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Contributed by:
Lance Josal
Contributed by:
Thom McKay

Architectural Fuel: The Boom, Bust, and Beyond of Dallas in the '80s

By Lance K. Josal, FAIA & Thom McKay
The 1980s were a heady time for Texas architects. The great titans of the industry — firms like HKS, CRS, and 3DI — were bustling at a pace not seen since the 1950s, thanks to a post-Vietnam economy fueled mostly by, well, the fuel industry. Dallas boomed and set the stage for the largest expansion, and international diaspora, of architecture practices the country had ever seen

We had the great fortune to be among the many that surfed the crest of the wave, and it’s easy to draw parallels with what the industry faces in our peri-pandemic COVID-19 world.

First, a bit of background.

Throughout the 1970s, turmoil in the Middle East caused oil-dependent nations like the United States no small measure of political and economic discomfort. In 1979, OPEC reduced the flow of oil into North America, and suddenly the evening news was filled with images of Chevy Caprice station wagons lined up bumper to bumper at gas stations. Inflation and sky-rocketing energy costs sent the country, especially the Northeast and more industrial Upper Midwest, into malaise.

By the time of the coin flip of Super Bowl XIV in January 1980, the country was in a rough place. In Iran, a major oil producing nation, 52 American diplomats and citizens were being held hostage. Amid economic uncertainty, unemployment had begun creeping toward double digits. (It reached 10.8% in December 1982.) People found themselves out of work, including President Jimmy Carter.

But things were different in Texas. The price of crude went from $3.39 per barrel in 1970 to $37.42 in 1980, more than quintupling the bank account of anyone even remotely related to the oil industry. While the Sun Belt saw unprecedented growth, Texas was by far the greatest beneficiary. Houston nearly doubled in size between 1970 and 1980. Early in the decade, Dallas added residents at a staggering clip of as many as 1,000 per month. Most of them were young, upwardly mobile, educated professionals — tagged yuppies — seeking affordable housing and the adrenaline rush of opportunity. They found it in Big D.

As the decade churned forward, Dallas rose from its stepchild position as “regional center” to seventh in the nation in corporate headquarters, fifth in total assets in commercial banks, fourth in airline passengers, and, by the end of the decade, the undisputed leader in commercial construction. Cranes filled the skyline, and it was hard to drive more than two blocks without encountering a construction barricade.

While all the construction noise was certainly music to the ears of every architect, developer, and contractor, it was the cultural and demographic shift that made the lasting impact on our industry. Dallas had lacked the sophistication of New York and Los Angeles, not to mention the architectural heritage of San Francisco or Chicago. But this influx of human capital and creative currency brought a welcomed swagger to the architectural community. And boy, did it need it.

Snapshots from RTKL’s global practice in the `80s, `90s, and 2000’s  / Photos: Lance Josal, FAIA & Thom McKay

Back then, the city had no architectural identity. Sure, Reunion Tower and Thanks-Giving Square had made an impact, but the skyline was empty and the drawing board felt barren. In the cover story of the May 1980 issue of D Magazine, David Dillon, then one of the few full-time architecture critics in the country, wondered, “Why is Dallas architecture so bad? 

...When Dallasites talked about their sublime skyline, it was more from wishful thinking than direct observation. Reunion and the Hyatt changed all that by giving the city a genuine landmark building, a civic symbol that expresses visually many of the things Dallasites like to think are true of the city as a whole.”

The influx of talent was the needed spark. Oil money fueled a pro-growth municipal mindset, and there was a great airport, plenty of land, bullish developers, and that young, burgeoning population moving toward the ambient heat of “what is bad for the rest of the nation turns out to be good for Texas.” Dallas boomed. And architects rejoiced.

RTKL opened a Dallas studio in 1979, and Lance Josal was the office’s first hire who did not relocate from the headquarters. The firm’s strategy was to target local commercial developers, who seemed in abundant supply, as well as health care institutions (ditto) and a growing roster of corporations fleeing the far more expensive, tax-intensive Northeast and West for a business-friendly climate. The strategy was iron-clad and foolproof as long as the local economy kept up its robust growth.

It didn’t.

By the mid-1980s, oil prices started a downward slide and Dallas was so overbuilt that entire towers sat unleased, becoming unlit behemoths looming in the dark Dallas nights. From 1983 to 1984, when the economic fuel gauge slipped toward empty, the city added a mind-boggling 30 million square feet of office space — this, to an already bloated inventory of unleased space that stretched from downtown through Oak Lawn to LBJ Freeway and Preston Road over to Las Colinas. Suffice to say, there was a lot of frayed nerves.

