I expected to hate everything in Texas except Austin. To a northerner, Texas is crazy right-wing politicians and endless sprawl (and beef barbecue, not pork). After three weeks in Texas, I can report that those preconceptions were proved to be true (except that they do serve some pork ribs), but they obviously don’t cover the whole range of what Texas is like. You hear about the politics and the sprawl, but you don’t hear about the light and the trees and the qualities of the cities.
I wasn’t looking forward to travelling across Texas, but I regarded it as my duty – it is a big, important and powerful place, and I thought that on this trip we should try to see what the rest of the country is really like, even parts that might make us uncomfortable. (My whole prior experience of Texas was restricted to DFW, but we knew that very well: once during a long layover, Greta and I had walked every inch of it – about five miles). So when we got to Dallas and immediately started seeing places that were interesting and beautiful, I was nonplussed but pleased – maybe our time in Texas wouldn’t be a dutiful slog for 1000 miles, maybe we would actually have fun.
We were staying with our friend Kathy in the Lakewood neighborhood, and that was the first surprise – a postwar neighborhood about six miles from downtown, to which it is connected by both a bike corridor and a light rail line. The houses were traditional and unpretentious, and the landscape was beautiful – everywhere there were fabulous trees, which in February gave a wonderful dappled quality to this intensely clear light. We walked along the lake and saw houses that ranged from modest to imposing, but with none of the grandiosity and kitsch that I had expected. (Obviously, this is because we were seeing older, closer-in neighborhoods, not the sprawling horrors of the rumored outer suburbs, such as Plano.) I didn’t go looking for the bad parts of the Dallas-Ft. Worth megalopolis, but I did see enough of them while driving across the area. ( Most notably, the George W. Bush Library at SMU. beautiful sited above a freeway:)
If the residential neighborhoods were the first surprise, the downtown was the second. Like many American cities, it is surrounded by gigantic highways – elevated, surface, depressed – every way possible. It is also completely cut off from the riverfront. However, within the two grids and four square miles of the downtown, there is a wide range of building types and ages, and evidence that the city is really thinking about urban design (and willing to spend some money on it).
The West End is full of 19th- and early 20th-century brick commercial and government buildings. Dealey Plaza is here, and the infamous Texas Book Depository. There is a Sixth Floor Museum, and it struck us as pretty ghoulish.
Dallas has had sustained growth throughout the postwar period, which is reflected in the juxtaposition of buildings from different eras. It’s an entertaining mix, although there are definitely the goofball, Worlds-Fairy buildings too.
But Dallas has more than its share of serious buildings by well-known architects, most of them built fairly recently. For some reason the culture seems to support this in a way that other cities (such as Houston), don’t. Some are really good and some fall short, but they all show a commitment to architecture beyond the functional and economically viable. Seeing so many together in one downtown is very surprising.
There is a Calatrava bridge, which if you’re determined to have a Calatrava, is probably a smarter thing to get than a building. It’s a beautiful object, it doesn’t have the problems of not fitting into an urban context the way his buildings don’t, and it doesn’t matter if it leaks.
Still dominating the skyline is Pei’s Fountain Place. It is a really big glass tower, but it doesn’t seem so, as it isn’t a box. The seemingly simple prismatic shape is constantly changing as you move around it, and it works much the same way the Hancock Tower does – sort of there, sort of not-there, hiding anything that gives it scale, meeting the ground well and somehow inconspicuously, abstraction at its best.
Most of the cool new architecture is clustered in the Arts District, at the north end of downtown. It begins at the Dallas Museum of Art, and an avenue lined with cultural institutions leads north from there. The Nasher sculpture museum is on the left, by Renzo Piano.
The Winspear Opera House, by Foster+Partners, is hard to see as a building, and impossible to photograph. It is basically a full-block shading device, with a relatively small opera house in the middle. This is a view of the outdoor amphitheater on one side of it.
The strategy is pretty wonderful – here is this enormously hot city, where people probably won’t venture out of their air-conditioning for much of the year. This big screen shades huge outdoor areas, with plazas, entries, cafes, sitting areas, etc., and i would think that it keeps people from just driving their cars into the basement parking garage and taking the elevator to the opera. For something so big, it’s pretty self-effacing – the image of the building is the gesture of the big roof, and the opera house reads as a pavilion under it.
In contrast to these buildings, the Booker T. Washington High School, by Allied Works, across the street is an anomaly – it looks like a relatively normal building. Building volumes and fenestration reveal the uses within. It’s beautifully detailed and proportioned. There’s a stepped central courtyard around the which the school wraps, which is good for daylighting and building depth, but I can’t imagine it being occupied often in the Dallas sun – it may need to be under Foster’s roof. But in the midst of showmanship, it has the virtue of restraint – it’s not a one-liner building.
