Gary Cunningham, FAIA, is the recipient of this year’s O’Neil Ford Medal for Design Achievement. In nearly 40 years of practice, his firm, Cunningham Architects, has created a distinctive body of work guided by its founder’s unusual and uncompromising vision of honesty and collaboration.
In a city like Dallas, it can be difficult to create your own voice. In a way, Dallas is a city that celebrates conformity, with an underlying sense, in the corporate world, that things will go best for you when you follow the prescribed path. (Of course, this path is often only accessible to those with the right pedigree, education, or skin color.) Everything — from the uniformity of the built environment (most emphatically expressed in downtown’s crop of 1980s high-rises), to the blue button-down shirts, to the yearly performance reviews — tell us to be a part of the crowd, not to stand out. The picture of success is painted for us. With 1,500 corporate headquarters, 25 of which are Fortune 500 companies, Dallas does a lot of business. This is the culture of our city, and it manifests itself in our architecture as well, with large firms employing a significant portion of the architectural workforce. I have no qualms with large firms; they do important work and many wonderful things for the profession. In the context of Dallas, they shape the discourse, do the majority of the projects, have the loudest voice.
This article is an exploration of a unique voice that finds its expression outside of the polished world of slick marketing presentations, management hierarchies, and timesheets — a voice that could only be fully expressed in its own created world, unbeholden to the dominant system and structure.
Architects don’t become well-respected, successful, and prolific by being wishy-washy. Most prominent architects are strong-willed, confident, self-assured, and can be thought of as true to themselves. Yet one architect was selected to be profiled for this feature on authenticity. Why? I think it is because even among the field of well-known and prominent architects in Texas, he stands apart.
No matter what group one is a part of, for authenticity to be perceived one has to be, in some way, distinctive. One must break the mold. It could be defined as living by one’s own code, or displaying one’s idiosyncratic personality in the face of dominant expectations and established norms (these can include the culture of a firm, a city’s culture of design, the culture of organizations such as the AIA). If there is one Dallas architect about whom this could be said, it is Gary Cunningham, FAIA, and his firm, Cunningham Architects.
“Ah, You Look Like a Normal Person!”
This was the first thing Cunningham said to me when I arrived at his office, which is in an old warehouse in a post-industrial/still-semi-industrial district between downtown and the Trinity River. I was wearing a black T-shirt and skinny jeans, my hair a weird overgrown mullet. It seemed as though he welcomed my appearance as out of the ordinary in a town replete with large offices with dress codes. It was this embrace of things just outside the mainstream that came to be a recurring theme in our talk. If there is a way “most” architects do things around here, Cunningham seems to do them the opposite way.
This includes conversation. A conversation with Cunningham can be like a treasure hunt, or an escape room where you find clues scattered around and it’s up to you to piece the whole picture together. At some point in the discussion you will be confused, inspired, surprised, bewildered, hopeful, and grateful. At the end, you will want to come back and do it again. His every sentence is full of passion and intensity. Whatever he’s talking about, it is the most interesting thing you could be listening to in that moment. You may start on one topic and then find yourself in a conversation about something totally different.
The first thing that I realized is the obvious passion Cunningham has for creation. His mind is constantly involved in the act of creating, or thinking about creating, whether it is art, furniture, fabrication, architecture, or drawing.
“I draw,” he says. “I’m adding up shit all the time. I’m driving down the road adding up dimensions. I’m detailing shit in my head.”
He is a driven and quirky man (as his nickname, “Corky,” suggests), and he does lead and set the tone for his office, though he is not the stereotypical strong-willed-architect-dictator. Cunningham has found a way to be a unique, passionate, creative leader, without ruling the projects with an iron fist. He allows and encourages genuine collaboration and gives his team a sense of ownership. “Design ideas can come from anyone,” he says, a comment that rings true to his employees. “It’s up to the office management to make sure people feel comfortable saying anything they feel that they should be saying,” he continues. “That goes back to the trust and respect, and not to feel like you’re going to be called stupid or be berated if you have a dumb idea. I usually have the dumb ideas!”
Authenticity in Projects and Clients
Ever since the recession, work has become more competitive. Cunningham does not try to go after every project, understanding the nature of his firm and that they will not be competitive on some work. He is very particular about whom he chooses to work with. It is essential for him that he understand the client’s values and outlook on life and work with people he sees “eye-to-eye” with. A client he is particularly fond of is Half Price Books, which shares a similar mentality in placing a higher value on people and employees than profit. It is this alignment of values that enables a strong collaborative relationship with the client.
Cunningham is the first to say that he is nothing without his team. He makes no exclusive claims of authorship on the firm’s projects, but it seems the design process does start with him. When a project comes into the office, ideas begin to churn in his mind. For him, this appears to require some time spent in solitude, so he disappears and starts drawing out ideas freehand. Apparently, Cunningham can disappear for days at a time, and will then re-emerge unexpectedly. He’ll then present the sketches to the rest of the staff, who will begin to develop the concept into a building. One employee describes it like this: “I like to think of Gary as a chef — he puts several ingredients in a pot and walks away, he lets it develop and asks others to watch it, season it, and add more ingredients as they see fit. He comes back to the pot occasionally and adds what he thinks is missing, maybe just a little salt or maybe new ingredients to spice it up and mellow it out. He walks away and comes back over the course of the project, until the dish is ready to serve or time has run out.”