Gradually pour into this beaker of nitro the glycerin of the savings and loan crisis, and, by 1986, the region’s architecture firms came to essentially a dead stop. Many of us were used to the whiplash peaks and troughs in the market, but this was terrifying. Layoffs came as every firm in town competed for the smallest crumb of opportunity.

About this time, a fax machine in RTKL’s Baltimore headquarters whirred awake in the wee hours.

To say that international projects were not on our radar would be misleading and unfair. A number of U.S. practices spent the 1970s working in the Middle East, and there was no shortage of opportunities for those willing to make the effort. At RTKL, we had a small taste of it, including embassy work and other federal commissions. Securing the work was difficult; doing the work was even more difficult; and getting paid for the work was the most difficult. (We learned quickly that getting sued was a low-risk threat and that getting paid was where the real exposure lay.]

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The fax that arrived requested our credentials in large-scale commercial development — mixed-use developments that felt more like city-building than architecture. We assembled a portfolio and sent it via courier — PDFs and email didn’t exist. The request came from a large Japanese conglomerate, the owner of over 30 sites in Japan. The construction industry there was going through a similar boom to the one Dallas had, but with more staying power and government backing. And the numbers were larger — much larger.

In the early 1980s, under Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, Japan had begun to formulate a master reconstruction plan. Its purpose was to frame a comprehensive vision and a set of goals for national development to boost domestic demand. It worked. Land prices shot up, and suddenly what seemed like the entire country was under renovation. Architects, especially those experienced in large-scale development and urban regeneration, were in high demand.

Only later did we discover that the fax we’d received in Baltimore was sent to a number of practices — in fact, many of our competitors. But we were told that we were the only firm that responded.

The timing could not have been better. The Dallas market and virtually the entire U.S. economy had come to a standstill, and our teams needed work. We had scooped up some of the best talent in the profession, recruiting from the best schools in the country, and we worked with some of the best clients in the region, but the work simply was not there.

And so we hopped on planes. As did, eventually, every one of our competitors because that’s what you do when you have an office of over 100 professionals without work. It was not a grand strategic vision that led us to going global — it was survival.

Snapshots from RTKL’s global practice in the `80s, `90s, and 2000’s  / Photos: Lance Josal, FAIA & Thom McKay

Those early years were challenging, largely because we were unfamiliar with conducting business internationally. We learned quickly that we needed training, so we hired consultants to advise us on basic practices, everything from the exchange of business cards to the appropriate seating arrangements in meetings. While it seems silly now, especially in the pandemic, work-from-anywhere mode, the fact we made the effort impressed our clients.

But we also discovered we had to adopt an entirely different mindset within the organization, one that is not too dissimilar to what seems needed today. Back then we called it entrepreneurialism, but these days we call it agility — the ability to spot an opportunity and act quickly. Or to see that something isn’t working and pivot to something else that is.

It took quite a bit of time to settle on an operational model that worked for us and our clients. The initial approach was to go into the verdant regions of the world (Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe — China would come later) to harvest the work and then bring that bounty home to be distributed. But our teams spent most of their waking hours on airplanes and in hotels, not a sustainable solution. We burned out staff quickly, often took our best people out of the game for weeks and months, and wrestled with the frustrations and delays of time zone differences, translations, and mysterious cultures.

We also realized that we needed an entirely different administrative infrastructure. From legal and finance, HR to marketing, we needed the right professionals and protocols to play on a global chess board. But our biggest eye-opener was technology. We were smart enough at the time to understand the value of hardware — those giant Intergraph 2700 workstations still haunt our dreams — but we could not have imagined the implications of working and communicating seamlessly across international boundaries. The lessons learned in those early years still apply today.

The decision to go global was the right one at the time, and many firms of our size did the same thing. The experience drove home the importance of diversity not just in markets and project types but also in geographies. There were times when our non-U.S. revenue outpaced our domestic income, and vice versa, but having a broad, diverse base was the correct strategy. We also discovered, perhaps later than we had hoped, that it was easy to become too reliant on the international gravy train. The projects were meaty. The fees were big. But it is essential for any firm to maintain a presence in its local community and nurture relationships with the clients down the street.

The world opened up to us in the 1980s largely because we had the right people in the right places in the right times, and Dallas happened to be one of those places. We pursued the work aggressively because we had to — not because that’s where the money was, but because it provided expanded opportunities for our people and our company. It made us better professionals and better architects. It challenged us on multiple levels. And when you’re an architect in Texas, it’s hard to walk away from a challenge like that.

Lance K. Josal FAIA is CEO emeritus of CallisonRTKL and founder of 11AD. He has lived in Dallas since 1979 and has worked throughout the world. Thom McKay is a marketing and communications strategist who opened RTKL’s first international office in 1990 in London.