Restoring Place through Openness: A Case for Critical Regionalism in North Texas

Restoring Place through Openness: A Case for Critical Regionalism in North Texas

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Julien Meyrat
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Julien Meyrat

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Restoring Place through Openness: A Case for Critical Regionalism in North Texas

The process of designing buildings is fairly straightforward: An owner selects a site, prepares a desired program, arrives at a budget, and then hires a design professional to come up with an adequate solution from which to build. Architects aren’t the only ones qualified to come up with adequate solutions to basic sets of factors, as countless engineers and contractors can testify. Sometimes, what sets architects apart is the owners’ expectations that we insert a distinctive point of view about building that hopefully endows their projects with profound meaning. This meaning is often tightly interwoven with aesthetics in which we use our knowledge of form, composition, and materiality to provoke an emotional response.

What are the considerations when deciding on an aesthetic approach? Other than what the owner personally prefers, the architect has a responsibility to push the discussion on style towards answering a deeper question: What is right for this site? Architects make all kinds of value judgments through their work by characterizing buildings as either serious or unserious, authentic or fake, timeless or ephemeral, beautiful or ugly, and so forth. Through each of these value pairs, we inject morality into what we build.

Morality often exists within the prevailing culture and its time. Societal norms influence our ideals. One often refers to the concept of Zeitgeist—“the spirit of the times”—to explain how creative trends and tendencies exist within a culturally specific moral universe. The spirit usually consists on a set of virtues, the “good,” that is balanced against a set of vices, the “bad,” helping orient the objectives of creatives such as artists and architects at the time. In ancient eras, when religion was the driving inspiration for most elite cultural production, the good was defined by how it expressed and reinforced the sacred order (e.g. Egypt, India, Greece). During the European Renaissance, this spirit called for an adherence to humanism and associated proportional systems and stylistic syntax. For much of the 20th century, good was rational, clean, efficient, technological, and most of all universal. In the last few decades, it has become a common expectation for a building to create a genuine sense of place. Context in this case is multi-faceted in that it includes not only the physical reality surrounding the site, but also the prevailing socio-cultural reality: who its users are, what they expect from that building, and how much their understanding is influenced by both local and global phenomena.

Is Placeless Design Immoral?

Looking at the current urban landscape of North Texas, the need to clearly instill a sense of place would seem to surpass many other challenges. Some people outside and even within the Dallas metroplex agree that it suffers from an overwhelming feeling of placelessness. Buildings, neighborhoods, and streetscapes reveal little if anything about where one is located geographically, since they are usually the product of construction methods, planning conventions and commercial realities similar to those in many other metropolitan regions of the U.S. The Dallas urban area’s history is relatively young, having had few chances to produce any real significant amount of high-quality historic building fabric. This is in contrast to places like greater Boston, Chicago, New York, and San Francisco where architecture serves as a kind of widely admired visual anchor for the area’s inhabitants. In North Texas, however, structures have been erected quickly and cheaply and laid out according the scale of the automobile, as was typical of most urban development that followed the Second World War.

To summarize, much of what we confront as designers today is the legacy of Modernism, which favored separating uses through strict land planning across the city, removing the pedestrian from the realm of the street, and elevating the importance of speed and convenience above all other considerations. These goals are part of a more universal philosophical paradigm in which the forces of global capitalism and technological progress combine with a faith in scientific positivism.

The International Style was its embodiment, and it sought to create a vocabulary that departed from the weight of the past and the rules that grounded it to a specific place and time. The name even implies its denial of place. Placelessness was a virtue since the objective was to transcend such quaint and parochial concerns as a sense of belonging, and of celebration of the local or the particular. Thin flat roofs, concrete and steel cantilevered structures, and transparent glass walls seemed to promise liberation for all, a chance to begin anew. Less was more; by eliminating all that signified individuality, tradition, or its connection to place, a work of architecture could transcend its space. As North Texans pursued their enthusiasm for the new, a growing number of people in the community began to realize how it had become difficult to connect meaningfully to buildings and places.

Even though placelessness affected our local urban environment, the realization of and reaction to this problem was global beginning in the 1960s. “Less” became a bore, and designers worldwide reinserted familiar forms, hints of history, and lots of ironic whimsy while de-emphasizing the honesty in materials and construction that would result in postmodernism. Around the same time, a more sensitive and serious alternative emerged—one that would make buildings more place-centered but still in dialogue with the universalistic culture of technologic and contemporary construction methods. This desire for a careful synthesis between the universal and the local is referred to as Critical Regionalism, a term first coined by Liane LeFaivre and Alexander Tzonis and made into a coherent architectural movement by the historian Kenneth Frampton. In his essay “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance,” Frampton detailed the work of leading architects (such as Jørn Utzon, Hon. FAIA., Tadao Ando, Hon. FAIA., and Alvar Aalto, Hon. FAIA.,) who clearly adopted the Modernist design principles, but deliberately fit their projects to each specific context. Whether by sensitively siting the building to local sun angles and prevailing breezes or by employing materials found locally and commonly used in the area, Critical Regionalism attempts to restore rooted sense of place while refusing to reject the technical advances of Modernism that have improved the quality of our lives.

