Discovering a Secret Wonderland of Architecture in Dallas

Growing up in Dallas, I saw the city as an architectural wasteland. It had some beautiful art museums, sure, and a gleaming forest of downtown skyscrapers, but its fundamental identity seemed to be suburban sprawl, McMansions and strip malls. The idea of public space felt foreign, something I could access only through movies where people loafed around Central Park and sipped espressos in packed Italian piazzas. My experience of public life was weekend soccer games and deserted granite plazas glimpsed from the back seat of my parents’ car. Sometimes I’d take school field trips downtown, and the bus driver would make a pit stop at Pioneer Plaza, one of the city’s biggest parks, which contained 39 bronze cattle sculptures but not a single bench.

After college I moved to Berlin, which I came to understand as Dallas’s polar opposite. Here was a city boasting green space, public transit and pedestrian-jammed cobblestone streets. Its architectural history, too, was dense. An afternoon’s stroll could bring you from a quaint neighborhood of neoclassical apartments to an austere postwar housing complex; from the fascist megalomania of Tempelhof Airport to the monumental Soviet grandeur of Karl-Marx-Allee. I began roaming Berlin with a paperback architecture guide, trying to become the sort of urban connoisseur who could distinguish a late Peter Behrens project from an early Mies van der Rohe building. On annual trips home to Dallas, I’d pontificate to my family on the city’s lack of “spatial identity.”

I eventually landed a job at a fancy German architecture magazine. Only then did I discover a few of my colleagues — trained architects with tastes for the abstruse and avant-garde — had developed a campy yet genuine enthusiasm for an architectural style found in, of all places, Dallas.

Many of the city’s skyscrapers, I learned, were seen as contributions to the postmodern architecture movement. “PoMo,” in the shorthand favored in the architecture world, began to emerge in the 1960s as a reaction to the white-walled minimalism of modernist architecture, epitomized by Mies van der Rohe’s oft-quoted dictum “Less is more.” Early PoMo architects like Charles Moore and Robert Venturi rejected this formula — “Less is a bore,” Venturi famously quipped — and sought to inject color, iconography and kitschy nods to historical ornamentation into their designs. In the Southwest, this tendency bloomed in the 1980s during the savings-and-loan boom.

Unlike modernists, PoMo architects conceived their buildings as dynamic components of urban life, not as exalted geometric abstractions. They wanted to create theatrical set pieces that visitors could navigate experientially, almost like at an amusement park. Moore argued cheekily that the most authentic urban experience available in the American West, where so many cities emerged after the invention of the automobile, was Disneyland, whose eclectic historical references and architectural playfulness encouraged a participatory experience of public space. Were some of the resulting buildings provocative? Certainly. Gaudy? No doubt. When the real estate bubble burst at the end of the 1980s, PoMo buildings were roundly dismissed as tacky and targeted for demolition. Now a new generation of architects is arguing that PoMo spaces are architectural landmarks that deserve re-evaluation.

On my first trip home after joining the magazine, I decided to explore some PoMo sites for myself. I discovered a trove of delightfully eccentric urban environments I had never encountered growing up, a secret map of magnificent lobbies and semipublic piazzas hidden behind the city’s corporate facades. I was thrilled by the battlement-shaped Cityplace Tower that looms beside Central Expressway like a colossal sentinel, its grounds containing a Grecian amphitheater and the city’s only underground subway station. My favorite find was the Plaza of the Americas, a complex known for its 13-story indoor atrium, which was immortalized in the 1987 film “RoboCop.” With capsule elevators zooming up and down, inward-facing concrete balconies from the adjoining hotel, gargantuan glass skylights and access to the “Dallas Pedestrian Network” — a warren of tunnels and sky bridges connecting many of downtown Dallas’s buildings — it makes for a grandiose and strange urban experience, part Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, part abandoned shopping mall.

It was during a recent canal-side stroll in Las Colinas, an extravagant experiment to create an “alternative downtown” on Dallas’s outskirts, that I realized I had come to see my hometown in a new light. Walking beside a defunct monorail from the 1980s, while a collection of skyscrapers towered overhead and a stripes-clad gondolier punted by, I found a spatial identity as evocative of its era as anything from the Art Deco or neoclassical days. I’d developed a rueful affection for PoMo’s theatrical vision of urban life, scattered in far-flung semipublic environments or among glass corporate facades — a vision I hadn’t experienced as a child. Dallas’s postmodern cityscapes offer a conception — though largely unrealized — of how car-centric cities can carve out communal urban spaces tailored to their logic.

When I moved to Berlin, I fell for the drama of its rich architectural past, the feeling that the closer you inspected, the more there was to discover. I had thought this was an experience unavailable to a city like Dallas, but it turned out I just hadn’t known where to look.

Rob Madole is a writer in Berlin and a former editor of ARCH+.

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