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Richard Keating

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Tower Power: Creating the Dallas Skyline

Editor’s note: If you ask the generation of architects practicing in 1980s Dallas “What architect had the biggest impact on the Dallas skyline?” you would most likely get “Rick Keating” as your response. Richard Keating worked for SOM for 23 years, during which he practiced as the lead designer in the Houston office. It was from this office that he designed the Trammell Crow Tower, Chase Tower, and renovated the top of Renaissance Tower. From this powerful time in Dallas’ history of development, Keating shares his personal stories. He continues to practice architecture through his firm, Richard Keating Architecture of Los Angeles, and continues to work on projects that have a significant impact to the urban form.

A perspective on Dallas

My professional education, initiated at Berkeley, was that of an architectural historian. As my practice evolved into the designing of modern buildings rather than contemplating 5th-century B.C. Greek temples in Corinth, I have taken a longer-range view than I otherwise might.

Accordingly, it seems to me that the urban fabric is the ultimate reflection of our society and that the city skyline is unique as a symbol of a collective sense of place, serving as an identity for its occupants and a reference for others. It is also part of a continuum that evolves over years; each individual building becomes only an additive to that. Beyond that, each of our modern cities has evolved on the basis of a particular culture, which is interesting to try to understand when thinking about a building that will be a participant in the skyline for decades.

My involvement with Dallas began with a friendship with Harlan Crow in the mid-1980s. One day, we stood at the window of his conference room in Bryan Tower as he pointed out five parking lots, each bearing a number that he had painted on the pavement (1 through 5) and all of which where he planned to build. Although it may seem to many that we share few mutual characteristics, we developed a great friendship that has lasted to this day. He has a deep sense of history and is hilariously funny in his approach to many things; as long as we avoid politics, it works.

Of course, I had ambitions of working with him as he became an owner of a significant part of the Dallas skyline and was anxious to show him our depth, speed and professionalism as soon as possible.

Harlan’s first challenge: He wanted to see my ideas for a building he already had designed but had not begun constructing — the San Jacinto Tower. I decided I could really impress him if I went back to Houston and within one week returned to Dallas with a 6-foot-tall model of my design proposal.

Now, in my hometown of San Francisco, there used to be “automated human jukeboxes” around Fisherman’s Wharf and the cable car terminus at the Buena Vista. These were literally boxes with a guy inside who took your money and sang you a song, so I thought it would serve very well to present our new building to our new friend in Dallas in a similar way. I arranged to hide a young architect inside the model, which was waiting for Harlan on a Monday morning in the very same conference room of our discussion the week before. To hear the building start to talk about itself was fairly unique. It was a good enough idea to cement our kindred nature but a little too late in the process to start over on that project.

We did, however, move on to what is now known as the Trammell Crow Center, then several buildings in Las Colinas, and more projects for the Trammell Crow Co. in Milwaukee, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Austin, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Dallas’ Chase Tower, so it was a fortuitous beginning.

During one of our early conversations, Harlan explained who John Neely Bryan was and why he had named his first building after Dallas’ founder. Seeking a distinction between Dallas and Houston, where I was living at the time, it became apparent to me that there might be a direct connection between Bryan and his barge crossing the Trinity River all the way forward to Stanley Marcus and the other giants of mercantilism. That seemed to be more the culture of Dallas than the oilfield character of Houston. (I even imagined that Bryan had set up a stand at either end of his barge, so he could sell T-shirts and jerky, which somehow evolved into Neiman Marcus — probably one too many Wild Turkeys with Southwest Airlines’ Herb Kelleher on that one!)

With that in mind, and because I was working with a client who would just as soon have me design a 50-story version of a Thomas Jefferson building, I began thinking about what seemed appropriate about that historicism in Dallas and decided that it had something to do with mercantile. While the general character of Houston was of new-money, wildcat oilmen and the industrial character of a refinery, providing an unfettered design approach to modern architecture, Dallas was decidedly different. Perhaps because the mercantile products came from New York and Europe, there was more of an association with that older style of architecture representing establishment money and roots, which had been all but nonexistent in the recent past of the Plains Indians.

This understanding provided Harlan with enough of that background, while I sought to develop the design for the LTV Building (now the Trammell Crow Center) as a clarion tower of the yet-to-be developed Arts District. Ed Barnes had designed the Dallas Museum of Art, a beautiful limestone derivation of his Walker Arts Museum in Minneapolis. Because the Arts District was only an idea at the time, the main entry of the museum was placed on Ross Avenue with a symbolic drive entry at the terminus of Flora Street. To support Flora Street as a future spine of the Arts District, I conceived the Trammell Crow Center as a kind of campanile, complete with rooftop lantern and sky-tracking up lights at each corner that could pinpoint the Arts District from afar and a plaza setting that would negotiate the vertical drop from Ross Avenue to Flora.

