The historic Old Parkland campus in Dallas reconsiders classical architecture for the 21st century.
The city of Dallas is well known for its considerable investment in quality architecture. From the inverted concrete ziggurat of I.M. Pei’s Dallas City Hall (1978) to Renzo Piano’s understated and subtle stone-and-glass Nasher Sculpture Center (2003), these large cultural projects are typically bold contemporary structures with innovative — often futuristic — designs. Just north of downtown, however, the developer Harlan Crow has taken what, at first glance, appears to be a different approach to his office campus, Old Parkland.
Old Parkland is located on the grounds of the eponymous historic hospital building, a 1913 neoclassical structure built on what was once the outskirts of town, surrounded by woods and “green, rolling meadow on all sides, […] an ideal place for the rapid convalescing of patients,” according to a report in the Dallas Morning News published shortly after the project’s opening. The hospital building, now called Old Main, was built in the spirit of the Progressive Era’s City Beautiful movement, which sought to reform society through beauty and open, hygienic spaces. By the 1950s, however, the hospital had expanded into larger, more modern facilities (best known for being the place where John F. Kennedy died), and medical services at the historic campus ceased altogether by the mid-1970s. Crow’s firm, Crow Holdings Development (CHD), acquired the site in 2006 with the intention of extensively renovating the historic building and turning the rest of the 12.5-acre site into a world-class office campus.
Over the last decade and a half, CHD has methodically carried out this plan, constructing new office buildings to add more space for tenants. The resultant Old Parkland campus is now one of the most exclusive and desirable office parks in Dallas, with tenants ranging from private family investment firms to former President George W. Bush. Most provocatively, though, Old Parkland has deliberately chosen to eschew modernist design in favor of neoclassical additions that harmonize with the original hospital building.
“It must be understood that all architecture is bound up with its own time,” Mies van der Rohe pontificated in 1924. “It is hopeless to try to use the forms of the past in our architecture.” And indeed, classical architects since the 1930s have often been overly concerned with historicism, resulting in derivative drivel that cannot speak to the problems of contemporary society. To this day, the majority of traditional design is reserved for expensive houses where the wealthy can play-act as Regency-era landed gentry, Southern planters, or 18th-century French nobles (curiously ignoring what happened to such people). Very often it is of low quality, unwittingly breaking the rules of the design that it tries to follow. Writer Kate Wagner provides a gleeful deconstruction of such architecture on her blog McMansion Hell, illustrating the innumerable ways classical orders can be abused: Proportions are poorly considered; capitals feature round abacuses; cornices use the wrong arrangement of profiles.
Despite the widespread shortcomings of contemporary practice — and the queasy attempts by some politicians and activists to appropriate classicism for avowedly illiberal, nationalistic agendas — classical architecture maintains widespread appeal with the American public. While exemplary modernist buildings routinely receive bewildered or even hostile reactions from the average person (look no further than the “trad architecture” Twitter community for the latter), classicism is often more approachable and able to be appreciated by both the uninitiated and the erudite. While this is no condemnation of modernism, it does raise the question of why such a well-loved and broadly accessible approach to design has been almost entirely excluded from mainstream architectural practice and pedagogy.
As the architectural profession, along with the rest of 21st-century America, grapples with issues of inclusivity, equity, and egalitarianism, it is strange that one of the most recognizable symbols of American liberalism has been shunted almost entirely to the private sphere. So whenever excellent examples of classical design are built in a commercial or institutional context, they are worth examining closely.
Old Parkland is located on a triangular plot of land on the fringe of the post-gentrified Oak Lawn neighborhood, butting up against the Dallas North Tollway. Brick and stone edifices with slate tile roofs, copper domes, and a healthy smattering of Corinthian columns rise over the highway on one side and “Texas Doughnut”-style apartment blocks on the other. These earlier CHD-commissioned buildings at Old Parkland are well-meaning and often exuberant (the domed Parkland Hall, completed in 2015, fills out the narrow corner of the campus like a ship’s keel against the highway), but they often display mediocre detailing. Most egregiously, the portico at Reagan Place has column capitals that inexplicably break through the architrave that should be sitting above them. Despite suffering in comparison to the historical buildings they emulate, the quality of the campus is quite thrilling to experience. It has the air of an old college campus, with small garden rooms tucked into odd corners between buildings and sculptures and inscriptions found everywhere.
