Cutting-edge architecture in Dallas

This is an interesting excerpt from Financial Times online, an architecture critic looks at Dealey Plaza and what it conveys – dark days indeed. A photographer caught a contrasting alignment of architecture, displayed at the Hotel Lawrence where we meet annually,  of the John Neely Bryan Cabin, the Gothic gargoyled roof of the Dallas Courts Building (now Old Red Visitors Center) and the space needle that looks over Dealey Plaza. But until we address the frozen and unresolved past in Dallas it will never reach the future  – John Judge

Cutting-edge architecture in Dallas
By Edwin Heathcote
Financial Times, FT.com
Published: April 9 2010 23:52

The heart of Dallas is demarcated by a pair of small structures, a few footsteps apart. Both are empty, both are symbolic rather than functional. The first is a tiny log cabin, a simulacrum of the dwelling of John Neely Bryan, the city’s founder. The second is a cube defined by a curtain of concrete containing not much more than fresh air. This is the memorial to the city’s most notorious moment, the assassination of JFK, designed by Philip Johnson, a friend of the Kennedy family. Both monuments celebrate a kind of existential emptiness, one the memory of a place set up in the middle of nowhere, desolate, harsh, featureless. The other, a silent cenotaph commemorating a moment of national despair and crisis.

The two boxy monuments themselves sit in a strange, bleak kind of centre. In fact, it’s no kind of centre at all. The road swerves away towards the railroad tracks and the nearly silent Union Station, a once grand building celebrating the city as a national transit centre but that now lacks even a ticket office. A small park punctuated with funereal art-deco structures segues into a grassy knoll. It’s all vaguely familiar, a view of the city as film set, the metaphorical camera set six floors up an anonymous brick book depository, the timer stuck on November 22 1963. Back in the other direction is the anonymous skyline of blank skyscrapers that signals the business district…

The kind of solid urban fabric swept away to make too much space for the City Hall can still be seen in what is known as the West End Historic District. Here, mountainous iron-framed structures rise from the oddly deserted streets. Some of the structures are wonderful: the hulking proto-twin-towers of the 1922 Magnolia Building, the chunky civic heft of the very first Neiman Marcus store (1914), the soaring verticality of the 1931 Tower Petroleum Building and the delicately decorated grid of the 1910 building now inhabited by El Centro College. But the one building from the old days the city is known for is the one it’s known for for all the wrong reasons. The Texas School Book Depository Building of 1901 is a generic brick cliff of a warehouse, a bit Roman, a bit Chicago. Its ground floor is now inhabited by a JFK bookshop and on the sixth floor by an assassination museum. Dark, sober and compelling, the museum has a good crack at outlining a dark day for the city, and the infinite tentacles of conspiracy theory that grew in its wake. The zenith, though, the window from which Lee Harvey Oswald shot (or not) the president, is frustratingly glazed off, rendered inaccessible. The stacks of replica boxes are there, the window is there, and you can peer out of its neighbours, but the reliquary of the city’s view surely should be accessible.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic

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