Form-Hacking Dallas

Image created by Henry Abosi

The evolution of architectural form through time has always been shaped by the ever-changing needs of society.

The pre-modern era laid the groundwork for formative principles, with figures like Vitruvius, Brunelleschi, and Palladio leaving an indelible mark on history. The modernist movement, spearheaded by architects such as Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, emerged as a response to the societal challenges of the early 20th century, in part by breaking free from the constraints of tradition to bring about architecture that promoted social equality and the integration of nature to harmonize human habitation with the environment. 

Transitioning to contemporary challenges, the post-pandemic era has seen significant shifts such as a workforce that questions the value of traditional office spaces; a generation that feels the threats of inaction on climate change; a society unable to provide for needs as basic as housing and clean water; and a consumer class that expects distinctive experiential engagements. Planners and architects alike will need to make careful decisions on form-based urban design and the stakes have never been higher.

The 20th century was tumultuous in this regard. Influenced by urban visionaries of the time, city planners deployed a strategy, both ambitious and speculative, that fundamentally transformed our cities. A whole vision, hypnotically “forward thinking” as it weaved in the automobile, social hierarchy, and urbanism, was dropped onto unsuspecting communities across the nation. In Dallas, this urban design ethos persists as a messy patchwork of highways, bridges, parking lots, and, most curiously, an extensive pedestrian tunnel system. In downtown Dallas, the resulting edifices can be viewed as an impediment to creating spaces that genuinely encourage the vibrant, meaningful urban life that any city might want.

In research for this article, an open-ended question was posed to several North Texas architects, designers, and interior designers on solutions to the contemporary urban issues in Dallas: what to hack and how to do it from the existing form of Dallas architecture? What follows is a series of visual explorations that seek to foster discussion about, rather than concretely solve, some of the deficiencies that keep our urban spaces from becoming society-serving, healthy, activated, and distinctive.

Many of these images were created using generative artificial intelligence programs such as Midjourney. These models accepted a written prompt and then rendered an image approximate to the verbal description. These free-styling AI models served to accelerate discussions about urban renewal and revitalization in ways that can be very surprising.

Parking Garages

“2023 population of downtown is estimated to be >15000; Dallas area has an average parking >3 per 1000. What is the future of garages?  Instead of reconstruction of the current sites are there any possibilities of an organic way of rethinking the use of the standing forms?  Considering parking structures as a collective instead of individual buildings. Forms of garages become urban fabric and formulate unique patterns in the cityscape.”

– Victoria Wong, Designer, Perkins&Will

Estimates indicate that over a quarter of the land downtown is allocated to parking lots and parking garages. Today many of these parking structures stay busy. But what might happen in the coming decades as driverless vehicles and ride-sharing services become the norm? Many of these structures may become derelict, having long passed their usefulness.

Architects and planners will need to examine how these dreary edifices can be revitalized and converted into mixed-use apartments, incorporating housing, commercial spaces, and lush landscaping. Victoria Wong, designer at Perkins&Will, catalogued a series of downtown parking structures and argues that they should be considered a collective rather than individual buildings. They could form, Wong says, a layer of urban fabric to be repositioned in an organic way akin to the concept of Monokūki, the Devouring Tree, which absorbs part of a fence as it grows. Beyond the potential transformation from sterile, austere facades into softer and greener faces, the garages could be repurposed as urban farms as the demand for their traditional purpose declines.

Office-to-Residential Conversions

Post pandemic and with the adoption of virtual working, office vacancies have reached record levels in Dallas-Fort Worth, with an estimate of more than 76 million square feet of office space for lease. In Dallas’ central business district, the vacancy has been estimated at more than 30% of the leasable office space.

Building owners and architects face reimagining these spaces to suit the evolving needs of remote work.  Simultaneously, the housing crisis persists, requiring innovative solutions to accommodate the growing population. High-rise office-to-residential conversions are occurring to utilize the empty office floors to help address the housing shortage in the city. A typical challenge to these conversion projects has been the deep floor plates of the commercial office floors, which typically reduce the utilization ratio of the floor areas as, to minimize the modification of the existing exterior enclosure, the conditioned residential spaces are pushed outward against the facade.

A speculative exploration of the adaptive reuse of Renaissance Tower by Khang Nguyen, Associate AIA, senior designer at 5G Studio Collaborative, suggested an inversion of the architectural strategy where the conditioned residential areas would be placed tightly around the existing building cores so that the new conditioned enclosure could be nearly 10 feet inboard of the existing facade system. In turn, the existing facade system would be strategically removed to create deeper outdoor balconies. The concept satisfied a post pandemic lifestyle preference for more expansive, usable outdoor spaces. The balconies become extensions of the indoor spaces, providing residents with year-round opportunities for outdoor living while creating a layer of private zone within a dense urban setting.

Conversion Strategy for Renaissance Tower by Khang Nguyen, Senior Designer at 5G Studio Collaborative

Event Facade

Buildings in urban environments are becoming increasingly transparent, revealing the activities behind the facade. This architectural approach has contributed to a much livelier, friendlier urban space, although it has become largely predictable. The popularity of social media platforms exposes people’s desire to see more and be seen more. Carolina Almeida, Associate AIA, proposed an amplified exposure of the interior spaces’ events and energy directly on a more open and activated facade to display more than the static activities of building occupants and to favor movement and animated behaviors upfront, lining the edges of urban streets.

“Striking, sustainable exteriors will harmonize with thoughtfully crafted interiors, blurring the boundaries between indoor and outdoor spaces… Adding walkable and open facades can lead to a better connection between architecture and interior design, enhancing the synergy between built environment and human experience.”

