked the way it looked so they glazed it as-is.

“That kind of became the theme,” Cunningham says, referring to the window. “Whatever you do, just acknowledge it and keep going.”

Eventually, it added up to a philosophy of sorts, an approach he would use not just for this building but all buildings going forward. Never assume what you did last time will work. Never assume what you did last time should work. Keep going.

“Because a lot of architects have a very rigorous process,” he says. “This taught me: man, that’s lame.”

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The Power House was part of a run of Cunningham-designed projects in the late 1980s and early ’90s that forever made his name. In 1994, he won the prestigious Emerging Voices award from the Architectural League of New York, the last architect from Dallas to do so.

“That’s really the most significant award in American architecture for young architects,” Lamster says. “Many, many, many of the significant architectural practices that have come out have won that award, and few haven’t. … The fact that he is the last one from the city to have won that award, it’s stunning. It’s shocking. It’s an indictment of Dallas architectural culture. But it’s also a tribute to how significant he is and how unusual he is.” 

You expect unusual from someone named “Corky.” “He was just in constant motion all of the time, his hands gesturing, his head bobbing like a fishing cork. I think that’s how he got his name,” says Dan Shipley, who met him at UT’s architecture school, where they fell under the wing of O’Neil Ford. “He is really full of energy and looking for a place for it all to go, and I think he found that in architecture.”

Shipley says his longtime friend is not as animated as he used to be, which I find hard to believe; I had to listen to recordings of our conversations at 50 percent playback speed, just to understand him. I met Cunningham a few months before the tour of the Power House, at the apartment he keeps behind the offices of Cunningham Architects, on Dragon Street, in the Design District. The firm (which has four other employees) moved there in 1997; he followed suit in 2004.

“After my divorce,” he says. “I live here and walk across the parking lot. A lot of times I just work in the house.”

He’s barefoot in faded all-black when he greets me at the door, his clothes a few shades behind his hair. The apartment is a long, thin space bisected lengthwise by shelves full of vinyl and books, the walls a traffic jam of art, canvases and frames fender to fender. Many of his friends are artists, including Ludwig Schwarz and Richard Patterson, part of a considered decision to learn a new way of approaching his practice. 

“He quite specifically told me that he wasn’t an artist,” Patterson says, “but he was doing something that was clearly quite similar and he wanted a better insight into how artists think compared to how architects think.” Keep going. 

We go outside and sit next to each other behind a table assembled from a pair of traffic barrels with a weathered plank of scrap wood on top. We’re facing the building he shares with an art gallery (Plush Gallery, which opens on weekends), a few other small tenants, and Hocker Design Group, the landscape architecture firm founded by David Hocker. Cunningham has known Hocker since he was a kid—he designed a few projects for Hocker’s father—and convinced the younger architect he was ready to go out on his own, offering him office space and work on a few high-end projects.

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“I mean, he just knew that inherently I’d be able to handle that work,” Hocker says, “and I never looked back.”

That kind of mentorship is less remarked upon, but it is as important to his standing as his design work. In a way, Cunningham Architects is a bit like a teaching hospital. Many architects have come through his office and gone on to higher-profile gigs or their own firms. Russell Buchanan worked with him early on. Sharon Odum did, too.

But it’s never been lucrative. He’s never had a large enough firm to go after the really big projects, which require a legion of qualified architects doing boring detail work, and never really wanted to, anyway. He got out of that lane when he left HOK.

“It’s always been hard for me to stay in business,” he says. “We’re not very good about making money. We’ll just keep figuring stuff out until it’s too late.” He says those smarter about the business side are more regimented: “You’ve got this long to design it and draw it and just get it out of the office. We just don’t want to do it. We keep going back to the job site looking for problems or mistakes or opportunities, and our clients always appreciate it.”

He says they are finishing a job now for Zion Lutheran Church that bigger firms like Omniplan were going after. Cunningham’s bid was the highest. But, he says, they told him, “We know you’ll put more effort into it than what we paid you for.” 

“We’re kind of pulling down and trying to drill into the psyche and the culture,” he says. “That takes time.” 

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While we are sitting in front of his apartment, I bring up a quote he gave to David Dillon for a June 23, 1991, piece in the Morning News focusing on a younger generation of Texas architects:

“For some architects, maintaining a stylistic thread in their work is very important. I like to start over every time. I couldn’t handle consistency. These days, we spend a lot of time avoiding architecture and trying instead to get the clients to talk in philosophical terms about what’s important to them.”

