Architecture Critic Mark Lamster on Why He Calls Dallas the “Paradox City”
When Mark Lamster joined the Dallas Morning News in 2013, it was a particularly auspicious time for the city. A number of prominent architects had completed buildings in the burgeoning downtown arts district. Lamster weighed in on them critically, but very quickly distinguished himself by expanding the scope of his architecture and design coverage to include historic preservation, equity, transportation, healthcare design, among many other issues. In just four years, he has become an essential voice for the city.
Lamster spent the 2016-17 school year on sabbatical at Harvard, on a Loeb Fellowship. In addition to his studies there, he found time to complete a long-gestating project: his biography of Philip Johnson, scheduled for release next year. He also mounted a photography exhibition entitled The Island Nobody Knows, a visual exploration of the Deer Island Wastewater Management Plant, in Boston. Recently I talked to Lamster about the issues facing Dallas, why he calls it the “Paradox City,” what Amazon wants from its second host city, and his role as a critic.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
ML: Mark Lamster
There are issues occurring in cities simultaneously: housing affordability, gentrification, design equity. What are the other issues in planning and urbanism, specific to Dallas?
All cities are facing the same challenges, and then, individually, we’re all slightly different. As Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local.” So, like other big cities, we have a housing crisis, we have entrenched poverty, we have equity issues. But, specific to Dallas, there are two major planning issues on the table. The first is what to do about the Trinity River and its floodplain, which runs through the heart of the city. Some history: in 1908 the river flooded and devastated the city. In response, the city channelized the river, and put it between these giant levees. Now that space is unused and neglected. The Trinity is usually a trickle, rather than a flowing river, so we have this land between the levees, suitable for development into a park. For about 20 years the city debated how to do that. The big impediment was a plan to put a toll road in there because—Dallas being Dallas—you can’t have a park without also putting a highway through it. But just this past month, after so many years of debate, we finally got rid of the toll road.
That seems like that’s a huge breakthrough, a paradigm shift.
Dallas is making strides. It takes a long time, and it’s two steps forward, two steps back, a shuffle to the side, and then a tiny step forward. But it’s still progress.
What was the tipping point that caused that to happen?
A big part of it was a progressive movement in the city that continually pointed out the uselessness of that road: It was supposed to be a traffic reliever, but every study showed that it wasn’t going to do that; it was expensive and nobody wanted to pay for it; it would have destroyed the idea of a park; it would have been located in a floodplain. And I think people here are beginning to understand the idea of induced demand, and the often regressive nature of highway construction in inner cities. The city, in other words, came to its senses. A lot of the groups that had been for the road started to turn against it. The AIA, an organization that had initially been for the plan, sort of, came out strongly against it. Finally, all of the experts were aligned against it, even the traffic engineers. And suddenly the toll road lost its principal constituents, except for the people who were going to make a profit off of it.
What’s the second big issue?
The other debate we’re having is about Fair Park, the city’s Depression Era fairgrounds. It’s an extraordinary place, one of the greatest, intact collections of Art Moderne buildings in the world. The Texas State Fair is held there every year. It’s in a deeply challenged African American neighborhood that has been pretty badly treated over the years. Fair Park was once where all of the arts and cultural institutions in the city were located. But over the last 20 years, those have been moved into a downtown arts district. Right now, Fair Park isn’t so much a park, as parking. Sixty percent of it is covered by concrete. And it is largely controlled by the State Fair, which has leases on it that give it considerable control year round. The relationship between the fair, the park, and the local community, has not been good. So the question now is: how do we remake Fair Park into a place that will be a genuine park and year-round amenity for the community, and the city at large? And like the Trinity River, this is something that people have been arguing about for a long time.
I assume there has been some “visioning” on the part of the planning and civic community about what an improved Fair Park might look like.
One of our problems is, we constantly do that. We put the cart before the horse here. That was part of the problem with the Trinity. Often we have the political establishment telling the rest of the city: “Look at these amazing plans!” and then trying to force this vision down the city’s collective throat. There’s always a plan, and then there’s blowback, and then there’s another plan, and another plan after that, ad infinitum. We never start with public process. That’s the essential problem. Because the people see another plan and it becomes another reason to be suspicious: “Are they going to condemn our property? And take more land this time? How is it really going to benefit us? I don’t trust them. Last time they did this, x,y, z happened.”
So we don’t need to start with plans. We need to start with a good public process, and then move onto the plans. I think the city is learning this. It’s starting to happen with Fair Park now. There’s an RFQ out for a new management foundation for the park and once that’s in place—and that’s something the public can get behind—then the plans can start moving forward.
Is Dallas in the running for the second Amazon headquarters? What have you heard about that?
Like every major metropolis, Dallas certainly hopes to be in the running.
Do you think that would be good, bad, indifferent? I just read a piece from a columnist in Seattle. It was a letter addressed to “Dear Other North American City,” and the message was: be careful what you wish for, it can be a great thing, but he referred to it as a “prosperity bomb,” with all that that implied.
