KERA Arts Story Search

Looking for events? Click here for the Go See DFW events calendar.

Shaping the Campus and the City

by Jerome Weeks 3 May 2011 7:45 PM

The perfect spot to hold a symposium on Dallas landscape design – the Nasher – on the 100th anniversary of the Kessler Plan, which held out a vision of Dallas that wasn’t realized. Now something of Kessler’s thinking has come home – at UT-Dallas.


On Friday, Richard Brettell – former head of the Dallas Museum of Art, distinguished professor of arts and humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas — opened the Nasher Sculpture symposium, The Designed Landscape in Dallas.

He confessed this was the first lecture on the topic he’d ever delivered. Fortunately, he’d done his homework.

What Brettell presented was a history of Dallas landscape design from George Kessler —  the city’s original city planner — through Arthur and Marie Berger, who designed the DeGolyer Gardens (the heart of the Dallas Arboretum) to Dan Kiley, whose greatest creation may well be the water gardens at Fountain Place.

Along the way, Brettell argued that Dallas has a history of hiring the best landscape artists in the country — from Kessler to Peter Walker, who designed the Nasher’s garden and recently finished a major project at the University of Texas at Dallas (top image). For his part, Kessler helped shape much of the urban Midwest:  Kansas City, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Dallas. After Central Park mastermind Frederick Law Olmstead, Kessler was this country’s premier landscape architect.  One reason for the Nasher symposium: This year is the 100th anniversary of Dallas’ Kessler Plan (above).

But there’s an important distinction that Brettell didn’t make. While Dallasites welcomed landscape design in principle and certainly opened our homes and corporate campuses to it, as a city, we utterly failed to follow Kessler’s most important recommendations. We’ve struggled with the consequences ever since: the loss of a vital city center, the loss of coordinated mass transit and the lack of sizable urban parks. As the late David Dillon, the News’ architecture critic, wrote:

It was a grand plan worthy of an aspiring city. Unfortunately, Kessler presented it just as the City Beautiful was contracting into the City Efficient, in which economy, utility and next year’s tax rate trumped concern for the big picture and the long view. …
The failure to implement most of Kessler’s recommendations foreshadowed a century of hit-and-miss planning in which Dallas commissioned half a dozen master plans and officially adopted none.

Kessler believed in bold, almost imperial plans supported by a collective civic will. Dallas – then and now – cared far more about individual property rights, leading eventually to a city with hundreds of special-interest planned developments but no overall vision of what it wants to be.

But what Brettell also argued was that many of these designers represent, more or less, a tradition, a lineage.  Most of them worked with each other over the years. Joe Lambert, Jr., for instance, who designed many of downtown’s corporate rooftop gardens, was not trained as a landscape architect. But he taught a number of the next generation’s designers, notably Richard Myrick, who helped create the grounds at the LBJ Ranch and NorthPark Center (with Lawrence Halprin).

So Brettell traced the influences, notably, a respect for the natural topography of the land, especially in the way Kessler (left) responded to water features. If Dallas had followed his thinking, parks would be stitched throughout the city along the paths of our various waterways. And water, as Brettell noted, is perhaps the West’s most endangered, most necessary resource. The city would have many more lovely drives like Turtle Creek Boulevard, which follows a string of parks and small lakes from Reverchon Park up to Williams Park. Instead, Dallas did things like obliterate Mill Creek.

There was also Kessler’s treatment of public and private areas, creating space for both and leading people between them. For Kessler, the ideal city would have been a big Turtle Creek Boulevard, an experience in social commingling, encountering nature and art with access to either quick travel or pedestrian freedom (although definitely unlike Turtle Creek, it would also mix rich, poor and working-class).

All of this historical overview served as a prelude to the lecture by Peter Walker (below, with Margaret McDermott). Walker focused on college campus design, but many of the principles remained the same as with cities. Both Brettell and Walker cited Thomas Jefferson’s wish that his University of Virginia would be “an academical village.” That’s why Ivy League colleges are laid out like small towns around a church green or town square.

The principles of design remained much the same with both towns and campuses and they both encountered very similar problems, Walker explained, with the college explosion after World War II. Because of the GI Bill and federal investment in college research (part of the post-Sputnik space race), universities expanded so fast, they gave up their planning guidelines. They metastasized every which way — very much like post-war suburban housing that flourished around cities.

