Saturday, November 07, 2009

A Park, not a Neighborhood: the problems and possibilities of the Dallas Arts District

There has been an air of celebration among Dallas civic boosters, local media and even among many of its citizens these past few weeks. The opening of the $350 million AT&T performing arts center marks the culmination of an ambitious vision set forth by city leaders over 30 years ago in the establishment of the country's largest Arts District. Along a once vacant six-block stretch in downtown just north of the city's gleaming commercial skyscrapers, the Dallas Arts District features museums and performance halls designed by the world's most renowned architects, four of which are Pritzker laureates. The two newest additions to the district, the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre by Rem Koolhaas (and his ex-partner Joshua Prince Ramus) and the Bill and Margot Winspear Opera House by Foster and Partners, now join the two year old Booker T. Washington School of the Arts by Allied Works Architects, the six-year old Nasher Sculpture Center by Renzo Piano, the twenty-year old (and still sumptuous) Meyerson Symphony Center by I.M Pei, and finally the Dallas Museum of Art by Edward Larrabee Barnes that opened in 1984. Add to those a new SOM-designed city performance hall building under construction and recently unveiled design for the Perot Museum of Nature and Science (yes, that Perot) by Thom Mayne of Morphosis less than a quarter mile away and you have one of the most elite concentrations of contemporary architecture of any city in the U.S.

While impressive, the city's traditional tendency to enthusiastically embrace big-name architects in the realization of its monumental palaces of culture and business (Pei, SOM & Philip Johnson) reveals all the more what is still missing in downtown: day to day urban life. Lurking in all the media attention about the opening of the opera house and the theatre was the question, "will the completed Arts District finally bring life to downtown, by attracting people to live there and sustain viable neighborhoods?" Will it lead to the rebirth of downtown, a pedestrian oasis in a metroplex built on wide spaces and lots of driving?

To any casual observer on the street on any, Dallas feels pretty dead. Other than the handful of office workers walking to their favorite eateries during their lunch break, the sidewalks are empty and many street level businesses close around three in the afternoon. So far the Arts District has fared no better, as few pedestrians can be found lingering outside the museums or performance hall for the reason that there is nowhere else worthwhile to go.

That being said, downtown Dallas in the past few years has become for more 'alive' than at any point since the businesses and people left for the suburbs after the second world war. There is a feeling among the city's champions that all the pieces are finally in place to spur a viable downtown neighborhood. Several older office towers have been successfully converted into apartments and condominiums, a grocery store and a large CVS drugstore have opened, restaurants and night clubs have opened in isolated spots, and a handful of Fortune 500 companies (AT&T, 7-Eleven, Comerica) have made downtown their new home. An urban dog-park is set to open next year, complete with an outdoor cafe for all the yuppie singles and couples to enjoy as the walk out from their lofts.

The thinking goes that now that the fine arts performances and museum exhibits are all concentrated in one area, people will want to live nearby to enjoy an endless stream of cultural events year-round. Restaurants will want to set themselves up to cater to the endless streams of opera, theatre and symphony goers. The 7-Eleven headquarters building that bookends the district is topped by several levels of condominiums featuring balconies and a rooftop pool that overlook into the performing arts buildings next door. A more affordable 5-storey apartment block is currently near completion as well. The performing arts high school may encourage some parents of students to live closer in. But will all these developments amount to much?

Answering this depends on how we understand how cities change and develop. It also forces us to define what makes a city district, and whether a certain balance is desirable. Personally, I'm quite sympathetic to the Jane Jacobs point of view, which focuses less on architectural form and spatial solutions to cities than on the location and synergies of a variety of uses and the observed behavior of people on the street. My views are further influenced by my own experience as a designer of retail projects, which requires an understanding of how different stores and public spaces reinforce each other and draw foot traffic. Dallas seems to have followed the car-based urban planning fads popular from the 50s to the 70s while belatedly embracing current trends espousing walkability, mass transit and dense mixed-use blocks. All have the flaw of being mostly aesthetic and idealized, in that the vision of what could be supersedes the reality of what is actually there as well how things actually work.

In the case of the Dallas Arts District, it suffers from the out-of-date planning concept of the precinct, in which a set of buildings with similar functions are grouped together and set apart from its surroundings. Government entities do this often, forming a kind of citadel where council chambers, the courts, and bureaucratic office buildings are all next to each other, which may be optimal in the functioning in the daily business of government, but offer a dull pedestrian experience. Lincoln Center in New York has been cited as a major influence in the planning of the Arts District, which has struggled throughout the decades in pulling in foot traffic from the surrounding blocks of Manhattan. The idea of an urban precinct goes back since the beginning of cities, such as the Acropolis in Athens. In most instances, there is a sacred role in these districts, and configuring arts palaces in a similar way lends an air sanctity and elitism in spite of the planners' desire to let the entire community take part. For as long as public ritual was important in the daily lives of city dwellers, these areas formed an indelible part of a city's memory. Kevin Lynch, one of the most influential writers on site design and urban geography, popularized the notion that citizens and visitors retain an image of the city that makes them intelligible and familiar. Lynch also chose the site for a new arts district at the request of Dallas city elders in 1978.