Obviously, winning a bid like that would create a set of conditions that the city would have to manage. But in my mind the negatives of it are so vastly outweighed by the positives. It’s a huge number of good jobs.
But my question is, where does Amazon want to be? What kind of place does it want to be? Is it going to be another Apple, planting its own ring out in the middle of its own private space, creating a homogenous, anti-urban culture apart from the city? Would Amazon move into the city? If it moved to the city, would it integrate into it? Or is it going to create its own closed-campus culture? What’s Amazon’s vision for the kind of urban culture it wants? And then, in turn, how does that fit into our city? I don’t know the answers to that. Cities are lining up, saying: we want it, we want it, we want it! That’s understandable, but what exactly does Amazon want? And then how do we decide, as a city, how that works with what we’re offering? Aside from the obvious benefits, it would an opportunity to grow civic services, public transit. Transportation might be one of our drawbacks. But how can we grow that?
Speaking of transportation, what’s the state of public transportation in Dallas?
I refer to Dallas as the “Paradox City,” because so much of what it does is paradoxical. We have a light rail system that has more rail miles than any other system in the country. But it has incredibly low ridership. So we have the most tracks, and the fewest people riding on them.
Why? Does it not connect the right places?
It was a strategic choice. Do we go for density and keep the system in the city, or do we fan out towards the suburbs? We choose the latter.
Dallas didn’t experience development along the transit corridors?
We do have transit oriented development along the rail, and it’s continuing to grow. But overwhelmingly, the transportation choice is vehicular. Because we still have first and last mile problems with the rail system. The rest of your life often requires a car. But that’s changing. More people are moving downtown. More people are walking. Suddenly we have three bike share programs operating downtown. So things are changing. We just voted to fund a new transit line downtown. That will vastly improve rail service.
Dallas is a hard place for rail, because it’s so spread out. BRT [bus rapid transit] would be great here. Rail requires huge infrastructure investment. BRT is inexpensive. All you need are the buses and some paint. The good news is that Dallas is doing a lot of the right things, at the same time that it’s doing a lot of not great things. It still has this legacy of roads, and this 1950s model of automotive urbanity. The city is a product of that, so moving beyond it is difficult.
Dallas is landlocked, so its climate change issues are somewhat different than Houston’s. Houston is already talking about building a storm surge barrier. And so is New York. I think most coastal cities will have to reckon with those infrastructure costs. What is Dallas facing?
Flooding is the problem here. And water generally: either not having enough of it, or suddenly having too much of it. We have various flood control measures, but they’re not completely thought out or maintained. Things flood and we panic, and then we forget about it, even though we have levees that we need to worry about, especially downtown. And there’s a social equity aspect to this: a lot of our flood infrastructure was designed to protect downtown. That’s basically well protected. The populations most at risk are generally minority populations. Those communities take the brunt of it when flooding occurs, which of course makes it easy for the power structure to avoid dealing with it. Heat and water are going to be our two big problems. The city is trying to take some action to mitigate that. We have a resilience officer, who is very smart. Are we doing enough? No. Are we thinking about it? Kind of.
I’ve really liked the work you’ve done since moving to Dallas. At times you’ve adopted the old Allan Temko activist role of architecture critic. How do you view your role at the paper, and in the city?
The idea for having an architecture critic here came out of a period when the city had built all of these impressive public buildings, designed by Pritzker Prize winning architects. The idea was: we need somebody here to write about all of this important architecture that we’re building. This is the Dallas paradox again. The city is both insecure, but also has this incredible braggadocio. So I think there was a need to have somebody here, to validate what it had done and to point what should come next.
Of course, just building a bunch of signature buildings isn’t going to solve your larger urban problems. So, I’ve been engaged in a broader dialogue with our readers about how the physical environment shapes our everyday lives. I try to do a mix of stories. I do some advocacy, some long form stuff, some narratives about the city and its history. One of the cliches about Dallas is that we’re a city without history, always looking towards tomorrow. I try to remind the city that it actually does have a history, some of it very interesting. We have some pretty amazing buildings and people who’ve built here. I try to get our readers to value that history a little more, so that we don’t tear it down. We have a terrible habit of doing that. That’s true of just about everyplace in America, but Dallas especially.
It’s important to be relevant, if you’re an architecture critic. If you’re just going to write formal reviews of “important works of significant architecture,” how interesting is that going to be to your reader? You want to be involved in a broader conversation. One of the problems we have now is that architects aren’t valued. As a critic, you need to talk to people about things that matter to them every day. Showing them that important buildings matter to them, but it’s equally important how the street is designed, how the bridge they cross every morning is designed, how they get around is important, how these are all design questions.
Featured image: the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, designed by Santiago Calatrava, via Dallas Trinity Trails.