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The Michael Van Valkenburgh plan for a park on the Trinity River downtown is based on the perception that the river as it is now is "a little boring."
The Michael Van Valkenburgh plan for a park on the Trinity River downtown is based on the perception that the river as it is now is "a little boring."
Jim Schutze

Parkies Behind Projects Like Kayak Thing Are Not All Idiots. But, Damn.

Crazy, goofy and idiotic are not good explanations for people who are hard to understand. I’m going to buy a Cub Scout wood-burning kit that makes engravings on plywood and put that on a plaque. Maybe I’ll hang it from the rearview mirror of my pickup.

But for years I have not been able to come up with anything else to explain the Park Cities rich-people thing for disastrously bad public works projects in Dallas. It’s this unbroken string of failures that, in retrospect, always look crazy and, well, goofy, and, frankly, idiotic. The Trinity toll road, the horse park, the fake kayak-whatever in the river, the incredibly expensive twin hike and bike bridges right next to each other that have never been opened because they’re too wobbly. Why twins? Why right next to each other? Why wobbly? I know I shouldn't use those bad words so much, but damn.

And it’s not like they learn from their mistakes. Now the exact same group is in trouble with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because they want to build an elaborate fake New York Central Park on top of the levees along the Trinity River downtown.

Here’s the thing. Last week I had a very mind-opening conversation with a person who is way more sophisticated about these things than I am, and he put all of it into a perspective that makes more sense. The projects themselves may wind up being mm-mm, ah-ah and oh-oh (those things I’m going to try to stop saying so much), but that does not mean the people who promote them are necessarily mm-mm, ah-ah or oh-oh. They just follow a different drummer (the mm-mm, ah-ah, oh-oh drummer, maybe?).

Kevin Sloan is a landscape architect based in Dallas whose portfolio includes a number of highly regarded and awarded projects here and around the country, including Syracuse University’s South Campus in Syracuse, New York, and Sprint World Headquarters in Overland Park, Kansas. He is also a professor of architecture at UT-Arlington and a prolific writer.

My complaint has been that the mm-mm projects always seem not merely to lack reference to the existing landscape — elaborate suspension bridges over mud flats, for example — but they actually wind up coming across as big middle fingers to the landscape. Sloan explained to me that this kind of project — very different from his own work — is not designed to fit into a landscape. It’s not supposed to be a middle finger, but its purpose is to help people forget that the existing landscape is even there. He calls it, “The Bilbao effect,” which he told me to look up, so I did, and I saw that he was using a term commonly kicked around in his field.

Twenty-five years ago the Basque Country government in Spain commissioned the Canadian-American architect, Frank Gehry, to design a modern art museum to be plunked down into an obsolete seaport area in Bilbao, a Spanish rust-belt city on a river near the northern coast of Spain. The result was a wildly free-form structure that looked like hastily torn and tossed Christmas gift wrappings left behind by a family of entitled giants. It was an enormous international hit. Sloan says that moment was a convergence of three important phenomena.

“One,” he says, “was the appearance of global media. The second thing was branding. The third thing is the rise of new digital technologies and all the new possibilities that that presents to designers. Those are the three things that materialized. They ended up converging, and there is one particular project and moment that is the ignition switch to it all.”

The Frank Gehry Bilbao Guggenheim Museum.

The Gehry, which began almost immediately attracting a million visitors a year to Bilbao, was credited eventually by the Basque government with boosting Bilbao’s economy by $147 million a year and pouring tax revenues into the government equivalent with what the government would have reaped from 4,415 new jobs. And perhaps even more important to the leading citizens of Bilbao, this rusty old industrial center suddenly was perceived internationally as a center of sophistication and renown. Well, everybody else in the world wanted some of that.

“A city discovered,” Sloan said, “that if they would and could underwrite the production of some spectacular new architectural work and by logical extension landscape architectural work, the image, not necessarily the performance but the image, of that building could be immediately circulated around the world proclaiming that city as a new kind of cultural player on the world stage.”

Bringing it all home, Sloan reminded me that this was the same period when Dallas suffered a jarring psychological slap-down in the Boeing world headquarters competition. I do remember all that. For some reason Dallas had sort of assumed it would win the new headquarters. Losing to Chicago was bad enough, but then the Boeing people were quoted explaining they had passed on Dallas because it lacked cultural vibrancy.