“I know I partially have a style,” he says now. “I try to be open to however something goes, but I do have certain things that work. And, of course, we have a style because we have been doing buildings for 40 years. But we work with natural materials and try to do blunt—try to strip shit down to the essence of what it is.”

When he gave that interview to Dillon in 1991, Cunningham was already at work designing a new chapel for Cistercian Preparatory School in Irving. It was a homecoming for him: he’d graduated from Cistercian in 1972.

He arrived at the school during its second year of existence, in 1963, when it was located in an old mansion on Walnut Hill Lane. “It took you two years to learn what they’re saying because their accents were so thick,” he says of the Hungarian monks who founded the all-boys Catholic school. “But—and I’ve got nine brothers and sisters—those guys became my surrogate parents.” 

He was the fourth of those 10 kids. The first three went to Highland Park schools. Cunningham and his younger two brothers were enrolled in Cistercian. Then another brother was diagnosed as autistic. Their father decided he couldn’t afford three boys at Cistercian, but he let Cunningham stay. 

“I was too far gone,” he says. “I was always the black sheep of the family. … I wouldn’t hang out with them. I mean, I’d get a job in a gas station so I wouldn’t have to go on Christmas vacation with them, because I’m kind of a loner and wanted to go do shit. I love taking things apart.” 

At Cistercian, he was in an entire class of black sheep. They set fires, broke into an under-construction Texas Stadium. “[Fr. Denis Farkasfalvy, the former headmaster] personally tore out a 16-page section of every annual because, I mean, in this middle thing we [mock] crucified two guys in the class. We were just irreverent as shit.” He admits he’s always been drawn to tumult and chaos and if it wasn’t there he’d create it. It was how he dealt with his dyslexia. “I was always stirring up shit,” he says. “But I kind of operate like that—scattershoot and scramble. I describe the brain of a dyslexic as a pinball machine with shit bouncing around and somehow it ends up in the chute.”

When Cunningham went back to Cistercian in 1990, to discuss plans for the new chapel, he was surprised at how welcome he felt.

“They had to check me out first, see if I wasn’t crazy,” he says. “But they trusted the shit out of me. To this day, I don’t think clients trusted me the way they trusted me. Of course, we’ve done so many buildings there now and we’re doing some stuff now, remodeling. We’re always out there. They’re good people.”

It started with that chapel, which remains one of Cunningham’s signature achievements. The building only looks better after three decades, the massive 5,000-pound blocks of limestone that form the exterior changing subtly as they weather, the ancient and the contemporary meeting under a roof suspended by steel cables. The church simultaneously looks as though it has been there forever and that it was only recently completed, though some of Cunningham’s cheekier touches—knobs used as hand grips were cast from potatoes—tend to lean toward the contemporary.   

In 2022, the chapel won the Texas Society of Architects’ 25-Year Award. The Power House won a similar award, in 2015, from AIA Dallas, “given to both commercial and residential projects that have withstood the test of time.”

“It’s a nice compliment,” Cunningham says. “Whether you’re doing someone’s house, whether you’re doing a building or whatever, you’ve got to kind of get in front of them, because they’re reacting and they’re telling you what’s in their head now. But I’m trying to figure out what’s going to be in their head or their successor’s head 20 years from now.”

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On a Friday morning a few weeks after our first meeting, Cunningham picks me up in downtown Dallas in his silver Honda Civic to take me to the recently completed office building the firm built for Half Price Books.

Cunningham’s relationship with Half Price began in 1998, when the company moved into its flagship store and corporate office on Northwest Highway. “Corky and his team had an affinity for the Half Price Books philosophy—renew and reuse—so they have been a perfect fit for us,” says Sharon “Boots” Anderson Wright, Half Price’s CEO.

He brought me here to talk about that long history but also to give me a literal concrete example of how his office works. This building is Cunningham Architects’ latest project, not just Corky Cunningham’s. As much as anyone, he says, the person responsible for it is Michael Bessner, the project designer and manager he’s worked with since 2005.

“I don’t like legacy and I don’t like attention, to be honest,” Cunningham says. “I mean, I’ll use my attention to get what I want, but I don’t like accolades.” It’s why he brought Bessner with him when he walked the site for the Dallas Morning News in January. “I think it’s a disservice to young architects to think that there’s always one person that’s calling the shots. And that may be the case in a lot of firms, but it certainly is not here. There’s times I don’t even know how we come up with stuff, because we get together and we just hammer things back and forth. But I know it’s not all me. I know that for a fact. If we’re good, that’s why we’re good. That’s what our edge is. That’s our mojo.”