In many ways, it is Cunningham’s chosen lifestyle that allows this process to take place. He says, “At one point I had my home life and work life separated, but they need to be all the same.” He lives this out, having moved into an apartment behind the office 15 years ago. Gary’s work is his personal life; his personal life is his work.
The firm stays involved throughout the construction process, with the Cunningham team often fabricating elements of the design in an on-premise shop. This has included a 40-ft cross for the Prince of Peace Catholic Church. Cunningham himself participates in the construction meetings, often facilitating and leading the client through what can frequently be a contentious and stressful process.
“I like that kind of stuff,” he says. “I used to use the phrase, ‘you can’t have too many cooks in the kitchen.’ For me, I’m happy to have a lot of people involved, and I’m pretty good at sorting it out. In fact, I like it, that’s my deal, sorting it out. We had many meetings at Temple Emmanuel where we had 30 to 40 people in a room for two to three hours, just hashing over shit. I’m the one that had to keep the flow, and I had to come back and say, this is what we think we ought to be doing. I had to be confident enough about it that they believe me. Obviously, I had to be right about it too. I like that. Man, that keeps you on your toes, and it’s stressful. It’s a lot of fun, because sometimes you get amazing input out of left field like you wouldn’t believe. Someone may ask a question that makes you think of something you never would have, otherwise. There’s never such a thing as a dumb question. I think you should never deny anybody from inputting. That’s where interesting things happen. It’s not my vision; it’s the collective. I think that’s a wonderful thing, when a bunch of people can figure out something better than one person could ever figure out. I do believe that. I’ve lived it now for 30-something years, so I know that for a fact.”
I have noticed that the people I know who are current or former employees of Cunningham have an intellectual kinship with their boss. He seems to have attracted people who are also just outside the mainstream, people who have a tendency to experiment and push the boundaries. And he has no shortage of compliments for his staff. “The guys that work here, that do the working drawings,” he says, “they are hardcore motherfuckers. Man, they are just hard-ass. They put together a mean set of drawings. They’re just the best I’ve ever seen.” When reflecting on his past employees, he says: “A lot of firms have started out of here, and I’m very proud of it. You can pinpoint projects over the decades in this office, and you can tell who’s been involved and their fingerprints are on them. They’re not my fingerprints; they’re our fingerprints.”
“I Love Education.”
Another thing Cunningham returned to again and again during our discussion was how much the firm has learned from the projects it has worked on. The way he recalled each was in terms of what it taught him; what the process was like, not the built result.
The Addison Conference and Theatre Centre, completed in 1992, was an experience of learning what was possible on a minimal budget, and what it’s like to collaborate with artists. Cunningham learned a great deal about staging dramatic performances during the project, and now says with conviction: “Of all the arts, theater takes the most soul and most guts.”
The Philip Johnson-designed Cathedral of Hope, for which Cunningham was executive architect, was an experience of learning how to create a very complex building from a minimal starting point. All they received was a rudimentary plan and a scan of a 3-D model. With the help of structural engineers Thornton Tomasetti, they had to figure out how to build complex geometry and determine the appropriate materials. Cunningham met Johnson during the project and visited him and Alan Ritchie at the Glass House. (He would steal #2 pencils that Johnson had chewed and bring them back to the office as souvenirs.)
“I Want Criticism and I Want Sincerity.”
Cunningham is very open and does not try to present a perfect appearance to potential clients. He claims he is so up front that he tells his clients his firm’s buildings do leak, and problems will happen, but that they will be there every step of the way to figure it out and make it right. In this way, he lays bare what many would consider a weakness, something to hide because it would make most architects self-conscious. Being honest throughout the process is essential in Cunningham’s approach.
As we were wrapping up our conversation, Cunningham insisted that I add my own voice and impressions to the article, so it wasn’t simply regurgitating what he had said. He said, “You can slam me, if you want.” I found this attitude extremely refreshing and invigorating. Yet even with this extraordinary license explicitly granted, I don’t think a takedown piece is warranted. Where some might be careful to present a polished and very refined face for the article and worry about the nature of the final portrayal, he simply presented himself and his firm as they are, or as he sees them, and was happy to let the observer draw their own conclusions. He talks about what he is passionate about, about the way of working that he has fostered in the years of running a practice. He is not concerned with a perfectly manicured image.
I couldn’t help but leave with the feeling that Cunningham has created something special, here in this old industrial building. With his firm, the shop, the other companies who share the space, it all has the feeling of a community. Not a community with strict rules or hierarchies or employee manuals, but one of authenticity, creativity, exploration, and, probably, fun.
I think this way of practicing is absolutely essential to the profession. There is room in architecture for all types of practices, large and small, rigid and loose. I sometimes worry that the new generation of architects in Dallas isn’t aware that one can practice and live this way, as exemplified by Gary and those around him. As architects, it’s up to us to make sure we continue the legacy of making, exploring, thinking outside the box, and doing things just a little bit differently.
Andrew Barnes, AIA, is the founder of Agent Architecture in Dallas.