Dallas AIA Unbuilt Design Awards Need More Dallas

Critic’s Choice Award: Magnolia Service Station – Not Really “Unbuilt”

Back in May, the day I.M. Pei died, the Dallas chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) held their annual awards for unbuilt projects along with a separate student design award. As I walked around the entries with our founder and publisher, Candy Evans, I began to notice that the buildings I liked most were almost always outside Dallas and Texas as a whole. You see, the awards are for Dallas-based design firms’ work, not necessarily projects in the Metroplex.

So yes, I could go on a riff about bland Dallas architecture, but you’ve heard that before. The “Aha!” moment was that Dallas-based architectural firms were capable of producing interesting work – it’s their Dallas-area clients that are to blame for lacking in imagination and fortitude. This means that my series “Why Can’t Dallas Have Nice Things” is a larger indictment of local developers than it is of local architects.

The other interesting thing was noted by the out-of-town judges. The entrants for Dallas-area “unbuilt” projects weren’t very dreamy as a whole. If you think about concept cars at auto shows, you see radically different, often unbuildable design studies that are all about the cool (think fin-tailed, jet-powered bubble cars). The unbuilt entries in this competition could more accurately be portrayed as “dirt hasn’t moved yet” versus wildly fanciful, unbuildable confections. There was little WOW and precious little wow.

For example, the critic’s choice award selected by the Dallas Morning News’s Mark Lamster is the reimagining of the old Magnolia Service Station downtown on Commerce Street and Cesar Chavez Blvd. by Omniplan. Built in 1920, the entry is a wonderful renovation, but it’s not “unbuilt.” As East Quarter comes back to life, I’m betting the graphic above is exactly what the property will look like with minor tweaks – I mean the building’s been there for nearly a century. Don’t get me wrong, I love bringing this building back to usefulness as a centerpiece of neighborhood revitalization. But “unbuilt”?

The only other of the six winners whose projects were in Dallas was a tidy, restrained addition to an existing building at 5401 N. Central Expy conceptualized by Entos Design. The building itself is rounded and low-slung, bending around a triangular lot. Its shape and silver-mirrored façade announce its 1982 birthdate. The existing entryway is a garish, post-modern primary blue. It’s the home of John Carona’s property management company Associa.

As you can see above, it’s an entry that ditches the blue AND adds a “simple” louvered grate fitted above. What makes this a stand-out is that for a relatively few bucks, light and shadow that plays a game throughout the day that always points to the doorway. Why this wasn’t constructed, I have no clue.  But who knows, it might simply be unbuilt – yet.

Concert Hall in Kaunas, Lithuania by CallisonRTKL

So to recap, there were a lot of entries and six winners. The Dallas works that got tossed a bone were essentially remodels of a doorway and a historic gas station. The remaining two-thirds of winners were from-scratch projects in Berlin, New York, Indiana and Lithuania (above).

Come on Dallas developers!

Like everywhere humans build, there are a lot of buildings that remain unbuilt – Dallas has a lot of planned “towers” where only one got built. During the oil bust and S&L crash, many Dallas high-rise proposals died – at least 23 proposed towers were never built from 1978-1985. One of those half-built “towers” was I.M. Pei’s Fountain Place. Originally planned as two identical towers rotated 90-degrees (above). As we know, just one was built.  Now, 35-years later, AMLI is building a second tower that while not identical – shorter and different design – uses the same exterior glass that should tie the buildings together visually. Unlike Pei’s office tower design, the AMLI project will be 367 rental apartments – a use downtown Dallas would have scarcely contemplated in the 1980s.


Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with three Bronze (2016, 2017, 2018) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email sharewithjon@candysdirt.com. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.