Point / Counterpoint
Norman Alston
Contributed by:
Norman Alston
Contributed by:
Ron Stelmarski

Point/Counterpoint | Local vs Global: Who should Be Designing for Dallas?

In a city that boasts the works of seven Pritzker Prize-winning architects and is home to global architectural firms, homegrown boutique design practices, and talented sole practitioners, who should be designing for Dallas? Columns Committee member Patrick Nedley moderates an exploration of this age-old question.

Norman Alston, FAIA founded the architecture firm bearing his name 30 years ago so he could focus on historic preservation. He has led over 100 preservation planning and restoration projects, with an eye on keeping a community’s architectural legacy.

Ron Stelmarkski, AIA is principal and design director for Texas for Perkins&Will. His multi-faceted expertise includes urban design, and he believes that architecture is the connective tissue uniting people, place, and culture.


Before we can tackle the question of who should be designing for Dallas, I feel that there is an underlying question that needs to be asked. Is there a “Dallas architecture,” and, if so, how would you define it?


RON: I think there are competing forces when defining a Dallas architecture, the notion of a smaller scale architecture and the developer-led, large scale, almost plug-and-chug architecture. The work of smaller scale practices like those of Max Levy, Corky Cunningham, and the late Frank Welch seemed to truly have a very dedicated understanding of the culture and climate of Dallas. Dallas exists between cultures, between geographies, between East and West. What I see is that Dallas is much more of a center versus a between space. That center is where there is an ability to talk about what is a Texas architecture.

NORMAN: I have said for many years that Dallas is an adolescent city, where we have been finding ourselves through the fog of hormones that have cropped up over the years. Dallas has had periods of identity, but nothing that I would quite call a Dallas architecture, and that’s a function of time; I don’t think that Dallas is old enough. We are starting to get our legs steady in a lot of ways, culturally and architecturally.I see the current Dallas architecture as two parts. We have an urban model and a suburban model, a suburban look and feel. The suburban imagery has been the imagery of Dallas and the Dallas area. I think the urban imagery of Dallas will almost by necessity become the Dallas architecture model — we are just not there yet. We are just a little younger than some of the places that we compare ourselves to.


What advantages do you see hiring local talent versus bringing in outside firms to design for Dallas?


NORMAN: Cities are built over time, an architectural identity forms over time, and that needs to inform the things that come next. That is the advantage of working with local talent, people who are actively engaged here and have been here long enough to get a sense of where we have been, how we have gotten here. Local talent already understands what the elements are that have shaped this city and are likely to shape the city and this region in the future.It takes a willingness to understand where you are, however you got there, and to look carefully to understand what has happened to bring the community to where it is.

RON: I am all for local talent. Wherever I am working, I’d like to think that I have a chance to be a part of that conversation. I feel that really great designers have enough understanding and intellect to take in a context, adapt to it, do the proper research, and really have a role. I think about the Nasher [Sculpture Center] as a really great space, and I don’t think anyone would disagree that Renzo [Piano] coming from Italy impaired his ability to have the Nasher fit into downtown. Too often I get the sense that many of us walking through any city can start to get blind to what’s around us. The beauty of travel is that your eyes are wide open, you see things very clearly the first time you go somewhere, you’ll notice curb heights and intersections and building scale — things that you might sort of get a bit numb to if you’re used to that situation.


Do you feel the size of a firm influences the type and scale of work it can pursue? Does the business side of the practice prevent larger firms from taking on smaller-scale local projects?


RON: I don’t think so, we [Perkins&Will] are so distributed at this point, we’re in so many cities that you have to really behave locally. I’m not going to go out and take work away from our Chicago office, so you tend to be very local, and that’s really what our model aspires to. We want to have a genuine awareness of what’s happening around the world. We can see the types of projects that are going on … and then apply it to our work. So I don’t think [firm size] should be an impediment.

NORMAN: You’re bringing up a good point that I’ve thought about for a long time. I worked 10 years as a normal architect before I lost my mind and went into historic preservation. I worked for a very small firm in the late ’80s, and our principal was able to the master plan for Parkland Hospital Emergency Department and were eventually awarded the work to do the redesign. We had no prior medical service. … Do you think that could happen again? I think there is no way that happens.


What effect do you feel publications have on local firms, of all sizes, winning work both regionally and nationally? How can this be addressed so that Dallas firms gain more recognition and are able to successfully pursue work outside of Dallas?


NORMAN: Is it the magazines making particular architects famous? Are the magazines the reason we’re bringing in these famous architects? Do they treat the profession well or evenly, or do they play favorites? That’s a rhetorical question. I absolutely think they play favorites. Publications promote some people’s work over others, and that’s how they get famous. How much of the issue that we [in Dallas] don’t use Dallas architects comes from the fact that we [Dallas architects] don’t make [Architectural Record] as often as other architects did? I think it’s a big factor.

RON: I would agree. I think it’s a major factor. I do feel that the outside architect brings a level of cachet to these developers. I’m not saying it’s legitimate, but they do think there’s probably a broader global outlook that they bring as well, which I think is also artificial. There is this notion that there’s something outside that we [in Dallas] don’t have, something that allows outside firms to be perceived as a plus one. I agree that magazines can carry a lot of other collateral or intangibles. It seems like we need a publication concentrated on telling the Texas or Dallas story. What does the Dallas perspective now offer other parts of the country or world?


Any closing thoughts?


RON: Dallas is in a place to really turn the corner. And that’s why I think the conversation about global versus local is a really good conversation to have now and have us really sort of pinpoint and sharpen the arrow in terms of how we can design locally and make a case for ourselves in all these upcoming projects.

NORMAN: Dallas, good or bad, is a very forward-facing place. One of the things that I battle all the time is a notion that we really don’t have a history. There’s nothing to worry about there, but we’re making our history — now let’s go with it. That’s never really been true, but it’s becoming so untrue now that I really do think trying to connect with what we have and what all it means is getting a lot of traction. Not everywhere, but a lot more. Our history is our history, and like it or not, that’s what we have to go work with, and let’s run with that and use that to inform the history we haven’t made yet.

Discussion moderated by Patrick Nedley, vice president at HKS Inc.