Mar 19, 2008

Dallas, Texas: Architecture and Urbanism

It’s a good Cold War story that has taken on mythological proportions: In the 1980s, brutal Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu aired the soap opera Dallas on local television in order to illustrate the decadence of capitalism to the Romanian people. However, Romanians were so enamored of the American lifestyles they saw in Dallas that they overthrew the dictator and all lived happily after: the glossy image-world of Dallas’ excessive consumer lifestyles sparked the revolution that saved Romania from tyranny. Or so the story goes. Visiting Dallas for the first time (as I did for last month’s CAA conference), it is hard to reconcile the real Dallas with the virtual one of the soap opera.

Downtown Dallas

Encircled by a ring of freeways, downtown Dallas is a collection of bland corporate skyscrapers, alienating concrete plazas and parking garages. Even during the day, its streets are largely empty of pedestrians, while its roads are full of SUVs and large pickup trucks, heading into downtown in the morning, and out again to the suburbs in the afternoon. At night, downtown Dallas is abandoned to a nomadic homeless population, and, apart from a couple of self-contained conference hotels, is almost completely devoid of shops, restaurants, cafes or bars. Urban planning seems to be non-existent: all of the corporate skyscrapers are self-contained, and many include their own parking garages so the commuter need not interact with the greater city at all. The excesses of Reaganism and the 1980s oil bonanza saw twenty such skyscrapers grow on the Dallas skyline, transforming it from a modest city into an instant metropolis. Although heralded as a successful boomtown in the 1980s, downtown Dallas today might serve as a good case study of the problems of much late 20th century American architecture and urbanism.

I.M. Pei, Dallas City Hall, 1966-78

At the symbolic (if not quite the geographical) heart of downtown Dallas is I.M. Pei’s City Hall (1966-78). After the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, the city’s reputation plummeted, and it was popularly portrayed as a kind of new Wild West. The Town Hall was intended to be a bold public statement that might restore this tarnished image. Pei’s concept was not just another civic building, but a major urban project that would encompass a large public plaza with enough open space to offset the height of downtown’s growing commercial skyscrapers. The resulting City Hall comprises an eight storey concrete monolith whose triangular form overlooks a six acre plaza with a pool and large Henry Moore sculptures. Formally, City Hall is an exercise in geometric design; the concrete poured without joins to create an unbroken sculptural surface. But it was more than just a modernist design exercise, as Pei recalled in a later interview: "When you do a city hall, it has to convey an image of the people, and this had to represent the people of Dallas.” (Wiseman, Carter, I.M. Pei: A Profile in American Architecture, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990, p.125) Strong, unadorned and monolithic – are we to read this as a metaphor for the people of Dallas? More importantly, the City Hall is a statement about the city’s solidity and permanence, even as its neighbouring corporate towers change hands or rebrand every few years. However, the alienating, inhuman scale and bleak outlook of both the City Hall and its vast plaza may well have impressed Nicolae Ceausescu.

Dallas City Hall, plaza

The soap opera Dallas, coincidently, first aired in 1978, the year City Hall was completed, and the soap’s global rise in the 1980s coincided with the rise of postmodern Dallas. In a way, the soap created an image for the city that worked in tandem with its new wave of corporate buildings – the glamorous surfaces of both embody similar narratives of big business, patriarchal power and the materialist excess of the 1980s. One of the earliest examples of postmodern Dallas is the Hyatt Hotel (Welton Becket & Associates, 1978), whose mirrored surfaces and broken rectangular forms are best seen in the light of Fredric Jameson’s reading of the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles (John Portman, 1976). Like the Bonaventure, Dallas’ Hyatt is a self-enclosed volume, isolated from its surroundings; its mirrored skin repels our gaze, leaving us with a distorted, fragmented reflection of the surrounding city.

Pegasus Oil neon sign reflected in a skyscraper's mirrored surface

Similar to both the Hyatt and Bonaventure, downtown Dallas’ later 1980s corporate architecture contributes to this sense of a non-place without history or context. While popular stereotypes of cowboys abound in tourist stores and public sculptures, Indians are conspicuously absent in downtown Dallas. But it is not just Native American history that has been erased, Spanish and Mexican histories of the area have also been entirely erased from the postmodern city. However, not all histories have been lost, they are just hard to find. Looking carefully, a scattering of Art Deco buildings suggest a longer urban history, as well as a lone neoclassical mansion (the Belo Mansion, late 1890s) and an extravagant Romanesque Revival building (the Old Red Courthouse, 1892), both of which confirm the existence of an almost forgotten 19th century city. In the postmodern city, even these remnants of an earlier Dallas look isolated and decontextualized.

