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Illuminating Dallas
by Jerome Weeks 5 Mar 2012

Dallas at night looks like the carnival has come here for good. Architectural skyrockets, that’s what we’re getting. So the Dallas Center for Architecture held a panel discussion. What’s up with all the new neon?

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Gentile Bellini, The Procession of the True Cross, Piazza San Marco, 1496

San Francisco’s de Young Museum recently hosted a superlative exhibition, Masters of Venice. But it was a painting that wasn’t there that impressed me the most. Bellini’s The Procession of the True Cross (above) hadn’t actually left Venice’s Galleria d’academia, where it’s housed, but the Masters show had a life-size, highly detailed reproduction, and it was impressive to say the least. I’d never realized it was as big as a wall nor that Bellini had used a great deal of gold leaf on it. None of the images online or in art history books does the painting justice. Much of the entire upper third is gilded; it glitters, bright as brass.

That’s because the arches and spires of the Basilica San Marco, the church dominating the painting, are covered with gold leaf. In the piazza today, we don’t catch all the original effect because the gold leaf is thin, it’s 700-800 years old. Even so, when the sun sets on a clear day and the angle of the sunlight is right, we can see what led the average Venetian to dub the basilica Chiesa d’Oro (the Church of Gold). The basilica dazzles.

For all of the genius artists in Venice, for all the beauty and splendor that makes the city so beguiling, there was a large degree of outright nouveau riche vulgarity here. Around the corner to the right between the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica is an ornate entrance, the Porta di Carta (or the Gate of Documents — because it linked the palace with the city archives). Dominating over the doorway is a life-sized statue of the doge who built it. And he’s entirely covered in gold: the Venetian Donald Trump.

All that showy bling proclaimed Venice as what it was: one of the richest cities on the planet, the world’s first, true, merchant empire, the major faucet controlling trade between East and West.

hunt oilStanding in the de Young, all this struck me — and the realization that Venice’ Piazza San Marco was the pre-electric Wall Street, Las Vegas and Times Square rolled into one showplace. It was the big money and the high wattage. In our terms: Venice’ gold leaf was the 15th-century version of the lights glittering on Dallas’ Omni Hotel or the spotlights marking out the ghostly, rocket trajectory of the Hunt Hill Bridge. The sun shines and Venice looks like a vision of the Gates of Heaven. The sun sets and Dallas glows — looking like diamonds and video games. Welcome to our own new merchant empire.

Actually, what Patrick Kennedy said the Bank of America’s argon-green stripes reminded him of was a giant stack of money. Kennedy was one of the panelists for Bright Lights. Great City?, the Dallas Center for Architecture’s public discussion last week about the new swarms of lightning bugs that flicker around downtown Dallas: the Omni, the Hunt Building (above), One Arts Plaza and so on.

It was Kennedy’s D Magazine column last November, The Lite-Briting of Dallas, that partly prompted the panel discussion. The other prompt: The fact that new technological developments in LED design and computer programming have made our new architectural fireworks possible. In his essay, Kennedy seriously questioned the need for all this new lighting, doubted its effectiveness in improving downtown as a vibrant cultural or economic center. He didn’t think a postcard skyline matters that much to a city’s fortunes, anyway. Other than the Sears Tower, does anyone remember what Chicago looks like?

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During the panel, Kennedy (in tan jacket, left) was more subdued than his column. He really didn’t put up much of a fight. Too bad. But as UT-Arlington architecture professor Wanda Dye said from the audience, the event was somewhat stacked against him.

With KERA’s Jeff Whittington as moderator (far left), the panelists included Scott Lowe (the design architect of the Omni), Kennedy, Marcel Quimby (of Quimby McCoy Preservation Architecture), lighting designer Scott Oldner (who dressed up the Uptown luxury tower Park Seventeen) and urban planner Michael Buckley (of UT-A’s Center for Metropolitan Density).

As they went along, panelists would agree with Kennedy’s larger points about the city’s neglect of pressing urban issues (walkability, livability, affordability). Or the fact that the Omni’s billboard-sized pop-up ads may be insomnia-inducing for nearby bleary-eyed apartment dwellers. But then came their counter-arguments: The Omni, Quimby noted, has certainly brought new pedestrian life to what had been a derelict urban area. A city’s skyline is a major appeal of a city, Buckley argued. It’s a lucrative piece of real estate, developers build and sell with those views in mind. And exterior lighting is meant to enhance architecture not to disguise mediocre designs — this last from Oldner (who used the term ‘enhance’ often enough it called to mind DMN critic Scott Cantrell’s description of such lighting as the architectural equivalent of breast enhancement).

