Dallas CAN Have Nice Things: SCB Architecture

U.S. Department of Energy HQ Sun Wall (32,000 square feet of solar panels and water heating – Unbuilt)

In my quest to diversify Dallas’ architectural landscape, I’ve run across a firm that could be a great candidate for Dallas developers looking to make their mark. But first, a history lesson.

Back in 1931, Lou, Irving, and Sylvia Solomon opened shop in Chicago. At the time, it was more than an architecture firm, with Lou the designer, brother Irving the builder, and sister Sylvia the project manager. The trio bought up parcels along storied Lake Shore Drive and began building apartment buildings. In 1956, Englishman John Cordwell came aboard after resigning as Chicago’s Director of Planning.

In 1957, the pair won the commission to build an urban renewal project just west of the city’s tony Gold Coast area. The project, named Carl Sandburg Village, encompassed nearly four city blocks containing six high-rises and a mix of mid- and low-rise apartments encompassing 2,600 units. The apartments were converted to condos in 1979 and probably 10 years later, I explored purchasing my first high-rise home there.

The firm added its third partner, John Buenz, a protégé of Eero Saarinen (TWA terminal at JFK) and Harry Weese (first station architect for Washington DC’s Metro). Buenz left his own mark on Chicago with buildings whose names only a local would recognize (1977’s Harbor Point anyone?).

Today, in the trend of many architecture firms, gone are the more memorable names, replaced with three initials – SCB.  The firm has a staff of 280 with offices in Chicago and San Francisco. They’ve completed over 600 projects throughout the world – including (surprise!) Texas. Let’s explore their work – including one called … wait for it …. The Laurel.

Loyola University Chicago: Richard J. Klarchek Information Commons

No, I’m not starting with one of the high-rises SCB is known for, but instead learn something about how a digital library blends old and new into a visually stunning space. At first, I thought the stone ends (that SCB calls “bookends”) of the library were original, perhaps remnants, of an older building. After all, you can just make out neighboring buildings with a similar stony appearance. But they’re not old. Instead, they act as the point of emulsion between older neighboring architecture and the glass box in the middle. Without the bookends, it would be an Apple store.

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The glass serves another purpose besides to reflect the modernity of a digital library.  The building is on the shore of Lake Michigan, a view few wouldn’t want to capture. From front to back, the ever-changing palate of greens, blues, sky, and ice are the backdrop of infinite depth. Sunrise must be glorious.

While Chicago temperatures range from sub-zero to sweltering 100s, this building is LEED Silver certified that’s reduced its energy consumption by 52 percent without students needing blankets in the winter.

Manzanita Hall: Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona

Built in 1967,  11 years after Dallas’ Statler Hilton, the two share a butterfly-wing bend popular in the era. However, I have to say that the exterior of Manzanita Hall is more appealing. The zigzag diamond weave exterior is just more mid-century WOW. SCB didn’t design the 810-bed dormitory, but when Arizona State University needed to decide to resuscitate or rebuild the threadbare building, they brought in SCB. As you might image, after 40 years and an estimated 40,000 students you can imagine the state. In addition to expected interior design updates, the building needed to function for a new century. As Mehrdad Moayedi can tell you from his revitalization of the Statler Hotel, tearing it down would have been easier and cheaper. But in the end, university officials decided the emblematic building needed to stay.

The building offered two huge opportunities to bring it back. Originally, the building’s glass was outside of the zigzag support bracing. By moving the glass behind the bracing, it becomes a far more provocative element of the exterior skin. If you’re going to renovate a signature building like this, have guts.

Secondly, as seen above, the building isn’t really butterfly wings, but more like a “Y” shape. The team was able to extend the end of the “Y” a bit to create two-story communal lounges with kitchens and floor to ceiling glass that floods the end of the building with light. You can just make out the original exterior bracing that’s now used as a transition between dorm and communal spaces.

Hub50House: Boston, Massachusetts

The Hub on Causeway is a 1.5 million-square-foot, mixed-use project located above the original Boston Garden sporting arena and transportation hub (not to be confused with the Boston Public Garden). The site is about a block away from the Charles River and next to the I-93 highway as it heads underground (remember the Big Dig?).

Hub50House is the 38-story tower on the left containing 440 units ranging from “metro” to three bedded accommodations. Making the most of the city and river views, the residential tower has floor-to-ceiling glass. And the glass tells an interesting story. Given the size and differing uses of the project, the residential tower uses two slightly different hues of glass. To further separate upper and lower spaces, both high-rises seem to float above the lower floors of retail and restaurant space.  That floating space is an amenity deck for residents.