The office building has been a long time coming, the last piece finally snapping into place on the land once occupied by Half Price’s old boat-like home. Master planning began for the site in 2012. Construction had just begun when the pandemic hit and shut everything down. They lost momentum and struggled to regain it—subcontractors had gone away to other jobs. They sold off a bunch of material they then had to buy back at a loss. City codes changed, so they had to redo part of it. 

The result is informed by the amount of time Cunningham Architects has been on the project, the relationship the firm has built with Half Price, year after year, project after project. The building is almost inside out, not quite like the famed Centre Pompidou in Paris, but maybe a backyard version. The elevators, stairs, and walkways are on the perimeter instead of the interior, open to the elements, covered by a sunshade made of wooden slats. A prescient design, given how in demand outdoor spaces became during the pandemic. (A practical solution, also: it opened more leasable space.) But the idea’s roots came from the firm’s early meetings with the Half Price team, when they were designing the building REI now occupies.

“Before we would meet up in the conference room, we would usually hang out where the loading dock is of Half Price, where you sell books,” Bessner tells me later. “That space is cavernous, and it is always in shade. And so, for me personally, that was the beginning of trying to understand how Half Price and their employees operated and how they worked and how they just existed. And that big, cavernous loading dock was one of many ideas of how to provide outdoor space.”

Bessner says Cunningham would give him leads, point him in directions, let him figure it out and then give another inkling of an idea, something to chase, study, to iterate on. But the configuration of the entire site came directly from Cunningham, and it came from the beginning. 

“This live oak tree has been here since the ’70s,” Cunningham says, as we stand under it. The tree leans, its trunk resting against a metal arm. He says sometimes, when it’s feeling good, after a rain maybe, the tree will lift off the steel plate and stand on its own. “We actually kept the original grade beam because this live oak tree was growing out of the base of it, and if we took it out, we thought it might fall over. And we wanted to make sure it stayed alive.”

He’s worried now because the restaurant going in on the site wants to have outdoor seating under the live oak. “But they want to run gas lines to have permanent gas heaters,” he says. “They wanna put ’em under the tree, which if they do, they’ll kill the tree by cutting roots. So, we’re scared to death they’ll come out and start trenching it, killing it. This one tree is what matters.”

That one tree is probably why he’s worked with Half Price so long. Or at least it is a symbol of it.

“He takes the surroundings into account and helps things fit into their environment,” Anderson Wright says. “He also really considers the user experience of the space. It’s about how people interface with their surroundings. He really wants to create an environment, and that’s very important in a large city like Dallas. I can’t overstate how important their buildings are in a city that often tears down and rebuilds like Dallas does.”

“We’re going to drive by Temple Emanu-El,” Cunningham says, as we head west on Northwest Highway. “One of our big projects. And that was a fun one and a really complex project. That went on for about seven years.”

The $24 million renovation and expansion, completed in 2016, is a good window into both how Cunningham works and with whom he wants to work. And, again, at least in part, it comes back to a live oak tree. Four of them. They were planted in the complex’s courtyard in 1957, the same year the congregation moved to the site at the corner of Hillcrest Avenue and Northwest Highway, after an itinerant journey through downtown and South Dallas. There were worries that the live oaks’ home would be disturbed. In fact, if anything, the opposite is true. The 500 seats in Cunningham’s semicircular Stern Chapel, which encloses the courtyard, look out through a wall of windows onto those four flourishing, sprawling trees, like putting a still life in a frame.

He could have imposed his vision elsewhere, and perhaps another architect might have. In fact, Temple Emanu-El’s leadership was prepared for him to do so. “I was ready to blow up Lefkowitz,” Rabbi David Stern told Mark Lamster in 2016, referring to Lefkowitz Chapel, the smaller secondary sanctuary originally designed by Howard Meyer and Max Sandfield. But Cunningham said he would walk off the project if he had to demolish it.

So Lefkowitz remains, not unchanged but spiritually the same, a light-filled box, as does the larger, darker space named for Rabbi Levi Olan, refreshed and modernized, restored instead of entirely reimagined.  

I ask Cunningham if he was mainly working with Rabbi Stern on the project. “Yeah, him and about, you know, 100 other people,” he says, laughing. “There were multiple committees. That committee was about 30 people. We just had a lot of conversations, and they stepped up. Everyone in the congregation stepped up.”

