Actually, Mark Lamster’s Takedown of the Proposed Hall Development Is Pretty Dead On

An artist's rendering of the KPMG Plaza at night.
An artist’s rendering of the KPMG Plaza at night.

Earlier, Glenn took a shot at DMN’s newly minted architecture critic Mark Lamster for his review of the Hall Arts development. I get where Glenn is coming from. The Hall project is a long time coming. It has taken a lot of political and economic will to bring it to be, and now that it’s going to happen, some East Coaster goes and kicks it in the shins. That’s not how we do things in Dallas. We’re grateful for development, for rich guys who step up to the plate and contribute. That’s the civic good: investment. What it looks like, and how it functions? Meh.

And that’s the problem with Glenn’s reactionary, mediocrity-defending push back to Lamster’s criticism: the critic’s thoughts are not only warranted, they’re largely on point.

First off, Lamster’s dissent is precisely why it’s not always a terrible idea to airlift a critic from another city and drop him into Dallas. It’s about fresh eyes and being able to question the things those of us who have lived here for a while are so used to that we hardly notice. Another dull glass building going up downtown to the sound of clinking wine glasses and keys jingling in the valet stand? Yawn. But Lamster rightly did a double take.

Go read Glenn’s piece, and then we’ll go to the specific points:

“The Jury Is Still Out:” This is anything but a “duh” point. First, some context: the Hall development may be the most important in the Arts District. Yes, it’s not a theater or a music hall. But if we are to believe that the original vision for the Arts District-as-neighborhood is still the goal for the area – and that it’s not just a corporate park for arts organizations — then the Hall development represents one of the last few new additions that can directly affect what the neighborhood needs: street-level coherency, retail and services, pedestrian cohesion.

The Hall development has been pitched as a multiple-phase project, with various elements that may contribute to street vibrancy, service retail, etc. But there has been a history in the Arts District of plans for phases getting hacked (One Arts, City Performance Hall), thus curtailing the promise of the developments’ intended impact on the area. Looking at the total plan for the development, sure, the Hall project could contribute. But will we ever see the total development, and does the design really provide all the needed functionality? These are valid open-ended questions to raise in the context of the piece.

The buildings are boxes. Architecture is a funny art form. It is an aesthetic practice thrust upon the public, as opposed to being locked up in a museum or reserved for a concert hall. You — everyone — experiences it, even if just passively, by simply moving in and around the city. Buildings serve practical functions, but they also help constitute the aesthetic experience of the everyday.

Consider the Hall project’s location. Across the street is one of the most beautiful buildings in Dallas, the Meyerson. To its east, the Koolhaas(-ish)-designed Wyly. Catty-corner, a Norman Foster. On the western edge, a representative piece of 19th century Texan religious architecture. The Arts District is branded as a location that is designed around great architecture (or good-ish, I would argue, but whatever). You could say that investment in design is a status or vanity thing. Some of it is. But it is also rooted in the belief that there is a personal and civic value to buildings that do more than merely mundanely serve their function. Buildings can function as art does: they can elevate and deepen your awareness and experience of life. So why is it odd to wonder why it is entirely inappropriate to just drop in a generic, “anodyne,” cookie-cutter structure, instead of something that might push our expectations? From the public’s perspective, the proposed buildings are lazily considered — or, perhaps, offensively unconsidered. From the city’s perspective it is a threat to the investment in quality already made in the Arts District.

“KPMG Plaza” Snooze indeed. Have you ever been to KPMG Trafalgar Square in London? What about the Piazza AT&T Venezia? Or ever taken a stroll down the Champe-El-Alcatel-Lucent in Paris? You don’t build a city’s identity and sense of place by branding public spaces with corporate sponsorship. It is a dull, un-evocative name that is attached to what looks like it will be, unfortunately, a dull, un-evocative public space. Better suggestions? How about the name of any historical figure that has had an impact on this city. I think Vicki Meek may have a few suggestions.

Retail woes: Again, if you buy the idea that the Arts District is not just a corporate park, then the question of retail and streetscapes is vital. The Hall development has long been considered essential in generating street activity on Flora. Lamster’s comment isn’t about models; it’s about the way the designs those models represent don’t suggest the kind of street you would actually want to hang out on. That’s a big problem.

The tunnels suck. The tunnel system is a disaster from an urban design perspective (even they do cut down on sweat in August). In addition to traffic and parking policies, and a shift of the population to the north, Vincent Ponte’s tunnels employ an outmoded and misguided concept of segregating urban functions — street and vehicular traffic, retail and residential, and commercial uses — which has been a catalyst for disinvestment in urban cores throughout the United States. This is not snobbery; it’s pointing out where poor urban/architectural design can be a detriment to the attractiveness and vibrancy of a city, and thus bad for business. This is one thing criticism does: it remembers the mistakes we made in the past and brings them up so we don’t keep repeating the same mistakes. But I didn’t know we had tunnel people. That’s cool.

DART and Valets: If Lamster is really concerned about pedestrian connectivity between DART and the Arts District, I suggest he turn his attention to whatever Spire Reality might do with all their holdings. But the point here is a simple one: the Arts District needs more fluid access in and out of the area, and those access points need to be designed into plans for new developments. The valet stands, in this instance, underscore an irony and are symbolic of a general detachment between the people behind the funding and backing of big projects and how those projects actually function on the ground. When you parachute into locations via valet, you never confront the fact that the thing you built is an island and it has little connectivity to anything around it. It’s a problem that has hung over the entire history of the Arts District. The desire is for a vibrant neighborhood, a downtown catalyst, but it still struggles to transcend its borders.