The Dallas-Fort Worth region has its share of iconic International Style and Postmodernist landmarks. They provide memorable images that are unique to the city, but offer little in the way of defining an authentic regional identity. Local developers turned their backs to the area’s agrarian roots to try all that was new and forward-looking as a means of embodying global values of commerce and prestige. It can be argued that this desire for global acceptance still continues to drive the decisions on what is built throughout the metroplex today.

To be fair, some kind of modern local tradition had been established during this period of aggressive urban development in North Texas, as the pioneering work of Charles Dilbeck, George Dahl, FAIA and O’Neil Ford, FAIA attest. Indeed, it was Ford who paved the way towards a Critical Regionalist response by merging European Modernism with indigenous aspects of early Texas architecture. Though he began practicing in Dallas before settling permanently in San Antonio, he eventually achieved widespread renown for his pioneering body of work that would inspire a generation of young designers to popularize the “Ranch-Tech” style common throughout Central Texas. Firms such as Lake Flato and Overland Partners have earned numerous design awards producing a Texas variant of Critical Regionalism that has been widely embraced by clients throughout the state.

Still the “Ranch-Tech” style more genuinely expresses the characteristics of Central and South Texas—thick limestone walls, standing-seam metal roofs, wood beams, and corrugated metal that harken back to the improvised structures built by our forebearers. Dallas and Fort Worth largely sit on a large clay bed that is part of the Blackland Prairie with its sweeping grassland and shrubby trees that are vulnerable to wind and fickle weather. The area lacks major natural features such as hills or major bodies of water that are the core of urban identities elsewhere. It may be due to this lack of natural attributes in North Texas that its political and business leaders opted to tie their fortunes to more abstract principles such as commerce, technology, transportation, and individual opportunity.

It may be that a truer core for Critical Regionalism appropriate to North Texas can be found in the ideals shared by its people. One ideal that distinguishes our region from others is its openness. People in this area seem to resist defining their city. In Austin, there is a widespread consensus that the city is about being a state capital, a center of higher education, a tech hub, and the new capital of cool due to its thriving live-music scene and its popular amenities developed from their greenbelts and lakefront. The Alamo, the Spanish missions, the Riverwalk, and the vibrant Mexican culture are things that make San Antonio distinct from anyplace else. It isn’t surprising, then, that both cities enjoy architectural scenes that are well defined by firms that have built their reputations designing award-winning work in their local markets.

A Moral Dilemma?

By contrast, the Dallas-Fort Worth region’s very openness to outside influences has made it very difficult for a well-defined architectural sense to emerge. Emerging firms here seem to adapt to our area’s penchant for eclecticism, the result of decades of status-seeking homeowners and business leaders dressing their homes and buildings with foreign styles. As our region has grown to become an important center for commerce—not only on a national scale, but now a global one—the focus on its international visibility and reputation seems to far outweigh concerns for authenticity or small-scale charm. This openness to what the world thinks has contributed to the practice of bringing architects from outside to design the region’s most important cultural and commercial landmarks. Very few cities in the world can claim such an extensive collection of buildings designed by the most celebrated architects of the past 50 years: Kahn, Johnson, Pei, Koolhaus, Foster, Piano, Ando, Calatrava, Mayne, Cloepfil, and Kuma.

Photos: Craig Blackmon, FAIA

And yet, it is from such an elite roster that a credible variant of Critical Regionalism can emerge. Although many examples of Critical Regionalism begin with a local architect adapting global trends with local practices, this dialogue can take place regardless of the architect’s origins. It is through the built work of world-renowned architects from cities as far flung as London, New York, Tokyo, and Los Angeles that a distinctively local architectural approach is revealed. Such inclusiveness provides opportunities for local architects to learn from great minds with large vison. After all, it took Philadelphia native Louis Kahn to show us how to incorporate natural light into a building while taking into account the local climate’s harsh summer sun and steep temperatures. The massive concrete roof of the Kimbell Art Museum blocks almost all the unnecessary heat-gain during the day, yet generously illuminates gallery spaces and reveals the changing light from the sky outside. Englishman Norman Foster’s design for the Winspear Opera House reminds us of the fundamental importance of shading the public from the area’s sweltering summer heat. The selection of the deep red exterior glass panels for its cladding both evoke the romantic passion of the performing arts, and the slick artifice of the Dallas skyline. Just down the street, a precast concrete-clad Perot Museum of Nature and Science, conceived by Los Angeles architect Thom Mayne, FAIA, reintroduces an everyday material that is special to our area (one of the country’s biggest cement manufacturers is nearby) and speaks to the area’s proud history as a center of logistics and transportation.

Photos: Craig Blackmon, FAIA

Each of these landmarks cement a unique identity for our city, and combat in their small ways the problem of placelessness. When we identify with our city, we cultivate a sense of belonging to it and a concern for its future. Establishing a strong civic identity causes our residents to care about what happens in it. To achieve this level of belonging and commitment to where we live, it is critical for designers to make structures and places we can love. We tend to love what is “good,” therefore it is imperative for architects to take a moral stand in choosing what is good and bad— to develop a clear moral sensibility about design that serves to instill a sense of place, of identity. By rooting a building to its climate and using local materials, but relating these to our contemporary world, Critical Regionalism precisely provides this kind of moral justification to design, and enables us to care more strongly about our North Texas home. A passionate community that cares will inevitably arise, and will play an irreplaceable role in charting our city’s course for years to come.


Julien Meyrat, AIA is an associate with Gensler.