Pei, Cobb & Freed, Fountain Place, 1986

After City Hall, I.M. Pei (in the 1980s operating as Pei, Cobb and Freed) went on to design several other Dallas skyscrapers, and, along with Philip Johnson and John Burgee, reshaped much of the downtown area during the 1980s. The Texan cities of Dallas and Houston were key sites for the development of Johnson and Burgee’s version of postmodernism: historical references (though never local ones), granite facades and gables were applied to corporate headquarters, creating an effect of distinction and differentiation from the usual crowd of minimalist modern towers. Although not as self-consciously historicist or decorative as Johnson/Burgee’s projects, Pei Cobb and Freed’s corporate skyscrapers function in a similar way here in Dallas. Among their many Dallas landmarks, Pei, Cobb and Freed’s most celebrated Dallas project is Fountain Place (1986), now known as the Wells Fargo Bank (formerly Allied Bank Tower). Designed by Henry Cobb, Fountain Place is a 60 storey crystalline sculpture with a pointed top, covered entirely with reflective glass. It looks similar to Pei’s slightly later Bank of China headquarters in Hong Kong. Although Fountain Place follows the high modernist guidelines in its sense of purity, geometric form and high-tech materials, the jagged top cuts a distinctive silhouette on the city’s skyline.

Dan Kiley, landscaping, Fountain Place

The landscaping around the base of Fountain Place was designed by well-known landscape designer Dan Kiley, and comprises three acres of fountains, waterfalls and large cypress trees positioned at regular intervals in granite planters. The landscape’s center-piece is a computer-programmed fountain with over two hundred jets shooting water in geometric patterns. In a downtown devoid of genuine public spaces, such a space provides cooling water and shade from the hot Texas sun, but the security guards and cameras make it quite clear that this is not a space for lingering too long. Such landscaping is popular in Dallas: each corporate tower is surrounded by a landscaped space with scattered trees and greenery safely contained in stone planters and rectilinear grids. Here, nature has been completely conquered, and is contained within a highly controlled environment. An abundance of sculpture decorates these corporate gardens, with Rodin’s tortured bronze figures providing a bizarre juxtaposition to the blank, mirrored surface of a nearby skyscraper. The landscape designers of Chase Tower (Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, 1987) have gone even further in creating a completely controlled “total design”, with the inclusion of piped classical music emitted from loudspeakers hidden in the low foliage.

A downtown Dallas skywalk

Connecting these self-contained corporate environments is another curious Dallas phenomenon, the skywalk. The skywalk is an enclosed bridge, typically connecting two corporate skyscrapers. It seems to have at least two functions: firstly, the skywalk’s air-conditioned comfort keeps nature at bay (the Texan heat, but also rain and wind); and secondly, it functions as a means to travel between corporate buildings while avoiding the streets (thus the absence of sidewalk activities in downtown Dallas). Unlike in Hong Kong, where similar-looking skywalks function as literally a network of overhead sidewalks which connect various parts of the city (complete with buskers and pirate DVD sellers), Dallas’ skywalks are as sterile and empty as its streets.

Plaza of the Americas, atrium

In the Plaza of the Americas, an odd indoor atrium space between corporate towers (with the obligatory Texan ice skating rink at the bottom), I paused to take some photographs (see above), and before long a security guard ordered me to stop (not “asked nicely”, ordered). When I asked why, he said, “for security reasons.” In the postmodern city, secrecy and privacy are essential (hence all the mirrored surfaces). The new regime of 1980s corporate spaces watch us via a range of surveillance devices, including prominent guards and cameras, in what Mike Davis referred to as the “militarization of urban space” (see “Fortress Los Angeles: the Militarization of Urban Space” in Sorkin, Michael, ed., Variations on a Theme Park, New York: Hill and Wang). This has no doubt intensified in American cities since 2001.

Downtown Dallas parking garages

Beyond the downtown area, the clipped-lawn suburbs, shopping malls and developer’s historical fancies represent on the one hand an escape from, but on the other a mirroring of, downtown’s corporate spaces. The Texan emphasis on individual liberties seems to have morphed into paranoia, exemplified by the huge (militarized) SUVs and pickup trucks driving down the freeways from self-contained corporate environments to the suburbs. Not surprisingly, Texas is a popular state for building gated communities.

