While in Dallas last week, I took a few minutes to walk from my office to the new Arts District where there are buildings by five Pritzker-Prize-winning architects within sight of each other—Nasher Sculpture Center by Renzo Piano, Meyerson Symphony Center by I.M. Pei, Norman Foster’s Winspear Opera House, Wyly Theater by Rem Koolhaas and, nearby, Thom Mayne’s Museum of Nature and Science. All of these buildings are monuments of late 20th century/early 21st century architecture.
Collectively, these buildings make a terrible urban environment. What should be a thriving, enlivening experience is, in fact, really dull. Have the star architects of our era forgotten how to make a city?
Put one egocentric jewel in a city, and maybe it’s OK. Put a bunch together, and you’ve got a no-man’s land. The self-absorbed, “look at me” quality in some of these jewels denies them a role in creating a larger city fabric. The internally focused nature of others leads them to turn blank, deadening walls to the surrounding streets and public spaces.
This is not what the civic leaders who led the creation of this district imagined. They struggled to get their architects to work together and make a meaningful collective environment. In its absence, the operators of the district have taken guerilla action. They have encouraged food trucks to move in and “occupy” Monument Valley. Trucks have clustered on the corner of a vacant lot, and they’ve put out cheap, spray-painted picnic tables. And, do you know what? People are coming out of the downtown office buildings at lunch and are creating a little community. What a contrast—big dour architectural monuments versus rich, lively urban life! Some of the food trucks have moved under the canopy of the Winspear Opera House and have begun to humanize its vast, daunting scale.
Dallas has made great leaps in regenerating its downtown and is currently building a new connector, the Klyde Warren Park, on top of the Woodall Rodgers Freeway as a way to knit downtown and uptown together. It is right next door to the arts district, and it will be interesting to see if this intervention by a landscape architect will be able to counteract the gulf that has been created by the architects of Monument Valley.
Is it a coincidence that when Pritzker-Prize-winning architects make buildings in a concentrated area, there is no life and no urban vitality? In defining good design to mean splashy visual objects, have we forgotten that great architecture is also about making potent cities and being a crucible for a rich and engaging life?
What do you think?
Although it may sound cliched, I live, eat and breathe architecture. I’m currently a principal in the architectural firm of PageSoutherlandPage and a professor, as well as the former dean, in the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. My teaching and my blog are aimed at educating people on the importance of great architecture in contemporary American culture.