From Bauhaus to God's House

Page 7 of 8

Like Cunningham's, the Corgan firm has received critical praise in recent years, both for its suburban schools and for downtown work, including buildings at the Dallas Farmers Market. (Corgan's Farmers Market Resource Center was the other building chosen for an Honor Award from the AIA in 1995.)

But Corgan is a different kind of firm than Cunningham's--one that is considerably safer aesthetically. Corgan's West End office is more polished than Cunningham's quarters. And Corgan's work seldom has the kind of raw edges Cunningham seems to relish.

Many of Corgan's award-winning projects are the work of Brent Byers, a principal in the firm. Byers, a good-natured, elegant man with silver hair and mustache, is the partner in charge of the second phase of Prince of Peace.

In describing his approach to the project, Byers hits on a good characterization of his firm's work as opposed to Cunningham's: "We want to do innovative things, but more conventional innovative things." Byers, for example, has no philosophical problem with brick veneer, and disagrees with Cunningham about its durability. "We're not nearly as theoretical. Brick veneer will last as long as concrete, and the cost isn't much different."

Byers, who has designed a number of schools in Plano and neighboring Frisco, also seems to have a more sophisticated understanding of the suburban culture--and a greater willingness to accommodate its self-image. "We try never to get into a position of defending our work," he says. "We will work with the client to embody their goals."

As a suburban community matures and becomes more certain of itself, Byers observes, it becomes more conservative. He notes that Frisco, a municipality just beginning the transition from small town to suburb, is willing to accept more adventurous designs for its schools than Plano, citing one of his recently completed Frisco schools as an example. The school, which contrasts different shapes and brick colors in a dynamic composition, "does not represent a traditional school in its architectural forms," says Byers. "Frisco knows that and likes it, because they want to be progressive and competitive. Twenty years ago, when Plano was younger, they built a high school using tilt-wall concrete. Now that they are a full-fledged city, their tastes are more conservative."

Byers says he addressed that conservatism in his design for phase two of Prince of Peace. Most of the design echoes Cunningham's work, which Byers calls "wonderful" and "a firm foundation for our work." But in dealing with the much-maligned school, he has introduced a different vocabulary of gable roofs and decorative brick patterns that echo the houses across Plano Parkway. In an obvious gesture of camouflage, the new wings of the school wrap around the old one, with a one-room-deep addition covering up the north end with a new brick facade--complete with a sign reading "Prince of Peace Catholic Community."

Clearly, Byers understands that the view from the parkway matters much in the suburban car culture.

Gary Cunningham says he knew one building committee member understood his work when he said, "We're not doing a billboard, we're doing a tapestry." Byers, on the other hand, acknowledges that what he is doing--at the church's insistence--is a kind of billboard.

On Sunday, August 13, enlarged model photos of Corgan's phase two design were on display in the atrium of Prince of Peace, and many churchgoers saw the new plans for the first time. Parishioners crowded around the photos, curious to see what was to be done about the school wing. Reactions ranged from relief to amusement. "So they're going to do a cover-up job," chuckled one man.

Balint says it's too early to judge the success of the ongoing campaign for phase two funding, but that the design of the additions seems to have put the issue of the school to rest. He hopes to start construction by next June.

The public response of Dallas' architectural community to the change of architects was minimal, though Cunningham did receive one mild gesture of support. In the jury comments that accompanied the Dallas AIA Honor Award in May 1995, juror James Ingo Freed (a partner of I.M. Pei and the designer of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.) said he considered it "essential that the same architect be allowed to follow through on the design of the second phase."

By then, of course, Cunningham's dismissal had been a fait accompli for months.

There are two kinds of reactions to Cunningham's saga in the architecture world. Both address the profession's profound identity crisis at a time when architects' ability to shape the built world seems to be getting smaller and smaller.

There are those who hold a traditional view of architects as artists who must be afforded their creative integrity. The supporters of such an "architectural elite" regularly decry the work done by "service firms," business-oriented architects who turn out reliable but dull, predictable architecture. The followers of this paradigm see Cunningham's dismissal as a failure of nerve, an unwillingness to let the artist pursue his vision.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Mark Alden Branch