"At first glance, this brief may appear implausible; it is intended to be provocative," read the introduction. "But it is very much real and assumed completely plausible no matter how aspirational it may seem. These are the intentions that aim to propel us beyond the typical, beyond the norm and to lay the foundation for a future of sustainable development we all hope is inevitable. If you can't satisfy everything stipulated within the brief, then do as much as you feel appropriate for the aspirations defined. If you think this brief is not enough, then push it further and lead us forward."

Registration opened on January 26, and by the May 8 deadline Urban Re:Vision had more than 120 entries—including one from Italian architects who offered only a handwritten note damning the endeavor as "misguided," as Greenan puts it. That month, the panel of renowned judges—which included Freed, Palleroni, Pliny Fisk (a sustainable-architecture pioneer who now teaches landscape architecture and engineering at Texas A&M University) and two principals from Architecture for Humanity—gathered in San Francisco to pore over the applications. Greenan and Brown joined them and were appropriately terrified: What if they all sucked? Freed recalls that Greenan just sat there, silent and unnoticed.

"It's like throwing a party," Freed says. "You're worried no one will show up and all the entries will stink. The opposite, though, has been true for all of these competitions. It's hard to decide. There are a lot of carbs everywhere—pastries and doughnuts and bagels—and you feel sick already, but we project the entries onto a wall and go through them bit by bit, and it's clear everyone's yes or no for 90 percent of the entries right away. And 10 percent of them catch the eye of one or two jurors, and we put them in the pile. Then we go through them again. And again. And again. And we do that five, six times. It's a system that's tedious, but it works. And you're left at the end of the day saying, 'I want to submit something now,' you're so charged with ideas and solutions."

Brandon Thibodeaux
John Greenan, and Brent Brown, creators of affordable housing, believe a parking lot behind
City Hall can sprout a cutting-edge, green, sustainable
Brandon Thibodeaux
John Greenan, and Brent Brown, creators of affordable housing, believe a parking lot behind City Hall can sprout a cutting-edge, green, sustainable building.

With little fanfare, at the end of May the winners were announced, along with three honorable mentions and other special-award favorites the judges deemed revolutionary but ultimately impractical. From Portugal came a building called Forwarding Dallas, which is "modeled after one of the most diverse systems in nature, the hillside"—as evidenced by its myriad peaks and valleys covered in greenery. From San Francisco came the slightly more conventional-looking Greenways Xero Energy, where "community gardens, vertical farming and water capture are at the basis of the community unit." And from Charlotte, North Carolina, came the Entangled Bank, a high-rise containing everything from a spa to a slow-food eatery to "a green roof with vegetation and a sky pasture to sustain 'Dexter' livestock that require less dietary consumption and can thrive on pastures where other cattle would starve."

The paperwork submitted with the sketches provides a glimpse into the personality of the buildings. Xero was short on specifics but long on generalities: "The XERO district is focused on urban architecture and food." Forwarding Dallas' designers waxed philosophical ("All sustainable projects have to be a compromise between what we receive and what we deliver to others, so in more than one sense we are Forwarding Dallas") and, c'mon, really? ("The northeast façade is made of prefabricated thick, high thermal mass, straw walls"). And Entangled Bank—easily the most far-reaching of the projects, with its organic grocery and holistic medical center—suggested both an experiment in living and...well, just an experiment. Concerning the creation of an Environmental Learning Lab and Nutritional Institute, the architects and designers wrote, "Subjects to be researched and shared with the community..." Say what now?

"One of the things that's great about this idea is that it's not great for everybody," says Brad Bartholomew at Little, the North Carolina firm responsible for Entangled Bank, so named for Charles Darwin's notion that everything depends on everything else to survive. "Everybody's experience in the Bank won't be the same, but there will always be an interaction. The key is everyone has his role, and it's important to the overall success of the Bank. The Bank is intended to be constantly changing, just like in nature. There are entangled banks in nature with birds and organisms and earthworms. They live and die and regenerate and work and do all these different things like we all do, but each one contributes to that bank growing."

It's talk like that that probably scares off the casual observer—and also the fact that every for-profit development pitched in the last two years has gone belly-up, leaving the city pockmarked with moonscapes foreclosed on by anxious banks fed up with waiting. If those with money can't make a go of their European crossroads, such as the Glen at Preston Hollows project promised for Walnut Hill Lane and North Central Expressway, or their mini Manhattans, like the one stillborn near the Galleria Dallas, then how in the world will a nonprofit make a go of a highfalutin hilltop in the shadow of City Hall?

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