The Open-Ended City: David Dillon on Texas Architecture
edited by Kathryn Holliday
University of Texas Press, 2019
“The Open-Ended City” is a collection of 65 newspaper articles and two magazine articles mostly about Dallas architecture and urban development written by David Dillon, the longtime architecture critic at the Dallas Morning News. It chronicles the latter part of Dallas’s major modern building boom, beginning in the 1970s and continuing until the oil crash and Texas real estate market implosion that started in 1983 and extended into the 1990s. It also documents the often-fitful economic recovery that only consistently began to produce new, remarkable works of architecture in the first decade of the 2000s.
Dallas, a huckster’s city, conjured practically out of the ether, has devoted considerable energy to crafting its image. The city’s modern history has been defined by a single, tragic event: the assassination of the president in 1963. For decades, the “dynamic men of Dallas” (as Dillon calls them on p. 92) worked to overcome the painful fallout in the “City of Hate.” Perhaps this is one reason why its major civic and developer buildings of the 1970s and 1980s seem escapist in their kitschy ostentation. On the one hand, there were the futuristic, twin, shiny, gold-glassed Campbell Centre towers (1972, 1977); the disco-ball Hyatt Regency (1978); the massive, inverted concrete pyramid City Hall (1978); and the hole-cut Texas Commerce Tower (1987). Then, as if to provide a contrast, there were the neo-Victorian, mansarded, cast-iron-encrusted Crescent (1985) and the mirror-glassed, barrel-vaulted, and also cast-iron-encrusted InfoMart (1985).
During these same years, the city’s modern mythic story was officially recorded for posterity in the fantastic, eponymous soap opera, “Dallas” (1978–1991). In it, glamorous white folks equipped with big hair, bigger houses, and firearms, and funded by gobs of Texas cattle/oil money, commit serial shenanigans. Their larger-than-life narrative compensates for an existence relegated to the upper reaches of the Blackland Prairie, one of the duller geographical and historical regions of Texas. “Dallas” shifted the national discussion from “Who shot JFK?” to “Who shot J.R.?”
Into this context comes David Dillon, a Harvard literature Ph.D. born and raised in Massachusetts. He is described by his colleagues as the quintessential “crusty New Englander … a combination of Emily Dickinson and a hockey player.” Dillon arrives in North Texas in 1969 to teach English at SMU. A dozen years later, in May 1980, he writes an incisive, now legendary, critique for D Magazine: “Why is Dallas Architecture so Bad?” Needless to say, it leaves the city’s entrepreneurial elite agog, atwitter, and seriously agitated. The ambitious men running the venerable Dallas Morning News take notice, and Dillon becomes the city’s first official architectural critic, beginning that August. It is a position he holds at the paper until it suffers severe financial reversals in the early 2000s and he finally accepts a buyout in 2006.
In his early years as an architectural critic, Dillon is a firebrand. Just three months into the job, he agrees to go on a bus tour of recent architecture in Corpus Christi during the Texas Society of Architects’ 42nd Annual Meeting, with fellow critics Paul Goldberger and John Pastier. The buildings they see don’t impress. Things go poorly when Corpus Christi Caller-Times staff writer (and future Texas Architect magazine editor) Stephen Sharpe quotes their critical comments in detail in a newspaper article that appears later the same day: “Downtown Bombs With the Critics” (read more in TA January/February 1982, page 20). In 1983, Dillon reminisces about the event in a piece for Texas Architect, “The Perils of the Architecture Critic” (TA November/December 1983, sadly not included the anthology). In it, he writes: “Every critic should get run out of town once in a while. It keeps the job in perspective.” He expounds on his particular interpretation of the role of a newspaper architecture critic:
Unlike a critic for a professional journal or academic review, a newspaper critic writes primarily for the general public. … I can’t write above my audience, in the private language of a critical coterie; I have to stick to the vernacular, in hopes that it will spark a dialogue, a real conversation over matters that count … the high-minded, aesthetic road is a dangerous one for a newspaper critic to travel. Though architecture is certainly art, it is also the product of less rarified factors such as zoning, codes, easements, interest rates, and the whims of client. To focus primarily on aesthetics is to treat buildings as if they were sculptures, and to imply that they are somehow the creations of a single consciousness rather than of a broad political and cultural consensus.
This self-imposed effort to write down to his perceived audience is unfortunate, as is his frequent focus on community development. Perhaps the “fits of provincial wrath” he instigated in Corpus Christi were traumatizing. As a member of a rarefied club — there are perhaps only a dozen salaried architecture critics in the entire country at any one time — it is disappointing that Dillon so frequently wrote about topics only tangentially related to the design of buildings. These community service-style pieces could have been written by a local beat reporter. And when he did write about buildings, in later years, his tone was so even-handed and earnest as to be dull. The bristling energy of his early pieces is bracing and energizing. The slow ebbing of this energy over the course of his tenure is disheartening.
Dillon was in a privileged position, in that he was paid to be an architectural critic for nearly three decades and supported and protected by a major institution, the Dallas Morning News. In Dallas, as in all major cities, the best buildings and urban design projects — the ones that the public knows and loves (or hates) — have been shown again and again to be the product of a strong personality. These patrons, first and foremost, have a vision — and then, just as importantly, the wherewithal to shepherd their cherished project through all the tedious steps it takes to get it built. In Dallas, it is Trammell Crow and Deedie Rose; in Houston, it is Gerald Hines and the de Menils. What is needed in these situations is a relentless, noisy advocate for the highest quality of architectural design who can speak to these patrons in a public forum. Dillon, in trying to be an advocate for the consensus of the community, seems to have weakened his legacy as a champion of excellence, one who could have had a greater actual impact on the buildings of Dallas. The Dallas of the Ewing clan may have been tawdry, but it was captivating nonetheless. The Dallas of David Dillon, on the other hand, is respectable — progressive, even — but oh so boring.
Ben Koush, AIA, is an architect in Houston.