So the evening became, more or less, a Defense of Flash. So much so, that by the end, one lighting industry businessman in the audience expressed satisfaction with the proceedings. But in taking on some of Kennedy’s assertions, no one seemed to address the illogical nature of his central line of thought — or its streak of Puritanism.

Nor did anyone really talk about the aesthetics of such lighting.

Basically, Kennedy argues that all this optic dazzle is a childish distraction from Dallas’ more pressing issues. It makes people think, Hey, downtown’s looking jazzy and happ’nin’ — when it ain’t. So we go on, ignoring the city’s general lack of coordination when it comes to reviving its core. But this presents an either/or opposition that doesn’t really exist. Kennedy’s message is: You Can’t Enjoy Any Building Baubles Until You Get Your Homework Done. This also suggests that the one factor, lighting, may actually prevent real urban improvement by distracting us, draining away resources. But I suspect people aren’t fooled by all the electric scrimshaw. We enjoy it, but does it really make a suburbanite move here? Over more practical considerations, like real estate costs or ease of commute?

Besides, all the corporate money and effort that’s gone into these light bulbs, if re-directed, wouldn’t make much of a dent in downtown’s more serious problems. And I also suspect that it was never a real choice. No CEO ever considered — for longer than a minute — Hmmmm, should we spend money on dressing up our headquarters with cool new night lights? Or should we make some effort, however small, toward solving Dallas’ thorny urban transit issues?

Night lights!

To be fair, Kennedy quickly made it clear in the discussion that he actually doesn’t oppose such lighting on principle. He lives downtown, he looks right out on the Pegasus, which he likes. And to be fair in the other direction, the arguments against him often had little more than an economic basis. They made exterior lighting seem effective and grimly inevitable without ever making an attractive case for it, as something anyone might actually want or enjoy.

For instance: Kennedy claimed the Omni is not improving downtown in general. But, Buckley countered, that wasn’t the intention. It was specifically built to help the Convention Center, that’s all. And it seems to be succeeding. Hurrah for that, although it’s not clear how this justifies the fancy lighting. Kennedy claimed that “If signature lighting were driven by economic forces, the phenomenon would exist elsewhere. But it doesn’t” — and cited successful, visually subdued cities with much livelier downtowns than ours, such as Vancouver and Denver.

But he was being rather selective here — as Buckley showed with projected images. Any number of cities around the world have been eagerly tarting themselves up with lighting, including Paris and Hong Kong. It’s a different context for our need to compete: Does Dallas want to be more like livable, earnest, appealingly Canadian Vancouver?  Or more like splashy, impractical, oil-rich, liquor-banning Dubai? (Interestingly, the one city no one mentioned — the one that has probably more LEDs per square inch than any other place on the planet — is Las Vegas. Tons of wattage and lots of tourists, and perhaps the worst real-estate economy in the country. A sharp disjunction between lights and a healthy local economy.)

greyhound1One thing the discussion definitely wasn’t about was aesthetics. Surely, there are good and bad examples of signature lighting — even Kennedy likes the Pegasus. But what principles beyond getting the building noticed and showcasing the owner’s name in Big Letters govern these designs? Hence, my request, in the question-and-answer session, that the panelists name examples of what they thought were good and bad lit-up buildings, and no fair voting for their own projects. Diplomatically — or with real honesty — Oldner, the lighting designer, said the only bad lighting was a building that hadn’t been lit up yet. OK, so everyone needs neon; that’s a sales job, not an aesthetic. To his credit, Oldner provided the evening’s most enlightening anecdote. A few years ago, he and a team devised a new lighting plan for downtown — not the decorative stuff but the ordinary, vital, lighting-the-streets-and-making-things-safe stuff. The city’s ultimate verdict on all their work? We’ll just let the developers decide. Welcome to our urban design free-for-all.

Personally, I think the LEDs on the Hunt Building do, in fact, enhance it. They augment an ungainly building by making it look actively garish at night. But then, I lean more toward funky old-school. My favorite lights in Dallas are the Mussolini-ish floodlights at Fair Park and the stripes on the Greyhound bus station (left). In its aim, the Greyhound’s neon is as crass a corporate logo as any skyscraper’s. But it and the Mercantile’s clock faces, which resemble a child’s drawing of an art-deco robot-future, have something human that our other signatures lack. They’re retro-cool, but they don’t set out to overwhelm and conquer. They’re charming. And a bus station needs all the charm it can get.

