• The original Rolex Building was the first office building to be developed in Uptown. Today, it sits within the foreground of an evolving district.

Project Rolex Building
Client Harwood International
Architects Kengo Kuma and Associates, design architect;
Harwood Design Factory, architect of record

When Rolex opened its service center on the north side of downtown Dallas in 1984, the landscape looked vastly different than it does today. Dallas had boomed in the early 20th century, yet a series of master plan studies never materialized, and its growth was incoherent. In 1957, a freeway loop seemed to be the answer to all the traffic problems in the inner city, but this reactionary effort backfired. Debates, designs, and proclamations still seek ways to bridge, redirect, or outright remove the loop that should have solved the problem but didn’t.

By the 1980s, the adverse effects were felt along the northern edge of Downtown; the neighborhood had become a few homes and structures scattered among vacant lots. Gabriel Barbier-Mueller’s Rolex Building was the first new commercial construction along the periphery of what would become the Uptown area, and thus Harwood International and the Harwood District were born.

Mueller’s focus channeled his Swiss heritage and international market experience in a way that would decidedly change the Dallas real estate market. The Harwood District would attract tenants in the manner of the hospitality industry, with 24/7 wraparound services.

Semicircular in plan, the Rolex Building conformed to the sweeping turn along Field Street, directing traffic toward the Dallas North Tollway. The smooth curvature of the facade reflected the skyline like a canvas punctuated by a mullion rhythm that fades into the reflection. With a predominant entrance along Field, the Rolex Building would ultimately set the tone for a slate of international designers that influenced the greater district. Today, similar intentions are going into the planning of a new Rolex Tower.

Uptown boasts one of the country’s most dramatic evolutions in modern urban development: the transformation from infill to a skyline dotted with office and residential towers brimming with excitement as though it had happened overnight. The Harwood District has reveled in this change, with most of its 18-city-block footprint either built out or under conceptual development. Victory Park, the Dallas Arts District (with the Perot in view), and the Woodall Rodgers Deck Park (now known as Klyde Warren Park) further contribute to the vitality Harwood is experiencing.

As the master plan has evolved, landscape design has become an integral link. Nearly all the structures share this common thread and Bleu Ciel, the latest residential addition, is slated to feature the largest landscaped deck in Dallas. Designed by Japanese landscape architect and Portland Japanese Garden curator Sadafumi Uchiyama, the roof deck integrates the interior and exterior seamlessly, augmenting expansive views of Downtown while passively cooling the deck during warmer months.

For the new Rolex Building, Uchiyama introduced Mueller to Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. Kuma’s first U.S. commission came in the form of a winning competition entry for a Cultural Village that is to be integrated with the Portland Japanese Garden. Harmony between nature, vernacular, and design is central to Kuma’s work. The mid-level intention behind the tower is an oddity for such a building and program type in Dallas. Kuma’s purpose here is to create a human-scaled piece within the district that would harmonize well with the street below and the density surrounding the site. A simple extrusion of seven stories twists to define a series of terraces. From a broader perspective, the twist responds to the formal orientation of the Perot Museum, establishing a clear dialogue with the street and neighborhood beyond.

Landscape is integrated throughout the form. Terraced gardens are introduced into the edge of the slab through a reverse beam that positions a planter box along the periphery of each level. Interior reverse beams create a continuous slab surface underneath, providing an unobstructed view. The landscaped roof conceals mechanical systems. The gardens, designed and curated by Uchiyama, satisfy Mueller’s directive to create no blind walls within the district.

The natural connection plays a key role in the interior environment, as well. The service center function of the tower requires an immense level of control, from lighting to climate. The larger footprint at the base accommodates the service area program, and terraces and landscape work in tandem to control daylight intrusion. Upper levels house administrative functions with closer proximity to views and access to the garden, while lounge and break areas occupy the roof.

The pair of Rolex buildings “bookend” the 30 years between their respective completions. Both anticipate the future. Both salute a developer who took the long view toward a greater connection with the urban environment.

Michael Friebele, Assoc. AIA, is an associate with the Dallas office of CallisonRTKL.

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