The sheer amount of voices involved when it comes to working on churches and synagogues is why, he says, no one wants to do it. “Because you’ve got 500 clients. But I like the outcome. We end up doing things that I would never do myself and, you know, it’s better than what we would be able to do.”

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He loves working with big congregations, talking to as many people as he can, getting beyond what they want now so he can see what they might want 25 years from now. He started going after places of worship early on, and it remains a cornerstone of the firm’s business. “I just fall in love with complicated clients,” he says. 

Right now, he’s working on a restoration of Temple Mount Sinai’s wild El Paso synagogue, which was built in 1962 by Sidney Eisenshtat and looks like a gigantic concrete shark slicing through mountains. In the middle of the pandemic, he went to El Paso for seven days and met with members of the congregation from 8 in the morning until 7 at night the entire week. Cunningham doesn’t want clients who have their minds already made up, and he doesn’t necessarily want to make the decisions for them. He wants debate, thrives on doubt, internal and external. He learned that from the monks at Cistercian. He needs the clamor of 100 differing opinions, a more mature way of seeking out the chaos he stirred up during school. He still has that dyslexic, pinball-machine mind. “When you start going back and rethinking things, you go, Wow, there’s another avenue here that’s kind of interesting.”    

If he were more interested in a legacy, in protecting a personal style or process, it might be different. And he knows most architects don’t think like he does. They were trained not to. 

“School, we were kind of taught to pursue that body of work that had a continuity to it,” he says. “But it’s changed a lot, which is wonderful. Education is now more about collaboration and working as a group. And the introduction of women into the profession has made a massive difference. A lot of this stuff is geared toward the kind of White male ownership of the profession for the last, you know, x-thousand years. Women are better about bringing people together, typically.”

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Like the Power House, it’s been a while since Cunningham has visited the Addison Conference and Theatre Centre, which was completed in 1992. “I have not seen it in five or 10 years, so it will be fun (or tragic) to see how it is doing,” he texted before picking me up in the morning. It is our next stop after Half Price. 

On the way over, he tells me how he got the job. Instead of making a formal pitch himself, Cunningham enlisted three people to do it for him: a client, a contractor, and Rick Brettell, the critic, curator, and professor who was then director of the Dallas Museum of Art. It was a strange decision because, one, he barely knew Brettell and, two—and this is probably more important—Brettell didn’t know much at all about Cunningham’s work. 

They had met briefly a couple of years earlier when Brettell first came to Dallas and asked Cunningham to work on the “NOW/THEN/AGAIN” exhibition at the DMA, which would highlight the museum’s collection of post-World War II contemporary art. “And, of course, he started the project and basically kind of walked away,” Cunningham says. “Rick is an instigator. He’ll start the fire, then he’d expect you to carry it on because he’s going to start another fire. That’s how he operates.”

For the Addison presentation, Brettell was to show a short slideshow of Cunningham’s projects. When Cunningham tried to give him some background on the slides, something, anything to help, Brettell said it wasn’t necessary. “I’ve got it.”

Cunningham never found out exactly what Brettell said during his 15 minutes with the building committee—something about Cunningham Architects being the only firm capable of bringing the arts to Addison—but they got the job. (Cunningham’s unconventional manner when it came to pitching projects didn’t always succeed. He walked into a meeting about a new ballpark with the Texas Rangers owners in the early ’90s basically empty-handed—no sketches or models, just some notecards—and interviewed them.) 

After Addison, Cunningham and Brettell were inseparable, until Brettell’s death in July 2020. Cunningham calls him “my greatest mentor and best friend.”

“We’d be in contact every day,” he says. “That whole dimension of my career and my life with him is gone. Other people were around, but we were kind of joined at the hip in some ways. We were always taking on shit, and most of the stuff we never got anywhere. He’d give a lecture and I’d drive him, and it’d take us five, six, eight hours to get there because we’d stop at everything, walk and look at shit.”

The pair’s two biggest collaborative projects remain unrealized—not in the way they were intended—and at least one would likely have been a career-capper for each man, a first-line-in-the-obituary-type idea. The Athenaeum he had planned for UTD is actually going forward (ground broke last May and Phase I will be completed early next year), but in a form that “veered off terribly from his intentions,” Cunningham says. Only the name remains from Brettell’s original vision, “a garden with buildings.”