As anyone knows who’s tried to park in or around colleges like SMU or UNT, parking and transportation are huge headaches. Again, that’s much like cities. Universities made what seemed the sensible move in the ’70s and, just like cities, they clustered like purposes with like purposes: all the housing over here, all the science and technology over there. But as Walker noted, this isolated people and buildings, with huge parking lots isolating everything even more, and much of the plan (and much of the possible pedestrian access) given over to support services. Think how much space in any downtown is lost to freeway entrance-and-exit ramps.

Every American university (and suburb) began looking like a large cluster of shopping malls or industrial parks; the same general layout prevailed. What made this unsustainable for colleges, though, was that, after awhile, it becomes impossible for students to get from one end of the campus to the other in the short time between classes.

One of the other instigating reasons for the The Designed Landscape in Dallas symposium was marking the “landscape enhancement initiative” that Walker designed at UT-Dallas. Just completed last winter, it’s a $30 million, two-year project made possible by a gift from Margaret McDermott. Walker led the audience from a breakthrough moment 15 years ago in the redesign of Stanford University with the university’s resident architect, David Neuman. This involved eliminating parking lots by creating parking garages, reconfiguring support infrastructure so it didn’t dominate everything and clustering new buildings to make them more ‘interactive,’ arranging them to resemble — the a-ha moment here — the way buildings used to be arranged around a piazza or town square.

Walker had actually been hired just to transform the sun-baked, barren, public space between the McDermott Library and the Student Services Building at UT-Dallas — to make it more amenable (they’re the big grey boxes at the top of the map). It was rather like the problem presented by Dallas’ sun-baked and barren City Hall Plaza — and the recent attempts to make that into something more amenable for human life.

What Walker eventually developed was a new master plan for all of UT-Dallas. He rediscovered and emphasized the creeks on campus. He devised a roundabout drive near the entrance to the main campus to help direct traffic to the appropriate lots and away from the pedestrian center. He planted several thousand native trees and encouraged the future clustering of buildings (rather than their sprawl). He had a solar canopy — much like the one at the Winspear Opera House — installed between the library and Student Services and added fountains and pools and even a “cooling tower” (below)– all of it to create a pleasant oasis,  a convocation area or amphitheater. It’s now the true heart of the campus.

Essentially, what Walker did was create a waterway and park as a sort of central, pedestrian-scale, Turtle Creek Boulevard for UT-Dallas. Notice, also, how the picture of UT-D at top recalls George Dahl’s Esplanade at Fair Park, another public space that encourages people to mingle, loiter, wander, sit, read and eat. If only we could improve the Fair Park neighborhood to such a degree –that is, improve its residents’ future prospects — that the park itself would become a year-round place for everyone to visit, eat and linger — any day, all day, not just during special events or the State Fair.

Walker added ponds and fountains at UT-D to lower the temperature, but he kept the water shallow to encourage wading and play. Most importantly, he added one of the most crucial features Dallas has consistently neglected, even destroyed, in its own downtown pedestrian plans: shade.

Consider the designs of Victory Park or Main Street Garden or even the Woodall Rogers Deck — let alone City Hall Plaza. What you see is the abandonment of some of Kessler’s key principles. They isolate and segregate greenery from the rest of the city. Water and greenery cool and soften urban areas, and cooling and softening are things Dallas desperately needs, especially downtown Dallas. They are things marvelously integrated along  Turtle Creek Boulevard and in parts of the Park Cities and White Rock Lake but rarely anywhere else in the city. Our enclosed and private spaces, our towering, corporate juggernauts and civic projects have repeatedly trumped the ordinary, amenable, human-scale use of public space. Or they’ve simply left that public space denatured and empty, like some vast, Mussolini-ish piazza.

The origin of the word campus lies with the Latin for flat plain or field (the Campagna that surrounds Rome). It points to the pastoral and medieval beginnings of colleges, institutions that once stood as something of intellectual havens away from (or intellectually separate from) the city.

‘Flat field or plain’ certainly describes the origins of Dallas as well. In effect, in Fair Park and now at UT-Dallas, the city has created idealized miniatures of the best of urban design. Obviously, the huge differences of scale make some aspects of these designs inapplicable to city-sized problems. But architects traditionally create miniatures and mockups to test their creations, to gain some sense of what will happen life-size.

A symposium on landscape design in a beautifully laid out little sculpture garden is another kind of ‘test miniature.’ Some of what Dallas could do to address its many pressing urban design issues — from waterways and parks to pedestrian traffic and the equitable use of public and private spaces — beckons us in these spots: the Nasher, UT-Dallas, Fair Park, Turtle Creek.

We glimpse possibilities.

Or at least, it’s pleasant to think so. More likely, they’re just scattered respites, occasional pleasant havens — set apart from the rest of this city.