Even so, a skeptic might easily dismiss it as yet another private enclave for the oligarchy to work and play — a neoclassical reskinning of the familiar modernist office campuses hidden behind hedges, fences, and security checkpoints, meant to be appreciated from the outside.
However, two new buildings — a six-story office block (dubbed Freedom Place and completed in 2019) and a bell tower (the Campanile, completed in 2021) — demonstrate that Old Parkland has the potential to be more than merely a gated community with retrograde aesthetics. Designed by British architect Craig Hamilton, the buildings stand apart from the rest of the campus — and, indeed, the rest of the city — in quality of design. (In fact, they stand apart in the architect’s own work: They are Hamilton’s first two buildings in the United States and the largest-scale projects of his career.) Standing boldly next to the Dallas North Tollway and embodying a high-line act that hovers between the public and private spheres, they provide a dazzling glimpse of what the future of classical architecture could look like.
It would be accurate to say that Hamilton’s buildings are unlike anything else built in America in nearly a century, but this sells them short. Although they speak to the long tradition of neoclassical architecture that Thomas Jefferson first associated with the ideals of American democracy, they are also emblematic of Hamilton’s own self-described “progressive classicism.” Says Hamilton: “I believe that the use of the classical language in architecture is an evolutionary one and that each generation finds its own way of using the language to meet its particular requirements. My heroes are those architects who have been brave enough to immerse themselves in the language, to thoroughly understand the canons, and then set about improvising and subtly bending the so-called rules.”
This nondoctrinaire approach is obvious throughout Hamilton’s portfolio, but it’s particularly apparent at Freedom Place. The building is made up of two distinct masses. The main block is cruciform in plan, with nearly identical pediments on three of its four sides. Each elevation is organized around three superimposed colossal orders over the six floors, but the orders are arrestingly chaste, mostly hinted at with piers and imposts, before culminating at the pediment with two freestanding columns flanked by engaged piers — a classical Greek temple arrangement called “distyle in antis.” On the south elevation, an engaged temple-like wing projects out toward the toll road. Whereas the main block is a solid brick structure with stone detailing, the facade of the south wing is made up entirely of stone piers and columns infilled with an airy screen of glazing and zinc panels. Unintuitively, this smaller wing employs a much fuller expression of the orders than the main block, creating a pleasingly asymmetrical movement as one looks up and diagonally across the facade.
Even more surprisingly, the main entrance into the building is located in a small corner where the temple-wing intersects with the main block, and it is only by passing through a series of small chambers that you come to the grand double-height lobby. Although it breaks with the expected conventions of classical planning, which emphasize locating important features like front doors and reception rooms along the major axes of a building, the plan makes sense in the context of the overall campus, and the entry sequence feels perfectly intuitive and unforced in person.
While the overall material palette and detailing recall the formal urban buildings of the American Renaissance, such as Charles McKim’s 1899 University Club of New York, the asymmetrical massing of the temple-fronted side wing is more reminiscent of the works of Scottish architect Alexander “Greek” Thompson (or even of the Erechtheion in Athens). But Hamilton’s joyous allusions to architects of years past are never mere imitation or willful fancies. The resultant form always serves the functions of the building. The break-out temple wing creates rich spatial opportunities for porches and terraces, responds dynamically to the toll road, and accommodates an uncontrived entry sequence. Like his heroes, Hamilton has drunk deeply from the well of classical tradition, which, far from limiting him to stale forms, has given him the freedom to be both rigorous and creative in his approach.
The Campanile, on the other hand, showcases classicism’s unexhausted capacity for pure delight, and for Hamilton’s own pushing of formal boundaries. Bell towers, having no real function other than to be tall, have historically been a playground for architects, and Hamilton makes the most of this opportunity. Classically tripartite, the stone base supports a tapering brick shaft before terminating in a belfry and domed lantern. While the dome and bell (nicknamed Horatio, after the children’s book author Horatio Alger) are visible to the broader neighborhood, the base shelters a soaring, open-air space filled with sculptures by Alexander Stoddart and Chas Fagan, accessible only within the campus itself. The central sculpture, depicting the Greek goddess Tyche and her infant son Kairos (the deities of fortune and opportunity, respectively), rises from a below-grade crypt-like rotunda. Filled with statues of economists like Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell, this space might fairly be described as a shrine to the Chicago school of economics.
Although there are clear allusions to the work of some of Hamilton’s 20th-century heroes, especially to the austere World War I memorials by Edwin Lutyen and the fabric motifs of churches by Joze Plecnik, there is much that is new — in particular, the use of abstracted longhorn heads as keystones, a subtle nod to the historically important regional industry. His Manneristic use of ornament is unlikely to convert any dyed-in-the-wool modernist — arch-supporting imposts turn into hanging panels with tasseled ends, and urns buttress the dome (blasphemy to anyone who believes in the principles of architectonics!) — but Hamilton is not interested in kowtowing to academic notions of correctness. Rather, he extends an invitation to marvel in wonder at a beautiful object — and to laugh at all the architectural jokes.
The old modernist complaint that classicism is a historical style that does not speak to “our time” feels entirely unconvincing in the wake of Hamilton’s work at Old Parkland. Freedom Place, with its unconventional massing and exuberant embrace of the toll road, is just as strikingly modern and contemporary a piece of architecture as Thom Mayne’s nearby Perot Museum of Nature and Science. And although it doesn’t discredit many of the legitimate positive developments that modernism has contributed to our culture, it does suggest that — after decades of it languishing under a vicious and crippling culture of resentment and envy of the modernist establishment — contemporary classicism may be finally growing up into something that can be taken seriously and deserves to be given more opportunities in the public arena.
For all its successes though, the work at Old Parkland also offers some cautionary lessons, especially in its overall relationship to the broader public. One of the great strengths — and weaknesses — of classical architecture has always been its ability to communicate cultural narratives. Old Parkland draws heavily — both in its architecture and in its overall culture — on the images of American democracy and entrepreneurship embodied by the work of Jefferson and other 19th-century architects. While those 19th-century ideals were more often than not based on institutions of slavery and abusive industrial practices, as cultural images these structures remain appealing and valid to many Americans. The image of the neoclassical campus points toward a more inclusive, open society — a fundamentally progressive vision of a future that has not yet been achieved but is worth striving for.
The Campanile explicitly establishes this political vision, dedicated to the principle that America is a place of opportunity for all, regardless of origin. However, this vision is so firmly grounded in a quasi-religious treatment of free market capitalism that it’s likely to alienate the growing number of Americans — on both the left and the right — who are skeptical of such neoliberal optimism. Excellent, ground-breaking architecture is always in danger of becoming too intimately associated with the broader socioeconomic conditions that created it (think no further than the Smithsons’ Brutalist housing estates, which tragically became emblems of British midcentury urban decay), and the Campanile, and Old Parkland in general, take a profound risk in associating this new, progressive classicism with the politics of neoliberalism.
The association of the campus as the personal project of its developer Harlan Crow, who has been the focus of an ongoing scandal involving undisclosed gifts to the conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is also likely to embolden critics eager to argue that contemporary classicism is itself a dangerous harbinger of political movements that they find disturbing. The relationship between the developer and his campus could certainly be considered to be overstated by some, but Crow’s personal touch is seen throughout the campus, and it would not be unfair to suggest that his political views are visible throughout.