Edward Larabee Barnes, Dallas Museum of Art, 1983

While there may be a complete absence of street culture, Dallas and its neighbor, Fort Worth, have an abundance of art galleries filled with acknowledged “masterpieces”. Yet even these cultural sites seem very Texan in conception and presentation. Edward Larabee Barnes’ Dallas Museum of Modern Art (1983) is similar to its corporate neighbours: self-contained and monumental, its mute stone walls shut out the surrounding city. Within, its patrons’ desire for immortality is taken to a bizarre extreme with the recreation of the French Riviera villa of Wendy and Emery Reves (she was a Texan model in the 1940s) as a home for their collection of decorative arts and paintings. Fort Worth’s trilogy of museums, the Amon Carter, the Kimbell and the Modern, stand in a row outside the downtown area of Fort Worth, accessible only by automobile and disconnected from any other signs of life. Museums here seem to function as badges of sophistication, an acknowledgement that there is something here beyond money. However, the absence of local culture in all of these museums suggest otherwise – “culture” is something that is imported (even the curatorial frameworks have been imported, with the Kimbell functioning as a miniature Met and the Modern as a miniature MoMA. The Amon Carter, at least with its “cowboy” art theme, seems original in this context).

SOM, Chase Tower, 1987

In the postmodern city, images are all important – much of the soap opera Dallas was filmed in Hollywood and David Jacobs, who wrote the original concept, apparently knew little about the real Texas. The distinction of the Dallas skyline, meanwhile, was used prominently in the soap, creating a symbolic economy of the city based on both the soap’s image-world and downtown’s corporate architecture. Not coincidently, the finance capitalism fuelling the downtown rebuilding (and re-branding) in the 1980s was similarly built increasingly on image and intangibles (stocks, software, insurance certificates, and the like). However, the reality of the resulting physical city is significantly different from its appealing image. Controlled spaces of exclusion and paranoia, the absence of diverse public spaces, and little of the vitality usually associated with a city suggest a fundamentally flawed urban environment. Freedom means little without the ability to use it in absolute space and time: participatory democracy needs public spaces; communities need to be represented in real spaces in which they can remain vibrant. Such spaces are conspicuously absent in downtown Dallas. Thinking back to Nicolae Ceausescu and the tale of the soap opera that ended the Cold War: if only Ceausescu had shown the Romanian people the real Dallas rather than the soap opera, they may have recognised the monumental, alienating scale, and the sterile, solemn spaces of exclusion and paranoia. He might still be in power today.

Store sign, downtown Dallas, February 2008


Conservative Guerilla Graphics said...

Funny you never mention that Dallas is trying to reverse all the damage done by the '80s.

Or the current explosion over in the arts district or on Main St. including the opening of small boutique hotels with fine dining. Opening of new stores.

I take it you never took the time to explore these areas at night or you would see the beginnings of a bustling community that cares about each other. It is true that Dallas had a downturn thanks to the Saving and Loan scandals... but the city is truly being resuscitated.

Why don't you mention less than a mile from downtown is uptown where restaurants, bars, and life have persuaded 65,000 people to move within the DFW region in the last year. Along with jobs.

You do not mention the night skyline which could be one of the most futuristic in the nation.

You do not mention the "undergound" which connect the building of downtown together. Though I do not like the fact they are there (I believe the shops should be forced to the surface) there are plenty of people walking around there during the day.

I find it funny do not mention the Nasher Sculpture center, The Myerson, the new opera hall designed by Foster, or the theatre by Koolhaas. Maybe the planned Woodall-Rodgers Park?

In fact from reading all of your critiques thats all you do is point out the flaws. You do not care of what works.. just the negatives. You do not mention the changes taking place about the people who care about the urban landscape and their homes.

Brighten up a bit eh?

D.J. Huppatz said...

Thanks for your comments. Yes, the post was polemical and certainly not comprehensive. The new projects by Koolhaas et al you mention may well transform downtown, especially around the Arts district, and in the next few years the city may well have lost much of that 80s feel.

Robbie said...

If you are looking for historical architecture in Dallas, go east. At Fair Park, you will find some of the best art deco buildings in the region, designed mostly by George Dahl. Venture into the neighborhoods northwest of there (Munger Place, Junius Heights, Swiss Ave, Hollywood Heights) and you will find perhaps the largest collection of prairie home style mansions in the entire southwest, a great collection of Tudor style homes, and grand early 20th century mansions. East Dallas used to be its own city and, in many ways, still is. In a city that constantly changes, East Dallas is an area that embraces Texas history and culture.

Anonymous said...

Great insights. Downtown Dallas has a ways to go. But what is it with Dallas and cameras?

I got accosted by a security guard taking a picture of the sculpture outside of the Bank of America Plaza, then chided by a guard at the Chase Building. And don't even think of using your cell phone camera at the Sixth Floor Museum.

If a city can't even realize the basic fact that tourists like to take pictures, how can they possibly have the wisdom to create a relevant urban environment?