While the vision of such a district mesmerized city leaders and benefactors for the next few decades, the reality on the ground was a bit more sobering. Other than the occasional school field trip or matinee performance, the district was dead during the day, drowned in a sea of parking and marred by the ruins of an abandoned construction site for an unrealized mid-eighties high-rise. While the institutions that have made their home in district have endeared themselves to art lovers over time, the district itself has struggled to become a popular destination to most Dallasites. Evidence of this was apparent during the grand opening celebrations on October 18th, where over 40,000 people showed up to take part in the festivities and stand in line for guided tours of the new opera house and theatre. Too many of them were consulting their map hand-outs to figure out where the buildings were, even though all of them are very architecturally distinctive and all face one short downtown street (Flora). For so many thousands of of people who have live here not to be able to recognize their city 's shining cultural monuments is a tad embarrassing.

Despite this disturbing fact, the grand opening offered hints of promise. My impression of those who were not familiar with the district was that they still very much liked what they saw. The lines to see the buildings inside were very long and slow-moving. Cameras were out in full force, capturing views of the giant metal canopy extending beyond Foster's opera house, the shimmering red glass of the opera's auditorium's skin and the gleaming curtain of vertical aluminum tubes that cloak Koolhaas's theatre (Pei's Meyerson symphony hall next door still retains its majestic allure, but its smooth stone walls looked understated in comparison). Children (including mine) frolicked in the large 1/2" deep reflecting pond, with their parents looking on seated on landscaped benches and green lawns, all protected from the hot sun by the canopy hovering above. Although the completed landscape design was not as impressive as when it was first presented a year ago, it helped make the overall space feel much more inviting than all other designated public spaces in downtown.

But the real masterstroke in my view is Foster's canopy. Though I was initially underwhelmed by his scheme for the Winspear Opera House, in which it seemed like he was repeating himself from his other projects (Maison Caree in Nimes) but also looking sterile in massing and materials, standing underneath its canopy I finally got it. Foster seems to have understood something about large outdoor spaces in Texas that up to this point was never realized (probably for budgetary reasons) in our city: the critical need for shade. The canopy was mainly presented as a means of adequately shading the glass curtain wall wrapping the pre-function spaces around the red horseshoe-shaped auditorium. In contrast to the traditional opera house that veils the social spaces within from everyday pedestrians outside, the Winspear takes the veil away thus encouraging those outside to look in (similar in concept to his redesign of the Reichstag in Berlin). Beyond the question of whether it is good to democratize the traditional elite urban role of the opera house lies the more important point that the building reaches out to the public in grand fashion and alleviates to some degree the introverted and sometimes fortress-like character that defines much of the district's buildings. People are drawn to walk under the canopy, not only as a refuge from the sun, but as a comforting place in which to gather. This is further reinforced by the placement of a large grass-covered amphitheatre under the canopy's northern quadrant, which is set to open next spring when the outdoor concert season begins. On a larger urban scale, the canopy sort of functions like a park pavilion, located at the end of a green swath of landscaped blocks that forms that act as a transition between uptown and downtown. Currently this new park is a major 8-lane underpass, but construction is underway to build a suspended "deck park" over it.

And therein lies the best case scenario for the Dallas Arts District: as a kind of large central urban park. Dallas still does not have its own version of Central Park in New York, Grant Park in Chicago or even Herman Park in Houston. And while the Arts District will never offer traditional park amenities such as playgrounds and sports fields, its atmosphere is still quite park-like. Walking on the sidewalks of the district one senses a pleasant calm, the shade of low hanging branches of densely planted trees that separate the sidewalk from the cobblestone paved street, which itself seems as seems to be mostly barricaded from car traffic. The Nasher Sculpture Center is essentially a lush landscaped sculpture garden, screened from Flora Street by Renzo Piano's see-through covered pavilion. Flora Street's hardscaping gives way to copious planting beds and trees, and the plazas nestled in front and in between buildings have more of a relaxed social patio feel than urban squares criss-crossed by the hustle-and-bustle people on the go. I can envision a very green district punctuated by sculptural architecture pieces and pavilions, functioning as a buffer offering visual and sensual respite between the central business district to the South and uptown district to the North.

As for its potential as a 24-hour neighborhood, the chance was missed when the District's founders opted for precinct-like approach. Of all the lots remaining in the district only two have not been developed- one of which is slated to eventually become a 42-story tower full of high-priced condos, and the other whose value has been bid up to such a high level so as to preclude affordable housing or retail. All other blocks are now mostly single-use buildings, forcing any new housing to be built at the far edges. Restaurants, which thrive on foot traffic, are also tucked far enough away from the main draws of the district so as to make them a bit inconvenient for those wishing the dine-in and watch the latest play or opera without a car trip in between. The light-rail stop is about four long city blocks away, which bodes ill for the neighborhood aspirations of the Arts District if the majority of Dallasites cannot find their way through downtown streets to begin with. The Monday after the opening festivities, what were once outdoor spaces containing tens of thousands of people were back to their usual emptiness.

Despite concerted efforts to get people out of their cars, Dallasites are at heart car people. They will walk just a little bit here and there, but the roads are for the most part relatively fluid so as to make the alternative of walking everywhere and taking the bus or train less sensible. City life will emerge downtown, and has already begun in various pockets, but it has an extremely long way to go before it achieves the ideals of a fully pedestrian-oriented city like Boston or Manhattan. As those downtown areas slowly fill up, wouldn't it be nice establish a unique, world-class park featuring masterpieces in music, drama, art and architecture? Everything is already in place and it comes as a relatively small expense to the city (90% of the $350 million price tag for the Arts District's newest phase came from private donors). There are plenty of other places in the city that can foster naturally occuring neighborhoods, but there is only on place that can set the template for a one-of-a-kind art park.

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