Site, City and Place

The following article was previously published in the Summer/Fall issue of “Columns” which is the publication of the Dallas Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.  It is hereby reprinted in full for “RESET.”

After giving a lecture at the AIA conference in Miami, I wandered into a seminar on city planning by Goody Clancy of Boston. On the scree, a U.S. map dotted with digital pushpins indicated a number of noteworthy urban projects that were built in the last decade. The diagram blew me away. With far more than any other metropolitan area, Dallas/Fort (DFW) looked like the U.S. testing range for urbanity.

We don’t think of DFW as an urban laboratory, but based on the sheer number of projects that have unfolded in the last 15 years and an awakened cultural volition to provide alternatives to the sprawling metropolis, it’s fair and deserving to call DFW a test bed for urban exploration. The DFW pattern is typical and cracking the code for how to make it more humane and productive is an issue than has caught the eye of world leaders, global economists and Pritzker Prize-winning architects.

Epicenter of the Generic?

“Dallas is the epicenter of the generic,” noted Rem Koolhaas during his dedication lecture of the Wyly Theater.  Neither snub nor observation, the comment pointed to a broader view of architecture and the state of world cities that he has consistently advanced throughout his career. Take for example, his exposition in The Endless City, Volume One: “When confronted with the almost documentary evidence how the city is evolving before our very eyes, the most important thing architects can do is ‘write new urban theory.”  Although the phrase “write new urban theory,” seems like an anticlimax to a profound sentence, Koolhaas clarifies that the cities of the world have agglomerated into unprecedented forms, taking architecture into uncharted intellectual territory for which no new models exist for design and analysis and the historical models alone cannot reverse.

“We may be nostalgic for small-town America, but it’s metropolitan America that drives our economy and determines our national prosperity,” note Bruce Katz, founding director of the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institute. “I can guarantee you that he national leaders in China, Singapore and Germany understand their national future is completely dependent on the quality of their metropolitan areas and the economic success they produce. “

Koolhaas’ and Kat viewpoints are eye-opening. National economies have become simply networks of larger metropolitan economies and a nation’s future is now fundamentally dependent of the success and quality of its metropolitan centers.

However, most metropolitan centers have evolved into megapolitan forms for which there are no know urban models to understand or any economic models to predict how they will perform and produce. Instead of positioning the U.S. to compete on the global stage, the sprawling city spreads us out, slows us down and devours resources to operate. The pattern also generates considerable economic burdens.

Unwalkable cities contribute to a national obesity problem that amounts to a $168 billion cost on the national health care and insurance systems each year.  Obesity-related diabetes is even more — $178 billion. Asthma is on the rise adding another $12 billion. Americans are shrewd customers and costs like these don’t seem like our kind of bargain.

Everyone knows that sprawl isn’t the only cause of these issues. However, it’s fair to assume that the unwalkable city is making a considerable contribution. Architects, landscape architects, and planners are uniquely educated to understand the relationship between city form, building form and human potential. The opportunity is wide open for the architectural professions to advance constructive solutions that most national leadership groups, who are mostly comprised of lawyers and politicians, overlook because their particular skill set can’t see or understand city form as part of the cause.

“Unless we invest in our metropolitan areas to optimize their human and cultural productivity, the U.S. can’t compete globally at he scale we need to,” Katz concludes. Unfortunately, rearranging America’s vast metropolitan geographies isn’t going to be easy and it isn’t going to happen overnight.

Statistically speaking, it’s impossible to urbanize a metropolitan area like DFW. The human density of places like DFW, Atlanta, Phoenix, and Los Vegas is approximately one person per acre if you divide the total incorporated landscape (6.5 million acres) by the resident population (6 million). IF DFW would add population so that it would be equal to the quaint, town-like density of Boulder, Colorado, which is 6:1, all of Canada’s 33 million citizens would need to relocate to DFW to inhabit the construction.  By comparison, San Francisco is approximately 30 people per acre, Paris at 100 and New York City even higher with density numbers approaching 500 people per acre from the commuter surge.

If the Industrial Revolution was the earthquake that shook civilization from its town and village origins, the market-driven pattern of suburban proliferation is the tsunami that followed and has inundated vast urban geographies in America, Europe and Asia. As much as the historical models can help with localized areas of a metropolitan area, unfortunately, modern civilization crossed the point of no return long ago.

Architects, landscape architects and planners should be energized about the opportunity for invention and creativity. We have never before faced such a problem. How do we reverse-engineer such a colossal pattern into something that’s more productive, humane and walkable?

The World: A Continuous Landscape

With noted ecological urbanist Mohsen Mostafavi as the new dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) and landscape urbanist Charles Waldheim as the head of the Department of Landscape Architecture, the GSD is committed to the predicament.  In a December 2011 article for Landscape Architecture Magazine, critic Robert Campbell observes, “The whole world, built and unbuilt, is being thought of – for the first time in human history – as one continuous landscape, …It’s a profound way of reconceiving cities.”