While not SCB’s, I have to call out the glass bump-out rooms on the right-hand tower. They’re reminiscent of those at MahaNakhon tower in Bangkok. While not outdoor space per se, they’re got to be invigorating spaces cantilevered over the city.

The Legacy at Millennium Park: Chicago, Illinois

If anyone involved in reviving Fair Park is reading, this is what happens when there’s a great park on your doorstep. The Legacy is a wafer-thin, 73-story, 820-foot condo tower balanced above historic structures. Wedge-shaped, the building rises within a skirt of century-old limestone and terracotta mid-rise commercial buildings. Many cities use this façade-preserving approach to keeping streetscapes human scale while enabling tall structures above.

In Chicago there are regulations about interrupting classic streetscapes on many streets, including Wabash and Michigan Avenues. As a pedestrian, what makes this architectural trick interesting is seeing such a statement building from a distance that seems to disappear as you approach. It’s a little like a rainbow where you never seem to be able to pinpoint where they touch the ground.

Oh, and while it’s 820 feet off the ground, part of the roof is green.

Clearly NOT Preston Hollow’s Laurel

The Laurel: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Located at the edge of historic Rittenhouse Square, the Laurel has a similar brief to The Legacy in that it too must blend into its surroundings at ground level. But unlike The Legacy, there were no historic buildings to spring from after the developer received permission to demolish the historic funeral home on the site. Instead, SCB designed a transitional podium that blended into its surroundings in terms of scale and construction materials. While clearly modern, it’s not a glass box or a white sugar cube shouting “me-me-me” at its neighbors.

The Laurel on the edgiest edge of Rittenhouse Square

Sure, above the four-story podium stands 44 more stories consisting of 66 condos (starting at $2 million) and 184 apartments, but from the street, it’s not so obvious. What’s telling are the amenity decks. The condo dwellers have their pool, gym and such on the 26th floor “above it all” – while the apartment residents (floors 3-25) can swim, pump iron, cook and enjoy music on the third floor for the resident who “seeks to engage with the spirit and energy of the city.” Translation? Buyers are older, renters are younger.

The Laurel will be the tallest residential structure in Philadelphia. Across the world we see populations urbanize, high-rise living is growing due to a combination of limited space and views. I like the building because it breaks up its mass between uses. The upper condo floors pull back from the leading edge of the building. A similar break is seen separating the apartments from the restaurants and retail below. It’s not a terribly new concept as can be seen with the neighboring building above (but it works). While modern engineering wasn’t available, It still creates differing masses of the building to interrupt the blandness of what could easily be a plain Jane upended shoebox (so prevalent in Dallas).

United Airlines, Polaris Lounge

Finally, for the United flyer, know that SCB is responsible for the airline’s Polaris Lounges. Each one is different based on location and space, but they’re all cool … and that’s high praise from a long-term American flyer.

Being “introduced” to SCB’s work was strange given that I grew up obliviously unaware of their role in my hometown.  Seeing instantly recognizable buildings put into context was a fascinating step backward to reconnect with the backdrop of my young-adult life.

By this point, you might be wondering why I titled this piece “Dallas CAN Have Nice Things.” You’ll just have to wait until next week.


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.

4 Comment

  • I think they are plenty of good architects here and in the region. Actually the shortage is on developers with the right vision, pocket book and mindset. When people criticize architects for the designs, often times they forget that there are so many handcuffs behind scenes. It is funny to see the name Laurel above since that name has come up so often in the recent posts about PD-15, but in a total different context…

    • mm

      I agree. In my recent column on AIA Dallas’ Unbuilt Awards, I made that point. Plenty of Dallas talent designing good buildings elsewhere. So it’s developers’ fault for so much boring dreck in Dallas.

      • Ditto on all the above. And what’s the old saying? Good design doesn’t cost, it pays.

        • Texas region MF highrise development usually put more priority on interiors/amenities over exterior skin, which is opposite of big metro up north (Canada included). I think it’s because of the downsizing movement/mentality vs. people grew up living IN the city. The thing is, buildings interiors get outdated and renovated over time, but it is much harder to do so on the outside. As we grow as a city, we should put more emphasis on the look and longevity of building exterior and how it impacts the city, rather than just the coolest amenity, bells and whistles that attract renters/buyers in the short term.