Profile: Gary Cunningham, FAIA

Profile: Gary Cunningham, FAIA

Contributed by:
Nate Eudaly
Hon. AIA Dallas

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Profile: Gary Cunningham, FAIA

Born and raised in Dallas, Gary Cunningham is a highly respected native son. Founder and principal of Cunningham Architects, Gary has steered his firm to win more than 50 design awards. Among them are honors from AIA Dallas, the Texas Society of Architects, the University of Texas at Arlington, the University of Texas at Austin, and the Architectural League of New York. Nate Eudaly, Hon. AIA Dallas recently visited with him for this profile.

How and when did you become involved in architecture?  

I attended Cistercian Preparatory School in Irving, from the elementary grades through high school, and then went to college at UT-Austin. In high school, I liked art. My dad encouraged me to study architecture. My dad was a manufacturer’s representative for plumbing products who called on architects and engineers. At UT-Austin, the set-up was pretty primitive. We had big folding tables, and not much else. Dan Shipley and I hung out a lot with the visiting critics. Some of them were Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, and O’Neil Ford. We had to learn how to think fast, but it was a great environment. Chuck Burnett from Philadelphia (Lou Kahn contingent) was the dean when I was there; he was followed by Hal Box.

What are some of the more interesting projects you have done?

I’ve been fortunate to get to work on a lot of great projects. One was the Cistercian Chapel. Since I had attended Cistercian, I had already been greatly influenced by the monks, who were very important in the school set-up. I had the same headmaster from fourth grade through my high school graduation. The chapel was completed in 1991 and the 900th anniversary of the founding of the Cistercian Order was celebrated in 1997. The building design is Romanesque, as a historical context to the founding of the order. The Andres family, who had also attended Cistercian, were the contractors on the job.

Addison Conference and Theatre Centre was also a great project with strong community support. City Manager Ron Whitehead and Jim Duffey from the city council had a great vision for what the theatre should be. They were supportive throughout the design process.

The Temple Emanu-El project is obviously an important project because of Howard Meyer’s iconic design and the central place it holds in the lives of so many Dallas families. It has been an extensive process, working with a very involved building committee over the last eight years, but I’m excited about the results. The project is challenging and the client demanding and smart—ingredients that make for a great project.

You are completing 40 years in practice. What are your goals for the next 40?

My goal continues to be to understand and care for the culture of the client. Every community and every family has its own culture. It is imperative that my team and I learn what that culture is and develop a design that complements and enhances the vision of that culture.

I value clients that push us, but who are fair and open-minded. Frank Aldridge, who was one of my first clients, certainly epitomizes this. Another of my more interesting clients was the Southern Ute Indian tribe. It was very important that I understood their cultural heritage so that our design would be appropriate for them.

I approach my projects with no pre-determined outcomes. After 40 years as an architect and 35 with my own firm, I have the following goals:

  • Stay in business
  • Put business ethics before profits
  • Mentor and work with young people
  • Collaborate
  • Engage clients who have a passion for life
  • Be philanthropic
  • Keep going until I die

What are some of the most challenging work situations you have encountered and how did you resolve them?

Occasionally I haven’t been the right fit for a client and their project. I’ve learned to step off the project when needed. My team, especially Tom Dohearty, provides good judgment about the projects we take. At times in the economic cycle a big challenge has been making payroll and balancing the books. I’ve learned it’s important to address problems early on before they become too large to handle.

What does your typical day look like?

Most days are unique, but I would categorize them into two main buckets: client interaction and everything else. I still draw by hand, which furthers my creativity, but I also spend big chunks of the day planning logistics and driving to job sites.

What sparks your creativity?

Seeing new things, interacting with people, and exploring the unknown. There can’t be too many cooks in the kitchen. I want to be in there cooking with all of them.

What advice would you give a young person considering a career in architecture? 

Simplify! Learn about everything you can. Be a generalist and be smart enough to engage with your client.

Who are/were your mentors?

Early in my career, it was the guys at HOK, people like Charles McCameron. My current mentors are the members of my studio team.

How would you define your architectural style?

My design is focused on the “purpose” of the project more than on the aesthetics. I strive to understand my client’s vision and then create a design that extends that vision.

With which five architects or artists (living or deceased) would you want to share a good bottle of wine?

Michelangelo, Andy Warhol, Eliel and Eero Saarinen, and Frederick Olmsted.

What do you consider the most interesting developments in Dallas since you started practicing?

I started with HOK in 1976 and formed my own practice in 1981. Over this time period I’ve seen Dallas support more contemporary design. Patrons such as Deedie Rose and Frank Aldridge have led this charge. There has been a rise in the creative class and a greater usage of landscape architects.

What are the best things Dallas has going for it?

North Texas has a vital arts scene. It has well-respected museums. I’ve been fortunate to mentor some incredibly talented architects including Russell Buchanan, Sharon Odum, Paul Field, Braxton Werner, Bang Dang, and Rizi Faruqui. All of them were with my studio and now have their own successful practices here in Dallas. They are representative of some of the talented designers we have here in the city.

What do you see as the biggest challenges Dallas faces?

Like most major urban areas, Dallas has quite a few. Some of them are climate change, air pollution, and water conservation. We also have infrastructure challenges—too many highways. We need to develop a 21st century mindset that includes new ways of looking at transportation, including driverless cars and more mass transit.

How can the greater Dallas area create a more livable urban environment?

We should nurture more programs like Better Block and support initiatives that foster these types of concepts. We need a lot of little projects instead of focusing so much on big projects. We should eliminate wholesale demolition and repurpose buildings such as I’ve been fortunate to do with The Pump House and The Power Station.

This issue of Columns focuses on the theme of “Paradox.” What do you think are some of the major paradoxes we encounter in Dallas?

One of the most glaring paradoxes I see about our city is our obsession with the car and its choking impact on culture. The culmination of this is our obsession with placing a highway between the levees on the Trinity River. That’s a move that would trash the one chance we have of making an important place of recreation and nature for our city.

Gary’s Favorites

Books: Humor by the likes of Kurt Vonnegut. I also enjoy reading about the historical Jesus and do my share of skimming controversial science-related books like Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life by Edward Wilson.

Movies: Humor like Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou by Wes Anderson, Stanley Kubrick movies, bad sci-fi and horror, and of course movies that I can watch with my 11-year-old daughter.

Music: I have a large vinyl record collection and enjoy listening to rock, jazz, and folk artists with recordings from the 1950s on.

TV shows: I try to not watch the news.

Spare time entertainment: I like to travel and hang out with my kids. I go to a variety of places, from Austin and San Antonio to the Yucatan Peninsula and the Galápagos Islands.

Ideal vacation: A National Geographic trip, anywhere they go.

Ways to recharge: Play music, ride my bike.


Nate Eudaly, Hon. AIA Dallas is the executive director of the Dallas Architecture Forum.