These buildings have many fine qualities, but it’s hard to see how they make up a city. It’s the Lincoln Center phenomenon, but on an even bigger scale. There is no finer grain to the city, just discrete institutions that sit near each other, most of them vying for attention for themselves, or their patrons. (There are more I haven;t mentioned, such as an execrable Trammel museum of Asian art and a symphony hall that looks strangely dated already.) They enfront the arts axis, but they all have some seriously weird back sides, where collisions like this happen. On one side these back up against major arterials and freeways, but the other side forms a strange wall where it’s hard to see city fabric adhering.
I think the best part of this district is the oldest piece, the Dallas Museum of Art. It has a very good, very big collection, and the building is by Edward Larrabee Barnes. The parti is similar to his Walker Art Center in Minneapolis – a processional through galleries and up major stairs-as-rooms from level to level.
It has good moments, but it doesn’t work. The Walker is relatively small; even if you’re disoriented, you can just give up control and follow the path, and it all comes out right in the end. The DMA is so much bigger that there are several of these wandering paths, and you get completely lost. When I lived in New York, I knew every inch of the Met, and could show someone the best way to the bathroom from the medieval armor across the central axis and behind the furniture galleries; this place had me stymied. Once you venture above the ground floor it is a labyrinth, and determined as I was to make sense of it, I eventually had to ask directions on how to get out and take an elevator.
So why is the DMA my favorite one of the lot? The sculpture garden. It was designed by Dan Kiley, the great modernist landscape architect (something I could sense from the moment I spotted it). I caught a glimpse of it from a ground floor lobby and was irresistibly drawn outside.
We sometimes talk about whether a new museum is a good place to view art, or whether it’s something that exists mainly for itself, highlighting the architecture. The same question could be raised about this garden. The sculpture and its placement are fine, but to me the overwhelming point is the landscape and the space itself. A series of shifting, off-center axes. Live oak trees filtering the clear Texas light. Strict rectilinear geometry allowing for diagonal glimpses into adjoining spaces. A series of wall planes with varied materials and textures around which your path threads. Light and shadow and color. Open places, secluded places. Symmetry used to emphasize entry.
It was so good I could have spent the whole day there, but I had other things to see.
The new Perot science museum by Morphosis is the ideal building for us on this trip – Greta gets to look at science and natural history (which she has already written about), and I get to look at architecture. Like most Morphosis buildings, it’s deceptively simple and functional. Ten years ago, Thom Mayne explained how they designed the Eugene courthouse – they arrive at a simple plan, get everyone to buy in on the scheme, and then spend their effort elaborating and finding the richness within the simple parti. You can see that here too. A science museum wants to be a black box for the exhibit designers. They got that here, and it was then clad in a varied, textured skin which doesn’t try to disguise the essential boxiness of it.
The other major element of the museum is the circulation system, which must draw people in, move them efficiently through the building from floor to floor, and perhaps provide the architects some latitude for spatial and tectonic excitement that they have been denied in the box. And as many the patrons will be children, allow them some room to play and run and have fun too.
On the inside, there follows a series of spatial expansions, compressions, shifts, revealed yet inaccessible destinations, etc., which I can’t document in detail, there is just too much going on. But you never feel lost – there is one predetermined path, and your experience is modulated as you move along it.
The pathway is to get visitors to the top, then have them walk down. This is accomplished by a series of escalators. On the outside, you can see the homage to to the primal gerbil tubes of the Pompidou Center, but eschewing the tubularity.
The skin is cracked at the northeast corner, and the circulation core behind is exposed. It feels like a canyon inside, and the non-repetitive circulation system provides endless variety of movement and views. Random photos:
It is playful, it is intriguing, it draws you in and it doesn’t get you lost. And it provides a great connection to the city across the freeway, in a way not unlike Piano’s outdoor terraces at the Whitney in New York. It’s a remarkably clear building, one where every part is fulfilling its intention, and the quality of the architecture enhances one’s enjoyment of the museum.
Beyond the buildings, the attention to urban design in Dallas was notable. Of course there are giant streets dominated by cars, but somehow as a pedestrian I didn’t feel intimidated. There was a pedestrian scale to all the downtown streets, crossings were frequent and non-threatening. The light rail transit corridor is efficient and pleasant through the heart of downtown.
A welcome new feature is Klyde Warren Park, built over three blocks of the depressed freeway on the west side of downtown, and providing needed connection across. Designed by James Burnett, it has lots of open spaces, seating, a playground, walkways, food, etc.
It’s pretty straightforward, not a design tour-de-force like the High Line, but it is incredibly pleasant on a sunny day, and draws lots of users. There is a restaurant, cafe and performance pavilion by Thomas Phifer, in what I’m coming to recognize as his light and white, Miesian style.
It’s very elegant and exquisitely detailed (with James Turrell-like knife-edges corners) providing that food-oriented catalyst for a park that William Whyte promoted.
As in many other places on this trip, I wish I’d had more time in Dallas. It was a good introduction to Texas – it knocked me out of my preconceptions, being so much better than I had expected. i could have tracked down the sprawling nightmare of the exurbs, but I could have found similar bad parts in any other major city in the country. To paraphrase Tolstoy, all sprawl is alike, each good city is good in its own way.