Curbed Names Dallas City Hall One of Top Ten Most Beautiful City Halls. Hmmmm

It has a different aesthetic than many of the nation’s older, more traditional Flemish Renaissance, Art Deco, Georgian cum French Renaissance city halls: it’s edgy contemporary. Personally, I think the exterior needs a good steam cleaning  — interiors, too! But our I.M. Pei-designed Dallas City Hall, which has been around and talked about since 1978, was just named one of the top five city halls in the U.S. by CURBED, and for very god reason.

Plans for a new city hall in Dallas, Texas, had been in the works since the 1940s, but they didn’t come into fruition until after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In an effort to revitalize Dallas’s reputation after the tragedy, the city launched the Goals for Dallas program which included new city and federal offices.

The fifth iteration of Dallas’s City Hall opened in 1978, and the city tapped the renowned modern architect I.M. Pei to design the building. The result was a concrete and angled structure that remains controversial today. Giant oval columns support an inverted pyramid of concrete and glass, and the building also provides shade during the hot summer months.

Some dislike the concrete and somewhat austere aesthetic; others praise the building for its innovation and creativity.

It is a unique city hall. City halls, says CURBED, “are often located at the cultural and physical nexuses of urban centers, creating large gathering places for everything from celebrations to protests. These are some of the most beautiful—and interesting—structures in the city.” 

Dallas City Hall has a wonderful plaza where we gathered two weeks ago, for example, to remember and honor Dallas police, those who had been killed in the line of duty. Shade came from a huge tent, not the building. And it is NOT surrounded by the most bustling neighborhood. Still, I love Dallas City Hall. 

Many city halls are historic. In places like New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, the architecture of each city’s town hall is representative of the particular milieu in which it was built. French Renaissance or Art Deco styles tell you not only when a building was constructed, but also the ideals to which cities aspired.

New York City, the oldest city hall, is all about Georgian Scotch Irish. Dallas City Hall is all about edges, unique geometry, with that inverted pyramid. Is this because the city of Dallas itself is a funny little pyramid along the Trinity River? Is the triangle a play on the Trinity? Is it representative of a Texas woman’s big fluffy hair?

Or perhaps the big plans that are made inside the hall?

Finally, there is also a handful of new city halls that show where government architecture is headed. Some are low-lying buildings made of limestone, while others are curving modern temples of glass and eco-friendly amenities.
Two examples right here: San Jose and Austin: 
San Jose’s city hall looks like R2D2 from Star Wars. True to its state of origin, it is the most expensive city hall in the country, just like California’s real estate market. It was designed by architect Richard Meier (who also designed the Rachofsky house here in Dallas) and influenced by French architect Le Corbusier. It cost about $343 million when it opened in 2005.

As the centerpiece of a seven-block redevelopment in the city, the City Hall consists of an 18-story office building, an exterior plaza, and below-grade parking. But the focal point of the project is a transparent domed main entry that serves as a modern take on the traditional domes of historic buildings. The rotunda was designed to be the public meeting place of the complex.

Nice. Cool northern Cali weather and you go inside, hot Texas sun you go outside.

Austin’s capital building opened in 2004, and was crafted of pure country limestone, Texas limestone. Other materials, such as copper, glass, and water, combine to create what the architects like to call “the city’s living room.” (Who has water in their living room, unless you are talking the bar sink?) Unlike most of the older capitals, this one is designed to be a warmly informal, kick your boots up kind of place. It totally befits the younger population of Austin.

Now take a look at Boston: funny that a city with a vast collection of historical buildings chose such a modern design for its city hall. Do you see a few similarities to Dallas City Hall? This one was built in 1968, so more likely we were inspired by it. “Brutalist charm” Curbed calls it… how about just strong shoulders?

6 Comment

  • I always thought it was one of Pei’s least successful buildings. It’s also emblematic of top-heavy government. The plaza has some charm, but the building seems threatening to me. The library is worse.

  • Absolutely “top-heavy government” but also how large grand plans are undertaken by governments only to ultimately be minimized into nothingness.
    And yes, while the exterior might be controversial as a Brutalist structure, there should be no controversy surrounding it’s poorly maintained, often grimy interior. (another reflection on politics itself?)

  • Some body wrote this about Dallas City Hall upon IM Pei’s death, and I can’t say I disagree:

    “I always figured Dallas City Hall the perfect representation of the totalitarian impulse that runs through Dallas money. Deliberately broken public spaces so demonstrations get lost, a giant hulking dwarf of a building meant to cause chills in the subjects that serve it “.

  • I’ve read that the columns were not in the original design and thus don’t support the structure. Maybe if they weren’t there, the building would look less awkward. Also, the plaza is a concrete wasteland. It would be nicer as a drought-resistant garden.