Kevin Sloan, second from left, was one of a panel of experts two years ago who discussed "rewilding" the Trinity River instead of turning it into a high-design park.
Kevin Sloan, second from left, was one of a panel of experts two years ago who discussed "rewilding" the Trinity River instead of turning it into a high-design park.
Jim Schutze

Immediately after Boeing, the huge push ensued from the Park Cities people to build out the city’s new arts district downtown. But to this day and in spite of an entire series of stunning architectural achievements, the arts district still looks and feels like something created by some 1950s Soviet Ministry of Something or Other. Whenever I walk through it, I feel as if I might be ticketed by the gendarmes for looking into windows that are none of my business. Luckily, most of the time there are no windows.

Sloan explains that the Bilbao effect gave rise to an era of what are called “starchitects,” a few superstars whose names alone are supposed to be enough to open the heavens and cause golden showers of wealth to rain down on even the most forsaken and butt-ugly domains. But the same technology and media climate that gave rise to starchitecture also quickly made it possible for every butt-ugly domain on earth to hire one, to have its own Frank Gehry or, in our case (and I do not think we are butt-ugly) our own Santiago Calatrava.

So how’s it holding up, this starchitecture thing? I shopped around and found a New York Times article from seven years ago on apartment and condo towers in New York that were marketed originally on the basis of the starchitects who designed them. The story said the rents and sales prices in them were in keeping with the areas nearby to them, but there was no enduring price difference or value based on the names of the architects.

I found a number of articles in professional and scholarly journals proclaiming the age of the starchitect to be over, saying in effect that they have become a glut. But I found articles saying the opposite, that great breakthrough architecture will always be great breakthrough architecture, and the business of who gets the biggest benefit from it probably will always be a matter of timing beyond our control.

Sloan is not especially a critic of starchitecture, but he says it’s important to know what you are getting and what you are not getting when you hire one. Each of them is known for doing a certain kind of thing, he said, and that is the kind of thing you are going to get when you hire one. He mentioned Michael Van Valkenburgh, the New York architect who has been hired to design the new Simmons Park downtown. That’s the park I call the fake Central Park, because it would be built on man-made hills and have man-made streams and ponds designed to look fake-natural, like Central Park.

“When you go to a Michael Van Valkenburgh or any of the other well-named and well-respected designers who fall in the same kind of category,” Sloan said, “they are brought in to do their thing. They are not brought in to reinvent a new kind of fire that they have never done before because of the particularities of the site.”

As he spoke, I remembered the big thing in the Cedars last year where Van Valkenburgh and his staff made a public “reveal” of their design for Simmons Park. It went on for some time. Sitting on my folding chair, I was jarred out of a certain amount of torpor when Matt Urbanski, a member of Van Valkenburgh’s staff, told the audience he felt the Trinity River itself was, “just from a design sense, a little boring.”

Wait, I thought. The river is “boring”? I get that the river has issues. Through downtown it lies in a man-made channel between big levees. But the levees are a quarter- to a half-mile apart, and up and down that expanse are incredible migrating water birds, bobcats and coyotes. Where the river floods and recedes, one walks over land that is owned by water, sun and wildlife. When the wind blows down through the grasses, the city is invisibly distant and silent. I’m not sure I can even put a finger on what that quality is, but I never once thought it was just boring, like, oh, boy, I have a better idea. Or Michael Van Valkenburgh has a better idea. I’m intrigued by trying to find out what the idea is already out there. I think it might be bigger than the lot of us.

But Sloan helped me understand that the people who are so ardent about hiring a Calatrava or a Van Valkenburgh to redo the landscape here are not being merely mm-mm, ah-ah or oh-oh. At least they don’t mean to be. They are trying to reproduce an effect they have seen elsewhere. I think they’re doing it about 24 years and 11 months too late but not because they are … you know.

So I can get a beginner’s wood-burning kit at Michael’s for about 10 bucks, but, since I am a veteran of the Cub Scouts and have done this before, I may go for the $27 professional-level kit on Amazon. Tell me if you want a plaque. At least you will know my plaques won’t be as long as my columns.

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