Knowing when to stick to space- and place-making principles versus when to compliment or invent beyond them using other strategies requires keen judgment and a new kind of knowledge. Considering the number of pushpins in Goody Clancy’s map, DFW has case studies to offer.

There are new town centers like Southlake new neighborhood centers like West Village in Uptown or Addison Circle in north Dallas, new cultural enclaves like the AT&T Performing Arts Center, high-rise quarters like Victory and several new commercial centers like Legacy Town Center and Park Place by Good, Fulton and Farrell.

There’s revitalization.  The ad hoc “not-like-Dallas” urbanism of Oak Cliff’s Bishop Arts District and Davis Street have even caught the eye of The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle with articles about its urban life.   The Kessler Theater and the “pop-up” urban events of the Better Blocks Group, Sundance Square in downtown Fort Worth is a model other downtown envy and work hard to emulate.

Serious architecture is also tackling the problems.  Ron Wommack’s award-winning townhouses and his accomplishments in transforming garden apartments into urban architecture continue to inspire young designers and multi-family developers. Edward M. Baums’ ingenious Dallas housing proposal for individuals of modest means recently earned national attention, receiving a 2011 American Architecture Award, given by the Chicago Athenaeum.

Performance-Based Urbanism

There are also hybrids. Planned and designed by Kevin Sloan Studio, Vitruvian park in Addison, Texas is a new kind of performance-based urbanism that transforms the cultural appeal of landscape, nature and athletics into a high-density urban quarter. Typical urban projects build block-by-block from a master plan and the first phases struggle since the context ahs yet to form. By making performance (activity, density and leasing) the objective, the first two blocks of the 112-acre mixed-use plan transferred square footage from each apartment into a commodious array of amenity spaces that makes the two buildings perform more like resort hotels than multi-family dwellings.

Built simultaneously with the first phase, a 17-acre public park also designed by Kevin Sloan Studio, heightens the performance and resort-like presentation. Where the canonical planning models might suggest building parallel to the park, a repeating set of apartment wings turn perpendicular to form three distinct courtyards that open to the park and to the views of a landmark bridge that’s painted LeCorbusier red.

Carefully configured by WDG Architects, nearly every apartment that’s not on the opposing streetwall edge of the building has a scenic view into the activity of its own private courtyard and to the public nature of park beyond. The desire for a view need not be discarded in the interest of urban architecture.

Vitruvian Park also leveraged a site discovery. DFW is traversed by a vast network of springs that are frequently misidentified as ditches, creeks or drainage problems. One fork of the network that crossed the site was opened by excavation, producing a drought-proof public space. Velocity dissipaters required by FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are shaped into cypress-planted islands for use and for natural habitat.

Taken together, the park reads like a “public fairway,” that’s wrapped by a scenic, resort-like urbanism, offered at market rental rates. Eventually, 16,0000 will live on the development’s half square mile plan.

Landscape as a Mending Fabric

Landscape informs other DFW projects. Renowned for the NYC 9/11 Memorial, Peter Walker’s recent transformation of the UT-Dallas campus demonstrates another use for landscape as a mending fabric. New building at UTD by Larry Speck, Perkins+Will and Studios Architecture from San Francisco spatially reinforces Walker’s provocative and majestic landscape.

If “architecture is about remapping the familiar,” as Aaron Betsky offered in his 2005 Dallas Architecture Forum lecture, UT-Dallas and Vitruvian Park are case studies for how designers can re-map planning models and merge them with landscape and the broader interests and needs of popular culture.

Regional agencies are working on solutions. Don Gatzke, member of Vision North Texas (VNT) and dean of the School of Architecture at UT-Arlington, notes: “What we’ve learned form the VNT efforts is that most of us would like to walk out our back door into the woods and out our front into the city. We want to live on that line that straddles green from the gray, frontier from civilization and solitude from community, but with the handy choice of either.”

In spite of the viewpoint that the American metropolitan area is more like a landscape, making public space with public buildings remains a central interest of design director Ron Stelmarski of Perkins+Will. A recent Dallas transfer from Perkins+Will Chicago, Stelmarski observes that public architecture is, “No longer striving towards symols of authority. Instead, the identity of the public building is shifting towards new qualitative directions that include enhanced outdoor space, carbon-neutral design tactics and thrift: the need to do more with less.”

Sometimes the telescopic viewpoint of a non-Texan shines a light on what is difficult for more familiar eyes to see. A recent transfer from Venice, Italy, to Southern Methodist University, Professor Elisabetta Lazzaro observes, “Because Venice IS public space, everybody runs into everybody else so the city builds friendships.  Instead of wasting time at the artificial gym, one should first use their natural physicality to walk and stay out, go out and meet your neighbors.”

Architecture in service to those wise words might make places possible.


Kevin Sloan, ASLA, is a principal at Kevin Sloan Studio in Dallas and teaches architecture at the School of Architecture at UT-Arlington.






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