So does Dallas. Charm is a word rarely applied to this city.

It’s safe to say more LED embellishments are on the way because lighting is a blunt, cheap way for commercial dominance, for rivalry to express itself. I once described the effect that the Bank of America’s tower-of-greenbacks had on the skyline to a friend who’d never been to Dallas. For instance, it can easily be seen from airplanes.

“Oh,” he said. “You mean it won.”

Precisely. LEDs are the new ‘we’re the tallest skyscraper in town,’ the new Basilica San Marco, the new CEO ego trip-by-branding. It’s no surprise that the majority of bright city lights that Buckley cited are in our new capitals of commerce: Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, where the world’s tallest skyscrapers now stand. No surprise, as well, that old-style masters of the universe like the Empire State Building have added new colors to their night-time mascara.

There’s nothing wrong with this. Where would our dull lives be without the corporate fight to impress us, dazzle us, get our attention? But it’s worth noting that this is the basic impulse that makes nighttime Dallas look like the carnival has arrived — because commercial self-interest is probably not going away. Trying to get that impulse to preen in ways that won’t cause retina burn would seem to be the aim. One audience member suggested someone should ‘curate’ the skyline, an unlikely idea in our land of free-market-takes-all, but it was so refreshing and unexpected, it was received with some wonder and enthusiastic head-nodding.

Still, recall the anecdote about actual city-planning for practical, safety-producing, crime-reducing street lighting. Let the developers decide.

As for the lights that started all this discussion, the Omni’s (above), no one can deny they’re not absolute eye-poppers. At a distance, they rivet your attention, giant glowing letters and numbers seem to float across the skyline. Up-close, like any Jumbotron, they can be jaw-dropping. Blinding and garish but also awe-inspiring.

But they could also be, well . . .  entertaining. Endearing. Even a new art form. They’re almost at that point already. Really. Have the programmers dump all the scrolling business cards. Create, instead, some stick-figure, comic-strip, Flash animations. Don’t go all Disney-artsy-ambitious. Think of a skyline with a giant ‘Krazy Kat’ or ‘Calvin and Hobbes‘ acted out on it. Maybe even skip the word balloons and use nothing but images and actions that anyone can grasp from a half-mile away. Use only short storylines, characters evoked with a few squiggles and eye dots, make a giant, silent neon puppet show, some 20 stories tall.

You want to draw a crowd downtown? That’ll do it.

UPDATE:  Seven months later, the Dallas VideoFest did just that.

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  • Alizmiller

    I can’t remember the last time i was soo disappointed in a “panel discussion”.
    From the get-go; Jeff’s posit was: Tell us a bit about the lighting history of downtown Dallas.” Hmm. ok. there was gaslights, then electricity . . I thought it was going to be a discussion – a “panel” of views about lights in downtown Dallas. Instead it was a rather typical, Dallas Citizens Council/Chamber of Commerce cheerleading session. There was a reason there were so many people there – which was lost on the mediator (term used loosely here). People care about this – instead we were treated to incredibly obvious statements like, “technology is here”, and “one’s eye always goes to what’s brightest on the horizon”. It amazed me that there was NO mention of zoning, lighted advertisements, or the recent exception given by the City Council to the only lighting restricted area in all of downtown (the Arts District) to Craig Hall’s new building (thank you Veleeta Llll; lovely woman i’m sure but someone remind me why she is “in charge” of the Arts District). And, I have to add, I thought your question was insidious.

    • Anonymous

      Insidious? Wow. And here I feared it was a fairly safe, obvious way to steer the conversation into talk about personal preferences and the aesthetics of lighting. If that’s insidious …. thanks.

      More seriously: I disagree completely with your point about the Arts District, and history bears me out. The idea that the Arts District should remain somehow pristine from all commercial signs (and thus, free of most merchants) is a death sentence. In his book, The Empty Space, the brilliant theater-and-film director Peter Brook argues that the arts truly flourish amidst the dirt and muck and money-grubbing of urban life. Think of the great, lively theater districts of the world: Broadway, London’s West End, Chicago’s Lincoln Park. They’re full of restaurants, bars, crappy t-shirt and poster shops, trendy dress outlets, travel agents and fly-by-night apartment locators. We may disapprove of such crass commercial activity mucking up the look and mission of the theaters, but that’s what causes people to linger in those places, makes their whole evening enjoyable. After all, modern theater began in Europe in traveling carnivals and the courtyards of inns. Take away the sense of life, noise, color, profit-making and social mingling among the different classes, and you have a theater for nobles or royals, an environment which even Moliere found airless and riddled with hypocrisy.

