Buildings by REX/OMA. Renzo Piano. Norman Foster. I. M. Pei. Morphosis. Allied Works. All in one district; literally next door to each other and across the street from one another. Four Pritzker Prize winners’ buildings elbow to elbow. Should be great, no?
The recent opening of REX/OMA’s Wyly Theatre (above) has brought a new spate of attention to this district within Dallas. David Dillon of the Dallas Morning News addressed this topic lightly in his article for Architectural Record, subtitled, “Does an impressive collection of buildings add up to a truly urban neighborhood for the arts?” The goal for the district, as stated in the original Carr Lynch report which spurred the civic project, was to “not to create memorable buildings or support real estate development, but to bring the arts into the lives of the people of Dallas, in an immediate and personal way, in the course of everyday life.”
But I believe David Dillon was much to deferential in his final judgment, in which he stated that: “Architecture can do only so much. Without sensitively designed streets, plazas, and landscapes — a so-called “public realm” — even great buildings end up as solitary objects, wonderful to look at but lifeless and forbidding. . . Street life remains a fantasy, with no shops and cafés, only a handful of restaurants, and few public events outside the walls of the cultural institutions. Most nights and weekends, the ‘urban neighborhood’ is dead.”
Lifeless and forbidding is probably the best thing I believe you can say about any of these buildings. Though some deserve it more than others, without a doubt. I bristle at Dillon’s statement that “Architecture can only do so much.” It only feels that way because of the limited scope of consciousness displayed by buildings such as the Wyly Theatre, which seems to have no regard for anything outside of the tight shirts of its designers. Architecture can do so much more–it just isn’t on display here.
So I’m going to go out and say what Dillon is merely insinuating, which is that this Dallas Arts District is one of the most disturbing, anti-architectural, and plain wrong-headed urban developments currently going on in America (there is too much bad urbanism in other parts of the world to warrant competition with the world). It does the architectural profession, the city, and humanity in general no greater disservice than to see a bunch of cocksure blowhard “designers” strut around stages arguing for their technical monstrosities in this district while their buildings are completely bereft of any urban or humanistic (to say nothing of “architectural”) sensitivity. This is both the culmination of the planning of this district, a type which I thought we had learned was anti-urban half a century ago, but also because of the sad nature of the buildings within them, which do nothing to address this. At the very least, this district, and each of the buildings within them, fail at the stated goal, which is “to bring the arts into the lives of the people of Dallas, in an immediate and personal way, in the course of everyday life.”
From the New Yorker: “the National Endowment for the Arts’ Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, which indicates that the number of people who venture out to classical music performances in a given year has been declining for almost three decades. Further, each new generation participates less than the one that came before it. Generation X, which is now entering middle age, shows no sign of chucking its Pixies records in favor of Prokofiev.” Sadly, Architecture isn’t going to change that–certainly not in Dallas. Not because it can’t, but because it isn’t even thinking about it.