The Well-Tempered Environment
Fort Worth Water Gardens, Philip Johnson John Burgee Architects (1974)
Returning from a trip to Venice, I was afraid to write anything because it all seemed to have been said (worshipfully). While on my trip to Dallas for the David Dillon Symposium, I was afraid to say anything becuase it all seemed to have been said before (critically). The heat, the roads, the glassy towers...
As I drove toward the lit-up skyline of Dallas on my first night, I was drawn in by the glitter, awe-struck by the full-building lava-lamp effect of the Omni Hotel. If they are ever going to revive the TV series, the Omni must needs be the symbol of the new. It manages to steal the thunder of the carefully collected jewels in the city's cultural crown, trumping architecture with lights in the same way the new Museum Tower burns brighter than its marketing inspiration, the Nasher Sculpture Center and adjoining Arts District. I was amused each time someone suggested installing a brise-soleil on the Museum Tower to reduce its glare. I didn't see a single building in Dallas with a sun breaker, just every possible mirror and tint applied to glittering glass.
Omni in purple.
But I did have all of those shocked-to-negative urbanist feelings, starting with my first afternoon in the Fort Worth Cultural District. There, Philip Johnson's Amon Carter Museum (1961), Louis Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum (1972) and Tadao Ando's Modern Art Museum (2004) sit side by side. The natural thing, it seemed to me, was to park in one museum parking lot and walk between them. A district suggested connections, urbanity, walkability. But this did not prove to be the case. The median of the boulevard linking the museum was planted with old trees, but neither the sidewalks nor the parking lots were shaded. The public spaces of the museums were either behind the building, in the case of the Modern's striking, for-looking-only pool, or empty, in the case of the Carter Museum's front lawn. The Kimbell's garden has been dug up to make way for Renzo Piano's largely underground addition, stranding that building temporarily between a pit and a vehicular drop-off. I scurried through the trees in front of the amazing Texas Deco Will Rogers Memorial Center, and took shelter in the Modern's Richard Serra, but everyone else was in their car, a/c blasting, driving from lot to lot.
After that introduction, I spent the rest of my time in North Texas looking for places that people could be outside. It seemed like that was a worthy problem for architects to solve, and I wanted to see how they had done it. Texas may have invented the air conditioned office tower (the 1928 Milam Building in San Antonio, cited by Reyner Banham in The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment) but that doesn't mean you have to stay indoors nine months a year. Does it?
The first place I was comfortable outside was the Fort Worth Water Gardens, also designed by Johnson (ht Mark Lamster for the suggestion). The gardens, built in 1974, are organized around three separate pools, plus a concrete "Mountain" and a grass ampitheater. At the center is an irregular, sun-blasted space originally meant as a town square. But without shade or water, it seemed like a perfect place for a shootout at high noon. The active pool is terrifying and exhilarating, its waterfalls obliterating sounds of traffic, its sloped sides forcing you to focus on your feet. At the bottom, you are enveloped in mist, and can see little else but sky. The concrete stepping stones form an irregular geometric shape, like Stonehenge for architects. It's one of the best recreations of the pleasure and terror of the natural world I've ever encountered. The quiet pool, in contrast, dims the sounds of downtown with a trickle, cooling the atmosphere by surrounding its sunken, shallow pond with walls coated in water. Old cypress trees line the edges, their lumpy roots pushing up on the concrete. I could have sat by the quiet water all day. It was just me and a few tourists, no lunching Fort Worth natives to be seen.
The quiet pool, seen through the trees. The wall at right is covered with a thin sheet of water.
All this clean, quiet, ostensibly public outdoor space does come ata price. My city skittishness made me nervous about rounding the blind corner into the ampitheater, or going alone down some of the gardens' narrow artificial canyons. I need not have been worried: the gardens are cleaned and policed by workers paid by a Fort Worth downtown group. I was safe, shaded and cooled, if not really in a space truly accessible to all. (The water gardens are also fairly recently refurbished. Peavey Plaza (1975) in Minneapolis, a landscape by M. Paul Friedberg of somewhat similar design, is currently under threat of demolition after long neglect.)
The aerated pool. It is supposed to look as if you could walk on water.
The second place I was comfortable outside was under the canopy of Foster + Partners' AT&T Performing Arts Center (2009) in Dallas, also part of the Arts District. I'm not sure what I think of the building itself. It is large and aggressively shapely, designed to stand up to the city's skyscraper scale. The crimson glass seems like a clever update on the velvet curtains of the opera houses of old, and luxury is a perpetual problem for modernists. But the shading lattice seems so high, and the landscaping so paltry. From the sidewalk the door reads as doll-size. It shouldn't feel like a building for pedestrians and yet, on the day I was there, it was, thanks to the intermediate architecture of a line of food trucks. The trucks lined the left edge of the lattice, enclosing a triangle under the shade of that high roof. Patio tables filled that space, and people (from who knows where) were eating outside, in the shade, at a most grandiose cafe. The trucks made it an destination (down the block, next to the parking lot by the Museum Tower, there was a sign saying the trucks had moved off the lot). They gave it some relateable windows. And they gave it an edge, so that people were blocked from both sun and wind. It seemed like a perfect illustration of William H. Whyte's triangulation. You can have people. You can have design. But it takes a third element to give them something in common.
Food trucks. Would Foster approve?
My final outdoor spot was the Nasher itself. It isn't public, but it seems like, for the price of admission, you could stay there all day, eating lunch at the tasty cafe and moving from quadrant to quadrant of the shady garden. The building, with its elaborate Renzo Piano sun-shading ceiling, is fine. But I just wanted to move through its beige halls to get to the green. It would be a shame if the fight between the tower and the sculpture grew ugly. Already the center's James Turrell skyspace has had to be closed, pending a move, as his work doesn't work if there's a condominium tower in the middle of the sky.
As I said at the symposium, what I was looking for in both Dallas and Fort Worth was connective tissue, the landscape architecture that ties buildings together into what I would call a district and makes a downtown into a place you want to stroll. In Texas, that's not possible without water and old trees (or their high-tech shading equivalents). It is a step in the right direction that Dallas's next big project is the Klyde Warren Park, built on a cap over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway, that backs up to the Nasher and the Dallas Museum of Art. Maybe soon you will be able to walk comfortably between the architectural delights, even on a 100 degree day.
Design Observer © 2006-2011 Observer Omnimedia LLC