      For their part, the modern visual arts took off in bohemian enclaves, the kind of crowded, apartments-above-the-grocery-store places that attracted cholera epidemics: Paris’ Montmartre, Greenwich Village, St. Petersburg, London’s immigrant districts. Sticking the arts into temples, away from stores and dives, and you remove them from their vital sources of energy. And what do our lovely, chilly temples do anyway? Promptly put in their own shops and restaurants.

      Far more worrisome for the future of the arts in downtown Dallas — far more worrisome than a single exception to a lighting ban — is the wholesale prevention of any artist actually living in the district. No one can afford to live there other than millionaires or near-millionaires. That’s going to make for an empty future.

  • Alizmiller

    I can’t remember the last time i was soo disappointed in a “panel discussion”.
    From the get-go; Jeff’s posit was: Tell us a bit about the lighting history of downtown Dallas.” Hmm. ok. there was gaslights, then electricity . . I thought it was going to be a discussion – a “panel” of views about lights in downtown Dallas. Instead it was a rather typical, Dallas Citizens Council/Chamber of Commerce cheerleading session. There was a reason there were so many people there – which was lost on the mediator (term used loosely here). People care about this – instead we were treated to incredibly obvious statements like, “technology is here”, and “one’s eye always goes to what’s brightest on the horizon”. It amazed me that there was NO mention of zoning, lighted advertisements, or the recent exception given by the City Council to the only lighting restricted area in all of downtown (the Arts District) to Craig Hall’s new building (thank you Veleeta Llll; lovely woman i’m sure but someone remind me why she is “in charge” of the Arts District). And, I have to add, I thought your question was insidious.

    • JeromeWeeks

      Insidious? Wow. And here I feared it was a fairly safe, obvious way to steer the conversation into talk about personal preferences and the aesthetics of lighting. If that’s insidious …. well, thanks, I guess.

      More seriously: I disagree completely with your point about the Arts District, and history bears me out. The idea that the Arts District should remain somehow pristine from all commercial signs (and thus, free of most merchants) is a death sentence. In his book, The Empty Space, the brilliant theater-and-film director Peter Brook argues that the arts truly flourish amidst the dirt and muck and money-grubbing of urban life. Think of the great, lively theater districts of the world: Broadway, London’s West End, Chicago’s Lincoln Park. They’re full of restaurants, bars, scruffy t-shirt and poster shops, trendy dress outlets, travel agents and fly-by-night apartment locators. We may disapprove of such crass commercial activity mucking up the look and mission of the theaters, but that’s what causes people to linger in those places, makes their whole evening enjoyable. After all, modern theater began in Europe in traveling carnivals and the courtyards of inns. Take away the sense of life, noise, color, profit-making and social mingling among the different classes, and you have a theater for nobles or royals, an environment which even Moliere found airless and riddled with hypocrisy.

      For their part, the modern visual arts took off in bohemian enclaves, the kind of crowded, apartments-above-the-grocery-store places that attracted cholera epidemics: Paris’ Montmartre, Greenwich Village, St. Petersburg, London’s immigrant districts. Sticking the arts into temples, away from stores and dives, and you remove them from their vital sources of energy. And what do our lovely, chilly temples do anyway? Promptly put in their own shops and restaurants.

      Far more worrisome for the future of the arts in downtown Dallas — far more worrisome than a single exception to a lighting ban — is the wholesale prevention of any artist actually living in the district. No one can afford to live there other than millionaires or near-millionaires. That’s going to make for a comparatively sterile future downtown — at least for real arts activity.

  • rach

    Cool article! I really wish I’d gone to this.

  • rach

    Cool article! I really wish I’d gone to this.

  • I think pretty lit buildings and bridges would bring me to downtown more often and I think it would be more romantic to go on a date to the Dallas Museum of Art or the West End. I think many people would. I can could 100 people I saw one night in December infront of the new hotel enjoying the lights and the christmas ornaments. Dallas can handle the lights and fix other issues. If they cannot then they suck.