Here in this can-do, Sun Belt city, the picture looks entirely different. The Dallas Arts District gathers this city’s major arts museums and performance halls in a 19-block area to the northeast of the shimmering downtown skyline. The district is billed as the nation’s largest contiguous urban arts district, and that’s not its only distinction. It may be the only place on earth where buildings by four Pritzker Architecture Prize winners (in this case, I.M. Pei, Renzo Piano, Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas) sit within blocks of each other.
Is it a good idea to organize arts buildings in such a clear and concentrated fashion? Or does the more mixed-up Chicago way make better sense? I ask because, despite its impressive architectural firepower, the Dallas Arts District can be an exceedingly dull place. There are no bookstores, few restaurants outside those in the museums, and not a lot of street life, at least when there are no performances going on. Even some of the architects who’ve designed buildings here privately refer to the district as an architectural petting zoo — long on imported brand-name bling and short on homegrown-urban vitality.
These are, in short, buildings to be proud of, but their urban design is not ideal. The theater’s sunken plaza might as well be a moat while the sleek opera house is set back so far back from the property line that it almost resembles a suburban office headquarters. The buildings resemble stand-alone objects, not altogether different from the flashy office towers that loom above them.
Perhaps, but hundreds, if not thousands, of new housing units are required to lend the district the urban density it needs to thrive. And the district still has deep-seated hurdles to overcome, from its lack of fine-grained urban texture to the way its older buildings turn their backs on the freeway to its lack of convenient light-rail stops. It would be sad indeed if Dallas, having importing some of the world’s best architects, wound up creating the dullest arts district money can buy.