– Carolina Almeida, Associate AIA, Interior Designer at Ink+Oro Creatives


The concept of monumentality in architecture emerges as a compelling avenue for exploration in Dallas. Renowned architects such as I.M. Pei, Thom Mayne and Renzo Piano have left an indelible mark on the cityscape. But for most seasoned architects in the Dallas area, the inclination toward monumental forms has been somewhat restrained, favoring the unoffensive. Recently, a few works by leading Dallas architects such as those by Ron Stelmarski, FAIA have unapologetically reshaped the city’s skyline with their renewed sense of audacity.

To assert this point forward, Ricardo Muñoz, principal at Page, tested a number of Generative AI iterations based on the Dallas City Hall and what may be built to complement its bold form. These iterative visions, while never intended to be real building programs, suggest a very different feel for Dallas that no real-person architect would nowadays dare to propose. Free from the bounds of pro forma that have led to the proliferation of efficient, mildly articulated boxes, the free forms create spaces that spark imaginations on what their potential occupancy might be.

Iterative Studies of Monumental Form by Ricardo Muñoz, AIA, Principal at Page

Pleasant and Multi-Level Public Realm

Architects in Texas have customarily grappled with the high temperatures of late spring through late summer.  Gregory Ibañez, FAIA, principal at Ibañez Shaw Architecture, has contributed his architectural wisdom in a set of watercolor sketches that describe the shaded plaza found at Simon Fraser University and Lever House as practical references on how to deal with Texas heat and create pleasurable outdoor spaces. Toward a similar objective, Henry Abosi, founding director of Tableaux Studio, proposed a speculative urban space at West End Square that allows human experiences and interactions to occur horizontally and vertically in space. 

Josh Hallett, senior designer at 5G Studio Collaborative, proposed a large multilevel park at one of the primary entrances into downtown Dallas from Woodall Rodgers Freeway. It would replace the existing surface parking lot to organize future Field Street developments around it and to create opportunities for multilevel entrances to buildings that weave the outdoors into multilevel interior spaces within them. These multidimensional public spaces not only maximize available land but also provide opportunities for gatherings, cultural events, and recreational activities. Downtown areas could become hubs of activity in vibrant districts where residents and visitors alike could engage with the built environment in innovative and exciting ways.

A set of watercolor sketches by Gregory Ibañez, FAIA, Principal at Ibañez Shaw Architecture

“This exploration deals with the Form in which the architecture could begin to evolve to deal with the harshest extremities of Dallas’ summer… Imagine a civic center in the heart of downtown Dallas, built on the edge of West End Square.  A new Form that expresses deep cantilevered platforms and terracing ground planes, with shelters and pause points on all sides, offering neighbors and passers-by a moment of respite.  The local amenities would range from coffee shops and cafés to light retail such as fan merchandising and sports bars… Deep shadows will be cast on all sides throughout the day, with cool mist fans would offer respite from the humidity.  A Form of this nature will offer downtown Dallas more walkability, access to public amenities and a potential increase in the foot traffic in the area.”

– Henry Abosi, Principal at Tableaux Studio

Multi-level urban park as an organizer of future downtown Dallas developments by Josh Hallett, Senior Designer at 5G Studio Collaborative

Fantastical Structures

Dallas and Fort Worth are slowly but surely embracing eco-friendly design practices. Implementing energy-efficient technologies, green roofs, and sustainable materials are essential steps toward creating environmentally conscious architectural forms that align with the region’s commitment to mitigating climate challenges. Local initiatives focusing on urban resilience and sustainability play a pivotal role in shaping architectural responses. Collaborations between architects, city planners, and environmental experts are crucial for developing resilient designs that withstand the impacts of climate change while preserving the unique characters of the Dallas and Fort Worth downtowns. However, along the downtowns’ edges where the Trinity River runs through, a far more fantastical structure can be conceived, free from the bondage of the accepted urban architectural norms. Follies, often characterized by their fanciful and ornamental nature, provide a unique architectural expression that contrasts with the rigor of urban center structures. Placing these whimsical structures strategically within park areas can offer an immersive, interactive experience that brings people together.

“There is no more apparent opportunity than the beauty and potential of the Trinity River.  Future structures and developments around and within the levees can augment our quality of life, add richness to the fabric of the city, and mold our cultural values.  Dallas is already a destination for all big things – a next-generation building will augment civic engagement, economic development, embrace the natural elements, purify the air, create protected micro-ecosystems, and promote resiliency in our city.”

– Clemente Jaquez, AIA, Founding Partner of MODUS Architecture

Architectural formation in urban areas like downtown Dallas is a dynamic process that should respond to societal changes, environmental considerations, and the evolving lifestyles of its inhabitants. By addressing challenges such as the decline in office occupancy, housing shortages, and the need for sustainable design, architects can shape urban spaces that are not only functional but also vibrant, resilient, and engaging.  The integration of multilevel public spaces, adaptive reuse of existing structures, and the incorporation of playful elements contribute to urban environments that convey the optimism of Dallas.

The speed, resolution, and quality of generative AI applications will aid important conversations about the quality of the urban lifestyle while providing a wonderful level of visual understanding of the concepts being proposed. For the community of designers in Dallas, it is high time we hack the form-making processes that have delivered the prevalent architectural staleness in the city by leading the discussions in ways that other stakeholders can understand. After all, we are a body of architectural form-definers in a city of Can-Do

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