For the other, the Museum of Texas Art, they had planned to use the old Dallas Museum of Fine Arts site in Fair Park. But a month before Brettell died, they were told they weren’t going to get it. Their backers walked away. “It’s really kind of sad,” Cunningham says. “But that shit happens.”

A building or two or three wouldn’t have commemorated what they had. Cunningham doesn’t mourn the projects, the ones that happened and the ones that didn’t, but the adventures they had getting there.

“He’d send me to fucking Giverny in the middle of winter,” he says. “He’s telling me a week or two before I had to go, and he wouldn’t even tell me what he was thinking of. So go there by myself for seven days. It’s the coldest winter they had ever seen in the last 30, 40 years. And so I’m actually measuring buildings, trying to figure out these relationships with these buildings that he was trying to play with. And I would run outside for 30, 40 minutes and shoot some stuff with the laser and run back in and thaw, put my notes down, go back and forth. 

“Some people do that to you, and you’re kind of on your own to figure it out,” he continues. “And then at some point you go, ‘I can’t wait for the next one.’ But coming from that direction from someone like that, it was just a gift of reassessing your own shit.” 

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The idea for the Addison project was to create “this little village of buildings,” Cunningham says. “Because the whole thing’s only like 30,000 square feet. Even inside the buildings, there’s buildings in the buildings.” Even the parking lot, instead of being completely open, is defined by shrubs to form six “rooms.” 

“I was trying to take all these found elements and, like, connect the dots,” he says. The site was mostly empty field, but there was a little stone house built in 1939 by the WPA, a water tower, a windmill, and a pair of juniper trees. A friend at UTA introduced Cunningham to the late Black historian Jesse Arnold, and they spent two days driving around North Dallas and Addison. They discovered a slave cabin about a few hundred feet north of the site, walked through a graveyard off Alpha Road.   

“You spend time with something like that and you start developing this sense,” he says. “And it is a sense—you can’t pin it down, you can’t write it down, but you just have this urge or the sense of what you’re supposed to do.”

Once he found his way in, saw how the dots could connect, the project came together quickly—less than a year to draw it, less than a year to build. Everything is mostly still how he left it. The ductwork has been painted (it used to be natural metal), the big row of sycamores they planted died a couple of years ago, some of the fig ivy vines that covered the concrete block walls are gone. 

Again, Cunningham culled from the past and present to create a future. He located Milsap stone, the same used in the WPA building, in Weatherford (and brought in the black locust trees he found there, too). The cable-and-steel roof of the theater echoes the airplane hangar across the road. The contractors couldn’t always follow where he was going. 

He leads me to a window that looks into the lobby of the theater, where he designed a series of concrete block arcades, meant to look as though they were falling over. They strung cables through the arcades that attached to a large rock, “which actually had algae growing on it at one time,” he says. “The cables became the handrails for the stair. That was a little bit of humor. The curved concrete wall on the other side was the entryway. And one day, we heard that someone with the contractor team had spraypainted ‘TRASH’ in about 3-foot-high letters on the wall. I think they had to repour it.” He’s not sure if the message was a directive or a review.

“That happens a lot,” he continues. “At Cistercian, well, the guy cutting the stone, he thought we were going to skim the inside with sheetrock or something. So they were dragging chains and pouring oil on it, kind of trashing the inside surface. And I said, ‘Guys, that shows.’ ”

As we’re going back to his car to leave, he notices something that wasn’t here before—not on his site but across the street at the airport.

“See that? That’s interesting. I guess those are condos over aircraft hangars or something. Because there used to be a beautiful row of 1950-something airplane hangars. My dad used to have his airplane over there. I grew up over there working on motorcycles inside his hangar. He had a Beechcraft Bonanza, the V-tail. He had like four or five of ’em through his life. He had the first, I think, instrument-rated single engine. I used to fly with him.”

Do you still fly? I ask.

“Just fly with—I never did pick it up,” he says. “Never had the time for flying or golf.” He laughs. “That’s what I’m supposed to be, you know, working on, right? Retirement shit?”

He laughs again. Like, what am I going to retire from? His life is his practice; his practice is his life. He has to live so close to his office. He has to work so close to home. It’s all one piece. Everything is everything. He’ll keep finding complicated clients, congregations with 500 different opinions. He’ll keep learning, keep trying.

Keep going.     


This story originally appeared in the August issue of D Magazine with the headline, “The Builder.” Write to [email protected].    

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Zac Crain

Zac Crain

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Zac, senior editor of D Magazine, has written about the explosion in West, Texas; legendary country singer Charley Pride; Tony…
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