Although never as overt as at the Campanile, the entire campus is thoroughly permeated with the contradictions and tensions between Crow’s vision of inclusivity and the exclusivity of the modern office park. While evoking the egalitarian ethos of Jefferson’s design for the University of Virginia, which both encloses an academic mall and remains open to the broader community, Old Parkland is visually shut off from its surroundings, hidden behind high fences and hedges. Much the same criticism can be levied against the futuristic campuses of Silicon Valley. But where these projects are unabashed about being glassy fortresses for technocratic overlords, the narrative in the architecture at Old Parkland creates a dissatisfying dissonance.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that its formal style and level of quality make it unique in contemporary office architecture. Is it a beacon of American civic-mindedness in an era of bland corporate design? Or is it an elitist enclave where the wealthy hoard beauty for themselves? How one interprets the campus largely reflects one’s own political biases, but even taken on its own terms, it clearly struggles to reconcile its principles with concrete, often disquieting, reality.
The complicated nature of the campus can perhaps be understood as the labor of love of its developer. Crow, a reserved, polite man with a deep interest in history, delights in filling Old Parkland with small details that reflect his eccentric tastes and interests. Quotes from Alexis de Toqueville and Ayn Rand are inscribed on the walls, and there is a painting of Karl Marx playing chess with Chicago school economists. But there is also a monumental bust of Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who was censored for warning of the impending COVID-19 pandemic, and a Ukranian flag is prominently positioned in solidarity with the war-stricken country. There are personal touches too: A sitting room adjacent to Freedom Place’s entry reuses beautiful wood paneling that had come from Crow’s childhood home. Political though Old Parkland may be, it is less a manifesto than an idiosyncratic collage.
In a 2016 article for Traditional Building magazine, Paul Ranogajec complains about the inability of contemporary practitioners “to move beyond the by now deep and broad understanding of the figural languages of classicism to also address the material, institutional, and social factors that encourage or inhibit classical ways of building.” As well-intentioned and noble as Old Parkland’s program for beautifying Dallas may be, beauty alone is not enough to challenge what Ranogajec calls the “degrading aspects of modernity” becoming merely a “pleasing overlay masking the deadening mechanisms of neoliberal compulsion and hyperindividualism.” Crawling past Old Parkland during the rush-hour crush may brighten up the evening commute of thousands of people, but it can do nothing to address the fundamental social problems that have forced so many people to be stuck in hours-long commutes each day to begin with.
None of this is to make accusations of hiding nefarious intentions behind a pretty face. By all appearances, Old Parkland is making a good faith — even an earnest — attempt to engage with the city around it. The campus’s engagement with the toll road is a legitimately generous contribution to a prominent transportation corridor, and the addition of the Campanile can only be interpreted as a gift to Dallas, or at least to those willing to look past its propaganda. And an ongoing expansion into the neighborhood, known as the East Campus, promises another Hamilton-designed building that will be built up against the sidewalk, with no barrier fences or hedges to block it from the street. This is still a far cry from the truly public, democratic spaces that the original Parkland Hospital once embodied, but it should be commended as a step in the right direction.
After all, these criticisms are rooted in an underlying acknowledgement that, in and of itself, Old Parkland has created something truly beautiful. It is not an exaggeration to say that Hamilton’s works here are among the greatest classical buildings of the last century and an achievement the entire city of Dallas should be proud of. If we are unsatisfied with its exclusivity, that can only be because we, standing outside the gates, want to come inside and be included in its vision of beauty, and because we are frustrated that the progressive vision that they formally embody has yet to be achieved, thwarted by the campus’s unwillingness to challenge the systems of money and power that have given the rest of us a world of banal glass towers, strip malls, and congested automobile-dependent cities. It’s unreasonable to expect Old Parkland, as a private entity that is home to many of the institutions that benefit from these systems, to do so. It’s out of admiration and with goodwill that those of us on the outside must urge Old Parkland, along with other institutions like it, to make good on what it has begun and to work to build the equitable, inclusive society that its image projects.
Classical architecture, at its best, isn’t about reaching back to some rose-tinted vision of the past. As Ranogajec reminds us, the classical tradition “is about expanding the imagination, opening up new possibilities for the present and future,” something which Old Parkland — and Hamilton’s contributions especially — certainly has done.
Tim Nemec is a designer at Curtis and Windham Architects in Houston. He is a member of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art.