I never had the pleasure to meet David Dillon, but without him I would not be here to write this column. Snicker if you wish that were not so, but let me suggest that architectural criticism plays an important civic function in any city, and in Dallas in particular, given its rapid expansion and its grand aspirations.
Dillon, who died in 2010 at the age of 68, established it here as an essential practice. He was this city’s first architectural critic, a position he assumed at this paper in 1981 and held for a quarter of a century, until he left it in 2006. That was a time of dramatic physical change for the city, and Dillon chronicled that transformation with analytical precision as he tried to shape it for the better.
“If the phrase ‘conscience of a city’ is a bit of a cliché, I can’t think of a word that describes David’s role in Dallas any better,” Paul Goldberger, the former architecture critic of The New York Times and The New Yorker, told a Dallas audience in 2012.
Dillon didn’t have the large national reputation he deserved; he wrote before the Internet dissolved borders and distances, making a Texas critic accessible to readers on the coasts and beyond. He wrote a pair of fine books, one on Dallas and the other a monograph on the Texas modernist O’Neil Ford, but both still left him in the category of regionalist.
But a new collection of Dillon’s writing, The Open-Ended City: David Dillon on Texas Architecture (University of Texas, $29.95), is a welcome reminder of his intelligence and flair for the mot juste, and should introduce him to a new generation of readers, both at home and beyond. The book, with more than 60 of Dillon’s essays arranged in themes, has been admirably assembled and introduced by Kathryn Holliday, the director of the David Dillon Center for Texas Architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Dillon’s writing was characterized by a diversity of interests and a literary quality, both of which may be attributed to his background and education. He grew up in a small industrial town in central Massachusetts with a stock of Victorian architecture, received his doctorate in literature from Harvard, and moved to Dallas to teach English at Southern Methodist University, where he authored a book on writing technique. He counted John Updike and Mark Twain among his models. As Holliday notes in the book’s introductory essay, Dillon “wrote not to impress other critics or curry favor with architects, but for readers of the daily newspaper.”
What got the paper’s attention, however, was a May 1980 cover story for D magazine provocatively titled “Why Is Dallas Architecture So Bad?” It was a shot across the bow of the city’s architectural, business, and political establishment that lamented a lazy, bloated corporatism that lacked originality or local character.
Dillon was tough when the city failed to meet his standard, but generous and insightful when it did. Among his favorite projects was Fountain Place, the rocket-like office tower designed by Henry Cobb, a partner of I.M. Pei. “It is the ultimate minimalist skyscraper, a virtuosic essay in the architecture of subtraction,” he wrote in a 1986 review. He called it a “stunning prism that changes shape from different angles and at different times of day” and compared its shimmery glass surface to a “sheet of blue-green Saran Wrap.”
Another favorite, and one that was more controversial, was the Hyatt Regency and Reunion Tower complex. Writing on their 10th anniversary, in 1988, he described them as instant icons that put a visual anchor on the west end of downtown. But the ball and the grid of silvery mirror glass was something even more important, a kind of civic biography in three dimensions. “To the driver on the freeway and the passenger in an airplane, the Hyatt epitomizes what Dallas is all about: style, motion, entertainment, the future.”
Dillon embraced the new, but he also encouraged readers to look carefully at the city’s built history. A full section of the book is devoted to preservation, with essays ranging in scale from the neighborhood of State-Thomas, to the residential conversion of downtown’s Mercantile Building, to the chipped and faded glories of Fair Park.
He was an advocate, though a critical one, of the Arts District, and he lamented its lack of amenities (and artists). Much of his writing was devoted to the travails of the city’s downtown core, and its disdain for pedestrians. But he also loved the car. In a 1990 essay, “Why We Should Love Freeways,” he wrote that they “lift us momentarily out of the urban sprawl and expose the abstract, infinitely receding drama of prairie and sky.”
He was not always a fan of Dallas grandeur, though. Dillon was unafraid to deride the city’s taste for the ostentatious gesture. Upon its opening, in 1986, he lamented the overscaled Crescent complex as “corporate America and Napoleon Bonaparte come together on one site,” and described its decorative iron filigree as “architectural psoriasis.”
More than its giganticism, however, it was the Crescent’s brutish insularity that offended Dillon. “There is no edge, no sharp delineation of street and building. Along Pearl Street, the main link to downtown, the project moons the public with ramps, parking lots, loading docks, and what is probably the world’s first French Classical drive-in bank,” he wrote. “The Crescent fails in its attempt to reconcile the competing claims of the city and suburb.”
Of suburban pretensions he could be equally damning. Among his most memorable columns was a 1994 screed against the overscaled residential building that had come to define the city’s sprawl. Headlined “Big Mess on the Prairie,” it annotated the various design crimes of the “North Dallas Special,” now better known as the McMansion: “You know the ones — hulking two-story brick houses, with Arc de Triomphe entrances and enough gables and hip roofs to be scale models of an avalanche.”
Together, the essays describe a critic who engaged architecture in the broadest sense, looking not just at individual buildings, but at the impact of urban planning decisions, transportation systems, housing policy, history, and the relationship between city and suburb.
“We all prod and provoke and praise in hopes that, over time, others will join the chorus,” he wrote. It’s an honor to sing his song.
Mark Lamster is the architecture critic of The Dallas Morning News, a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington School of Architecture.
The Uptown Special
In a 1994 column, David Dillon graphically cataloged the design ills of what he called the “North Dallas Special,” now better known as the McMansion, a type that was then coming to define the region’s sprawling suburbs. In that spirit, we once again look to a type that is coming to dominate building in this region, the generic four- to five-story greige apartment block. It is sometimes known as the Dallas Donut (because they can be hollow blocks with parking in the center), but we’re calling it the Uptown Special, as it is there that their presence first emerged in bulk, although they are now to be found across the city and suburbs. — ML
David Dillon’s Dallas, a panel discussion
Join us for a panel discussion on David Dillon’s legacy and vision on Tuesday, May 21 in the basement auditorium of The Dallas Morning News at 1954 Commerce St.. Our speakers will include News architecture critic Mark Lamster, News arts writer Michael Granberry (who was a friend and colleague of Dillon’s) and director of the David Dillon Center for Texas Architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington, Kathryn E. Holliday, who edited the new collection of Dillon’s essays. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. for a reception with the discussion from 7 to 8 p.m. Details: Free, but RSVP required at firstname.lastname@example.org.