Ain't No Call fer Us to Pick a Side in Them Rich Folks' Museum Feudin'

Update/Correction/Apology/Literary Forehead Slap: The premise of this column is a stupid mistake on my part. For some time I have labored under the impression that Lucy Crow Billingsley, a daughter of Trammell Crow, was an early partner with John Sughrue in the development of Museum Tower. That's wrong. She wasn't. Nobody has ever said she was. There has been a lot of writing about Museum Tower by now, and I should have known better. Sughrue is from Boston.

I still think the treatment of the issue by The Dallas Morning News has been remarkably one-sided, and I still think there are two sides to the story -- one of which consistently goes untold on those pages. But I apologize to the readers of Unfair Park for my mistake on this page. -- Schutze

Original (and rather wrong) story: The topic of the Nasher Sculpture Center and its War Against the Light has thrown The Dallas Morning News editorial page into an epic tantrum that it just cannot bring under control.

In Sunday's newspaper they were back at it, stamping their feet and turning purple once more about Museum Tower, a shiny new condo tower that they accuse of reflecting too much light on the outdoor Nasher sculpture garden downtown. The News said the tower, which is sheathed in mirror glass, is "a rude surprise from a building developer that should have known better."

I wonder how anyone can even write a line like that in Dallas, a city where shiny mirror glass has been a pervasive theme in new buildings since the mid-'70s. If anything, shiny mirrored glass buildings were the city's architectural and civic trademark between 1978 and 1991 when the original Dallas television series was giving Dallas its first and only good publicity since Nov. 22, 1963.

You know the argument here. The Nasher was designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano to be a place of serenity and beauty in the outdoors but plunked right in the center of the city's downtown. Now a block away from it, Museum Tower, where multimillion-dollar condos are just now going on sale, has turned out to be -- surprise, surprise -- a big shiny glass tower. Like we expected it to be upholstered in chintz?

The Nasher claims that all of the reflected light from Museum Tower is killing their plants and somehow baking their sculptures. More likely it is baking their visitors so badly that some of them have stopped visiting. But like everything in Dallas, this dispute also has a sort of Appalachian quality of rich feuding families.

The Nasher is the legacy of the late Ray Nasher, a very successful shopping mall developer. Museum Tower is the work of a member of the family of the late Trammel Crow, a very successful everything developer. Between the two clans, no love was ever lost.

Now we have The Dallas Morning News, official mouthpiece of the Decherd/Moroney/Dealey clan, jumping in with both bare feet and a pitchfork to take up for the Nasher side of things against the Crows, telling us yesterday that, "The luxury tower's owners have to own this problem and get serious about reasonable fixes."

That would be the money. And that would be the question. If the new shiny glass tower really does reflect light in a way that makes things too hot inside the sculpture garden, whose responsibility is it to fix that problem by spending money?

Most of us can sort of instantly get the suggestion that somebody on the Museum Tower side ought to have to pay to fix the light, because, after all, it's their light. But let's think about that again for a second.

Is it really their light? Did they make it? In fact, the more we think about that suggestion, and if we happened to be religious, wouldn't there be something fairly blasphemous in that idea?

Let's look for just one second in the other direction. The Nasher people, in their wisdom, bypassed any number of bright stars in the indigenous architectural community to bring in Piano, the Italian starchitect best known as co-designer, early in his career, of the Pompidou Center in Paris.

Since 1977 when the Pompidou opened, Piano, who is worshiped by most critics but reviled by a few, has more or less made a name for himself by flipping the architectural bird to the urban context in which his flamboyant buildings have taken root. I happen to like bird-flippers, so I'm not offering that as any kind of automatic disqualification.

But after Piano came to town recently and tried to portray himself as a gentle lamb set upon by wolves in Dallas, we did talk here a little about his latest work, called "The Shard" in London. A mixed-use tower, the Shard (its real name) has been called "profoundly random" by its detractors, who have said Piano's total disregard for his surroundings is "humiliating proof that 'Qataris have bought the dignity of London.

Even before the recent unveiling of the Shard, Piano was taking grief from snotty Brit architecture writers for his Central St. Giles complex, another mixed-use tower one of them called a "high-rent hallucination" and "shouty polychromatic architecture." The same writer said, "... the architectural deity Renzo Piano has become the capital's latest blingmeister."

I don't know from all that. We're so far away: sometimes it's not easy for us to understand what the English are getting excited about. The one big thing that seems to get them really excited is their fear that someone is trying to get them excited.

But here in Dallas, the really big thing, the huge thing, the thing that really dominates everything else, the thing you just cannot get away from, is ...

The suuuuun.

The sun is big. The sun is hot. No matter what you do or where you go, the sun in Dallas is big. And don't forget hot.

Four years ago a really interesting local architectural contest was orchestrated by Willis Winters of the Dallas Park and Recreation Department, calling for renderings of shade shelters that could be built in local parks. The best of those designs were sort of sunshine bomb shelters -- really serious shade shelters where the assumption was that if you block out about 85 percent of the sunshine on any given day in August in Dallas, you'll come up with the equivalent of a sunny afternoon in Connecticut.

Typically, predictably, almost without fail, whenever somebody brings in an architect from far away, the one thing that architect gets wrong is the sun. You look at their un-shaded concrete public spaces and think, "Children left in that space unattended will die."

Hey, I'm not pointing a finger of blame. I'm not saying Renzo Piano designed the Nasher Sculpture Center in a way that will kill babies, although it's a line that I confess I do find sorely tempting. He did try to shade the place with a honey-combed roof structure. It just wasn't enough, predictably.

But, no. I'm not out to paint Piano as the villain in this saga. I sort of doubt there is a villain. I'm just saying I'm sure there are two sides to the story.

Two sides. Not one side. And whenever you see The Dallas Morning News off on one side on a bloody tirade like this one against Museum Tower, you can bet that somewhere in the deep dark woods of the wealthy, in those rills and hollers where the old families dwell, the Hatfields are out gunning for those dratted McCoys again.

As for the rest of us, let me ask you a question: Who really cares? If the Nasher is experiencing too much sunshine, shouldn't it do what anybody else with any sense in Dallas does and get a damned hat?

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze