CITYPLACE - A WORLD APART - Southland's new headquarters sits alone in its unfinished setting
Dallas Morning News, The (TX) (Published as The Dallas Morning News)
March 19, 1989
Author/Byline: David Dillon, Architecture Critic of The Dallas Morning News
Cityplace won't officially open for months, yet already it is a period piece, like a frame from Fritz Lang's 1930s film Metropolis. A tall shaft of stone along a freeway, with the downtown skyline as a backdrop -- the entire project is a reminder of the architectural gigantism that Dallas has always aspired to and can no longer sustain.
Cityplace was proposed in 1983 as the new "uptown downtown,' a city within a city, complete with office towers, hotel, shopping center, apartments and condominiums, and acres of green space. It was to be the new "gateway to downtown Dallas,' its twin towers framing North Central Expressway like a gigantic drawbridge. Le Corbusier could not have been more exultant about his visionary Radiant City than architect Araldo Cossutta about his "Rockefeller Center of Dallas.'
However questionable this urban goal, the Southland Corporation pursued it single-mindedly. Over the course of three years, it secretly assembled some 150 acres of prime inner-city land, bordered roughly by Lemmon, Haskell and Turtle Creek. Then, in a strategy reminiscent of urban renewal programs of the 1950s and 1960s, Southland demolished most of the houses and small office buildings on them in anticipation of the development millennium to come.
What came instead was the oil glut, the office glut and Southland's own costly leveraged buyout. Suddenly Cityplace's grand scheme became a scattering of grand fragments: the solitary 42-story East Tower, floating in a vast, empty plaza; a six-lane boulevard going from nowhere to nowhere, and block after block of vacant lots.
The future of Cityplace is murky, though chances of its being completed as originally designed are remote. Southland occupies only half of the East Tower. The plan for Phase II, approved by the city in December, allows for the construction of additional towers of up to 240 feet (20 stories) and approximately 6,000 units of housing. But there are no guarantees that any will ever be built. Southland is short on cash, and scouting for development partners. Its lenders are adamant about its avoid ing more debt. The proposed 42-story West Tower and all the low-rise office buildings are on indefinite hold.
The turnabout is dramatic, but hardly unique in Dallas. One Main Place, First Interstate Bank Tower and First RepublicBank Plaza are all half-completed grand designs that have become downtown landmarks.
But Cityplace is more startling, because of where it is located -- two miles from the heart of downtown, surrounded by one- and two-story buildings -- and because it promised so much more: not just new real estate, but a whole new urban community.
The best features of the completed East Tower, as in so many new Dallas buildings, are the interior spaces -- the lobbies and atriums, the elevators and corporate suites, with their rooftop greenhouses and solid granite window frames.
The main lobby is Medicean in proportions and finishes, resembling more an arcade in a Renaissance palace than a lobby. It runs straight through the building, front to back, and Cossutta has detailed every inch flawlessly: four kinds of marble on the floors and columns, African mahogany on the walls, rows of bronze lamps and sconces. Even the ceiling panels are held in place by thin strips of polished brass.
This is the most refined lobby in Dallas, elegant without being decadent, and one clue to why, at $225 per square foot, the East Tower is the most expensive office building in Dallas history. (Comparable luxury skyscrapers such as Momentum Place and Trammell Crow Center cost $140-160 per square foot to build.)
Atop the main lobby sit eight smaller lobbies, each five stories tall, that break the tower into comprehensible units. This innovative arrangement gives tenants a sense of intimacy and proprietorship that is often missing in conventional high-rise buildings. Here employees have access to their own piazzas, criss-crossed with bridges and flooded with natural light, and views of the city.
But the East Tower is ultimately less than the sum of these elegant parts. As one moves from the lobby to the plaza to the boulevard to the neighborhood, Cityplace becomes more disturbing and problematical. Though hardly the tallest building in Dallas, the East Tower is among the most dominant, looming over much of Oak Lawn and East Dallas day and night.
From the north and south, along Central, it resembles a gigantic waffle set on end. Its enormous bulk is partly concealed from these perspectives, but so is most of Cossutta's meticulous exterior detailing. His 40,000 pieces of hand-set granite become a pink smudge; the facade goes flat, two-dimensional.
Approached from the east or west -- along Lemmon or Haskell, for example -- the tower's true proportions become clear. This is no gentle giant. When neighborhood groups and the FAA succeeded in getting eight stories lopped off the original design, Southland made no corresponding reduction in width, and so sacrificed the building's slender, vertical profile. Instead of soaring, it seems to puff and bluster, like an overfed colonel.
Ironically, the East Tower would have made a better architectural impression at 50 stories than at 42. The abridged version is ponderous, tons of meticulously detailed granite thundering to the pavement, relieved only by an occasional arch or entrance canopy.
The East Tower is surrounded by a large plaza with an amphitheater and a handsomely paved square with custom-designed street lamps.
In the original grand plan, these spaces would have been framed by seven-story office and retail buildings and used as public spaces by employees. Now they are windswept and rather forlorn, except for several small pitched-roof structures added at the last minute to conceal air vents for the underground parking garage.
These outbuildings add a middle scale, between flat earth and 42 stories, to the plaza, proving that serendipity has its place in urban design.
The east tower is bordered on the north by the Haskell Mall, a six-lane boulevard with granite curbs, brick sidewalks, a 60-foot-wide grass median and hundreds of trees -- an estimated $20 million in public works.
The mall is offered implausibly as Dallas' answer to Boston's Commonwealth Avenue. Yet even if it were completed all the way west to Blackburn, as proposed, it is unlikely that the mall "will invite people to stroll, relax, play and enjoy the outdoors,' as the marketing brochure predicts. It was designed for cars, not people, a swift, smooth passage to the tower and the parking garage. It is grandeur without a larger public purpose.
At the far eastern end of the mall, where Haskell and Lemmon merge, Southland is constructing 228 moderate-income housing units, renting for $350 to $650 per month. They are not, it should be noted, additions to the city's housing stock, but a partial replacement for the 600 apartments that Southland demolished in preparation for the East Tower. As designed by Good, Haas & Fulton of Dallas, they are perfectly adequate suburban apartments, with patios, surface parking and other conventional amenities. They are not prototypes for the future.
Is Dallas now stuck with Cityplace's elegant bits and pieces amid a vast blighted area? Yes, unless Southland scraps Cossutta's grand plan in favor of a series of small plans to be implemented gradually and that over time may add up to a community -- plans for individual blocks, for racially and economically mixed housing, for schools and recreational space. No more Haskell Malls or grand plazas. They are big, expensive vestiges of big plans that make no room for contingencies. Can Southland learn to think boldly on a small scale?