In Dallas, a city dominated by the automobile, word has gotten out about the new AT&T Discovery District — an oasis of pedestrian-scaled activity in the blocks surrounding the communication giant’s downtown headquarters. Despite not officially announcing the opening, or celebrating it in any way, people have gravitated toward this new urban space. “There is an insatiable appetite for compelling places for people in Dallas,” say Barry Hand, AIA, and Ross Conway, AIA, principals at Gensler who oversaw the effort. In reality, probably all it took was the construction fences coming down for people to pour in and discover the amenities gracing the AT&T headquarters’ new front door. Jaxon, a beer garden and restaurant, opened in mid-2020 and is now a popular site at the district, according to the Gensler team. A handful of other planned restaurants and cafes have since opened in The Exchange food hall, all of which work together to give this space a pleasant ambient hum of activity.
While the current state of the plaza is certainly compelling — every time I walk through, there is a wonderfully varied cross section of people out enjoying the space, strolling through, dining in the restaurants, or taking photos at the globe sculpture — the anticipated usage of the space is much more ambitious. The designers envision thousands of people there simultaneously, with many different activities happening at once. They see this as the place to be in Dallas to experience the hustle and bustle of humanity. In view of this ambition, Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster’s comparison of the space to Times Square was apt. Barring further pandemic slowdowns, it certainly has the potential to provide an exciting level of interest and activity.
Nearly 10 years ago after considering multiple scenarios, AT&T decided to stay in downtown Dallas. What began as an effort to make a few small improvements to the entry plaza grew into a much larger vision as Gensler worked with AT&T to help them imagine the potential of the project. AT&T became dedicated to the greater vision of creating a lively and open urban district, a true destination. The decision was also made to integrate digital content throughout the district, which was made more relevant with AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner and its media offerings in 2018. This manifests in the 104-ft LED screen and the walls of LED screens in the main lobby. Gensler’s in-house Digital Experience Design group led this part of the effort. Project leader Justin Rankin said AT&T was mindful about leveraging the screens as a canvas for original art, as well as unique district content developed from their intellectual property.
AT&T and Gensler pride themselves on the openness of the new district, which is effectively AT&T’s campus, as all of the adjacent buildings are occupied by the company. As Hand says, “What other Fortune 100 headquarters is so open to the public?” It feels like public space, and it is, but at the onset AT&T desired to create an “amenity-rich” mixed use district for the benefit of its employees first, and the greater Dallas community second. Corporations are wise to consider their surrounding urban environment. Employees will be more enthusiastic to work in locations that offer convenient opportunities for socialization and recreation. With AT&T providing this environment for their employees, instead of amenities hidden away at a major suburban campus a la Google or Facebook, we have publicly available food halls and beer gardens.
As one of the few public urban spaces in Dallas one can go to simply hang out, the district fulfills a key role. In a city without the central Ladybird Lake or Zilker Park of Austin, socialization usually involves spending money at bars and restaurants. This is a place where people can meet and spend time without the requirement of spending money. However, you are not free from AT&T’s marketing machine. Much in the manner of free online streaming services, or television for that matter, you have little choice but to watch and listen to the promotional content playing on the 104-ft media wall. The entire time I sat there eating my lunch, the screen was showing trailers of Time Warner products with the volume so loud I could scarcely concentrate on my podcast. In addition to the intermittent auditory barrage, the screen is often visually dominant, especially at night when its glow is far brighter than the next brightest object. Rankin says the goal was not for the media wall to be the “star” or overwhelm the district, but to complement the activity that is already occurring. If this intent could be fulfilled and that one element reigned in, it would do much for the overall environment.
A varied series of spaces has been provided in a restrained physical environment. Opting for less visual drama in favor of emphasizing the public spaces and doing them right, Gensler, along with landscape architects Studio Outside, have created an effective and inviting urban space, whose healthy traffic despite the lack of a formal announcement is a testament to its allure. I wonder if it is a fair assessment that people in Dallas have “an insatiable appetite for compelling places” — or if there is simply a dearth of truly cool things to enjoy here, so that when one comes along (like this project or Klyde Warren Park), the city’s appetite to experience it is indeed great.
Andrew Barnes, AIA, is the founder of Agent Architecture in Dallas.