In high-rise architectural terms, Dallas is an eight crayon town in a 96 crayon world. After over 30 years of building nothing special, we got McKinney and Olive by award-winning architectural firm Pelli Clarke Pelli. Then in March 2017, Hillwood announced (skyline-changing) Perot Tower designed by noted British architect Sir Norman Foster that won’t apparently be built until there’s a tenant (and that looks similar to a failed Renzo Piano London project). Finally in October, Hogue Capital and KDC unveiled plans for a 20-acre downtown Smart District also to be designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli.
And be honest, am I the only one who hopes these are just boring mock-ups and not the actual Smart District structures? Trailblazing, they’ ain’t.
It all brings back memories of the 1980s when Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, I. M. Pei and Philip Johnson ruled the Dallas skyline. Sure there were also one-offs like JPJ Architects who designed Dallas’ tallest building in 1985, but looking at the sold-bankrupt-sold firm’s work, the Bank of America tower (green building) was their high-point.
From a 30-year high-rise hiatus to boring buildings left, right, and center, and our repetitive tapping of the same architects, Dallas, it would seem, loves a rut. Well, I don’t …
When I renovate homes, I rarely use the same thing twice except in the kitchen — Bosch dishwashers, Gaggenau side-hinge ovens, and Grohe Ladylux kitchen faucets are standard. Otherwise, there’s always something new and cool and different. So I don’t understand plying the same path when your job as a developer is to build beauty (that’s profitable). Beauty is the give-back to the city.
Studio Gang: Let’s Get Out of The Rut
Consider Studio Gang the first of multiple columns featuring architectural firms I stumble across that do great work that’s largely unknown to Dallas. It doesn’t hurt that this firm hails from my hometown of Chicago, but their work is world class. I’ll say that Studio Gang and its founder, Jeanne Gang, leapt off the page with 2010’s multi-award winning Aqua Tower in Chicago.
At 82 stories and 876 feet in height, the building ripples as though encased in undulating topology maps showing rolling mountains, hills, and lakes. It also reminds me of how a sheet ripples when making a bed. Inside, the building is a fairly straight-forward high-rise containing 700 apartments and a hotel (Radisson Blu). Being Chicago, of course, there is a fully planted green roof and community garden for residents to enjoy, — one of the city’s largest.
Its exterior forces you to look up where most high-rises don’t warrant a second glance. The effect is achieved using balconies ranging from zero to eight feet in depth. The areas with zero balcony, showing just glass, are referred to as “pools” on the side of the building. The design was also the result of understanding the building’s location and the best ways to ensure occupants garnered the best views possible in a tricky location surrounded by other high-rises.
The rolling exterior also plays a part in “confusing” the winds that buffet all tall buildings. This confusion makes the balconies on the upper floors less wind-prone and therefore more usable to residents. The uniquely shaped balconies also facilitate exterior neighbor interaction. Parts of the balcony overlook others which encourage a neighborliness not found in typical stacked square balconies (you’d have to hang over the edge to say “hi”).
Tour Montparnasse, Paris
Completed in 1973, Tour Montparnasse was the tallest building in Paris until 2011 and by many estimations, one of the world’s ugliest skyscrapers. So hated in Paris, it resulted in a 42 year ban on buildings over seven stories in the city center. Only recently was the ban lifted. My Parisian friend told me that the views from the sky deck are considered the best in Paris, not least because it’s the only place Tour Montparnasse can’t be seen.
In 2016 there was an international contest to reimagine the building for the 21st century with a €300 million renovation of the building. Studio Gang was one of two finalists among 700 entries along with ultimate winner nouvelle AOM. I will say that Gang’s exterior should be the winner. It totally transforms the building. Nouvelle AOM’s design appears to be more of a recladding of the original.
Gang’s exterior is a shifting series of elongated vertical diamonds that appear to be the result of a hand crimping the building. The dark exterior is replaced by a glimmering, uneven surface reflecting all of Paris.
Similarly, the top floor Observatory and restaurant offer staggering views of Paris from an equally staggering space. The combination of interior and exterior spaces would have been jaw-dropping.
The interior, dominated by an almost organic, tree-trunk-like central roof support is evidence of what engineering can do in the right hands. A garden on top of the Parisian world. It’s a shame Gang lost this competition as I feel her ideas were bolder and more exciting. But still, from 700 entries to the final two is hardly awful.
Solar Carve Tower 40 Tenth Avenue, New York (Under Construction)
“Solar carving” was the determining factor in this 12-story building’s shape. Many of us use solar carving in our own homes. We hang pictures and lay rugs outside the path of the run to mitigate fading or locate plants to maximize exposure. On an architectural scale, it’s designing a building to maximize sun penetration to the surrounding area. Adjacent to New York’s High Line Park, 40 Tenth Avenue needed to lift its skirts in a novel way to allow sunlight to nourish the park below. In New York, step backs are typically how buildings allow sun to penetrate to the ground. Gang had another idea.
Gang’s team traced the sun’s path through the year to understand the best way to move the building out of the way. Once the shape was decided, a novel diamond-shaped curtain wall system was designed to pull the glass inwards. Not only does this help reduce solar gain (and energy costs) it produces some interesting interior spaces as well.
The project took four tries over as many years to get the plans approved. Originally a larger, more futuristic design, the approved iteration still provides a striking project for New York’s Meatpacking District.
Gang in Austin
Austin’s Colorado River frontage looked vastly different in decades past. Before the era of beautification and valuation of outdoor spaces, the Colorado was dammed in downtown for the Seaholm Power Plant. With the site closed in 1996 as power production for the city moved elsewhere, Seaholm remained vacant for 20 years. The sections north of Cesar Chavez have been redeveloped, leaving the intake building along the river derelict.
In May 2017, Studio Gang was retained to facilitate the resuscitation of the three-acre site by Austin Parks & Recreation Department, Austin Parks Foundation, and The Trail Foundation. For the past several months, Studio Gang’s urbanism leader Gia Biagi has been leading stakeholders and residents through the process of developing a plan for the area.
This has included the review of many, many older, abandoned plans for the area. Reviewing the older plans allowed them to see what common themes survived over the years to act as a launching point. Community engagement figured heavily into the mix.
Their last community meeting was on December 2 and will result in a final recommendation for the area. I, for one, am interested in seeing what Austin’s thriving downtown community will do next to tap into the river’s potential for urban recreation. Hopefully, Studio Gang will stay around to turn this sow’s ear into a silk purse … as if Dallasites need another reason to spring to Austin for the weekend.
Click here to view their September 23 meeting presentation
This represents a handful of Studio Gang projects. One of the things I like about their work is that it’s not pigeonhole-able to a specific style, except that it’s modern. It’s not Gehry’s instantly-recognizable, wildly crinkly style or the cartoon architecture of today’s China and the Middle East. It’s striking without being vulgar. Like me. (Yup, I went there). Click here to see more of their work (not a clinker in the bunch, although I reserve judgement on St. Louis). If you’re a developer within the sound of my keyboard, call them.
Remember: High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. If you’re interested in hosting a Candysdirt.com Staff Meeting event, I’m your guy. In 2016 and 2017, the National Association of Real Estate Editors has recognized my writing with two Bronze (2016, 2017) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards. Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make? Shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org.