To support the concept that this tower marked a unique spot in the city, I based the design on a square tower, finessed with large bay windows and re-entrant corners, creating more corner offices. The base of the building incorporates this geometry at a larger scale to emphasize the first and second floors, and the internal lobby became an open ring of two-story space around the core.

Because of the scale of the museum and the future Arts District buildings, I created a second building on the site that was of the proper scale across from what would become the Nasher Sculpture Center and that would provide a more pedestrian scale to the Flora Street. This smaller building was conceived as dining facilities, but predating pedestrian activity on Flora, it sat empty until Harlan populated it with some of his art collection. I reinforced the centrality of the tower again with a seemingly continuous circle of stone and a water element on the plaza that tumbles down the stairs through the low building to Flora Street.

The primary objective of the pedestrian spaces and the plaza was to create a strong sense of place for the tenants of the day, almost all of whom were leaving the established part of downtown Dallas along Main Street and moving to the “Arts District.” Most of these tenants were in financial services or were the lawyers and accountants who served this business, and the shift to the other side of Klyde Warren Park gained momentum.

With that in mind, and a desire to capitalize on the qualities of Trammell Crow Center yet redefine its character at the pedestrian level, I submitted designs to renovate the entries, the lobby, and the finishes. I also l wanted to turn on the sky tracker lights, which have been all but forgotten, to illuminate the building as the campanile of the Arts District. I evolved a more dramatic entry from the geometry of the tower and replaced the interior materials with lighter choices and crisp modern detailing.

When Harlan Crow and Barry Henry committed to having me design the 2200 Ross (now Chase Tower), I realized I had a new responsibility that would affect the skyline of Dallas. Shortly afterward, I was also hired by Prudential to renovate the Renaissance Tower, which now extended this responsibility to three towers.

The Chase Tower was related to the Trammell Crow Center by ownership, size, and proximity. The floor plan was quickly determined to be a more standard rectangle than with the Trammell Crow Center. I chose the granite for the exterior as a related tone and added a single bay window at the center of the building as a reflection of the bay windows on the Crow building. The building top was mostly an exercise to compete with the Crow in a manner that could claim the skyline in a similarly strong way. It was fortuitous that the Petroleum Club was a potential tenant, and we knew that a number of members who had fairly small office needs would like to be adjacent. So I organized the floors above into two towers that rejoin at the top, creating a hole in the building. At the time, one of the most popular movies was Raiders of the Lost Ark, so I presented this concept to Harlan as kind of like the Staff of Ra that illuminated the burial location of the Ark. But in this case, at the equinox sunrise, a shaft of light would shoot through the opening and illuminate a dozen virgins dancing in a circle on the Woodall Rodgers Freeway. Thankfully, the deck park saved us from this nonsense, but my sketch survives!

Also at the time, there was a possibility that the Dallas Aquarium might move from Fair Park, so I tried to have the sloping grass plane of the plaza provide a point of access to the aquarium below Ross Avenue and extend to a potential subway stop.

Several years later, while visiting the building and riding the elevator, I took note of the diversity of tenants as expressed by their shoes. The lower floors were all penny loafers worn by the bankers and accountants. As we neared the Petroleum Club floors, there was an increase in cowboy boots, and in the upper floors it was all tennis shoes because the top floors had been leased to software and game designers who enjoyed seeing the undersides of the Southwest Airlines planes aligning with the tower on approach to Love Field.

The final piece of inadvertently designing a skyline was the Renaissance Tower renovation.

This building had used an early PPG 480 reflective glass that, over time, had degenerated from water intrusion into the seals. I thought the building was much more interesting at night when you could see its diagonal structural system than it was during the day, when it was hidden by the mirrored glass. With the renovation incorporating a complete re-glazing, I made an effort to reflect that structural system in the patterning of the glass. There was also a profit center for the building from the antennas on the roof for an uplink to satellite communications. By exaggerating that function, I added some personality to the top and therefore to the skyline.

Participating in each of these buildings as a designer was both a rare opportunity and a responsibility to think about the role of office towers in the collective imagery of a city’s identity — and to think beyond the individual building’s identity

For me, it is always fun to see the skyline of some of these cities where I have had this opportunity when they show up as backdrops to Lakers games when they play the Mavericks, the Rockets, the Magic or the Bulls. Of course, it’s even better when the Lakers win.


Richard Keating, FAIA is design principal at Keating Architecture.
Sketches by Richard Keating, FAIA