Talk About It
Building Democracy in the Fragmented Metropolis
In 1966, Dallas Mayor Erik Jonsson celebrated hiring I.M. Pei, FAIA to design a city hall “of ageless beauty and functional efficiency.” Voters approved the city bonds to acquire the Marilla Street site in a 1964 election, and a “high-level citizens committee” spent much of 1965 interviewing architects about their ability to design the new city hall to “serve both the symbolic and the functional needs of the city.”
The push to hire an architect of “national distinction” was a direct result of the city’s soul-searching after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. It was only one of many projects intended to remake Dallas’ image into that of a progressive, forward-looking model city of the future. (See Greg Brown’s “Forever Changed,” Columns)
The design, funding, and construction process was slow, and the new Dallas City Hall did not open until 1978. It is a masterpiece of late modernist architecture, with its bold inverted wedge and ziggurat set off against a heroic plaza that allows its sculptural form to loom paternally over the city beneath it. Although complaints about the empty plaza are perennial, City Hall’s audacious form deserves more admiration for how it embodies optimism about the potential of the built environment to inspire new thinking about civic culture and identity. The building’s interior, with its sweeping views across and into city offices, is a monument to the poetics of bureaucratic organizations.
The interior of the second level of Dallas City Hall showcases the building’s monumental scale. // Credit: Historic American Buildings Survey; Retrieved from the Library of Congress
From the start, Dallasites struggled with the new city hall. It was expensive and, to many people, an ugly, difficult building. Cartoons in the Dallas Times Herald poked fun at the public confusion about its novel form and its association with the single-minded pursuits of Jonsson. For some, the new building served as a symbol of Dallas’ ability to cast off the past and embrace the future, while for others, it was a waste of money, an arbitrary form, and a shallow pursuit of world-class status.
Today we can ask questions about the ways that the building embodies different kinds of aspirations to power — the mayor’s power to effect large-scale urban change, the city’s power to shape its own identity and civic culture, the city’s power to establish itself as a leader in the metropolitan region and around the world. Pei’s design is most often considered alongside his other late modernist works like the National Gallery in Washington, DC or the National Center for Atmospheric Research near Boulder, CO. But when we position Dallas City Hall relative to its neighbors, the other city halls in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, its aspirations are placed into a local context that highlights the challenges of profound civic fragmentation and its reflection in the varied scales and imagery of the region’s civic architecture.
Dallas City Council Chambers as they appeared in the late 1970s // Credit: Historic American Buildings Survey; Retrieved from the Library of Congress
City halls are an expression of what historians call “civic materialism,” visual and spatial evidence for helping us understand the local culture of democracy and public participation. For the past four years, my students and I have studied the city halls of Dallas-Fort Worth as an exercise in understanding how one of the most traditional forms of civic design works in a sprawling metropolis. The builders of Dallas City Hall assumed a direct relationship between the form of the built environment and our civic values, which could be shaped by new buildings as “promoters of urban joy.”
What do the city halls of the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area tell us about the power of architecture to shape civic culture? This is a complicated question that we haven’t answered yet, and I’d like to boil down what we are finding into three interrelated themes: fragmentation, engagement, and modernity.
Dallas-Fort Worth is made up of a lot of separately incorporated areas. The number varies depending on how you count, but the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) includes over 200 cities and towns in the eight counties of the metro area. Each of those 200 cities and towns has its own city hall, a headquarters for civic governance. As viewed through their city and town halls, most of the suburban and exurban communities take tremendous pride in being separate from Dallas and view that separateness as a source of cultural and economic power. Few D-FW city halls predate the 1950s (Highland Park and University Park are among the exceptions). Unsurprisingly, most were built at times of rapid suburban growth that required new civic infrastructure.
Some remarkable civic complexes are located on the metropolitan perimeter. The civic campus at Richardson was built beginning in the late 1960s, intentionally located along the side of Central Expressway to make it easily accessible by a projected population of 100,000 (a figure reached about 2010). The city lacked a modern civic center, and a master plan developed in the 1960s proposed creating a large public green with fountain surrounded by civic institutions. A generous public library (1968-69) anchors the campus-like complex, which continued construction across a decade and was completed with the design of the city hall and civic center (Fisher and Spillman, completed 1978-80). A long skylit corridor that connects the civic center and city hall echoes Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin County complex in California. The library is an inspired brutalist exploration of corduroy concrete that draws on the work of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, FAIA. Together, these boldly modern institutions created a new Richardson, distinct from its old farming main street and clearly separate from its big next-door neighbor, Dallas.
Richardson Town Hall Square // Credit: Kate Holliday, Ph.D.
Plano’s civic complex was begun in 1980, just two years after Dallas opened its City Hall. Harper, Kemp, Clutts, and Parker designed the complex, which is directly adjacent to Plano’s historic Main Street and conjoined to its traditional core while dwarfing its scale. It quotes the formal elements of a traditional town center, with a bell tower and civic square bounded by high, curving brick walls supported by piers that faintly echo Italian city centers and late Corbusian formalism.
In the past 10 years, Frisco, North Richland Hills, Keller, and Rowlett, to name a few, have used new forms of tax increment financing (TIFs) to build city halls paired with commercial town centers that distinguish themselves from adjoining cities. They become competitive magnets for economic development that, in turn, attract new residents. All across D-FW, city halls are anchors for exurban communities that help solidify their independence from larger, more powerful urban centers both politically and spatially.
Not all of our city halls seem to welcome us as citizens, and they invite varying degrees of engagement. In Dallas and Fort Worth, going to City Hall is like going to the airport, with metal detectors, bag scans, and armed security guards that heighten the stress of visitors and create suspicion between government and citizens.
These barriers are far more common since 9/11, but there are also more specific causes. In Fort Worth, a 2005 shooting led to changes that reduced the number of public entrances and increased security. Even as concealed carry laws allow guns in more public places, including our universities, the Dallas and Fort Worth city halls are gun-free zones. City halls have thus been transformed in recent years into contested zones where negotiation over the presence of firearms is a prerequisite to entry.
Speaking as a citizen at city hall in Dallas or Fort Worth is not an easy experience. Aside from the bureaucratic process of signing up in advance to speak, getting the appropriate forms and turning the right ones in, and then waiting unpredictable times for a 3- or 4-minute window to talk, the physical design of the City Council chamber is another exercise in confrontation and control. The raised semicircles where council members are seated make them easily visible to anyone in the audience.
But citizen speakers must come to a central dais one by one, surveilled by the panopticon of elected officials and city staff before them and the audience behind their back. This is a traditional plan meant to make the council accessible and visible, but the way the space is handled in Dallas especially exaggerates variations in height and scale and isolates speakers. Both the design of engagement and its formal processes highly regulate civic engagement in both city halls. These spaces are really about limiting citizens’ face-to-face interaction with elected officials rather than encouraging it. City council chambers reinforce the power of government and not the power of citizens to engage it.
The city halls of the smaller municipalities of DFW offer more nuance. Irving’s council chamber resembles a community theater or school auditorium, with a lower rake and a less intimidating scale. The lobby, originally a greenhouse-like space filled with plants, creates an informal transition between the parking lot and the meeting spaces beyond, more like an office park or small shopping mall than a grand civic presence. By contrast, Carrollton City Hall, designed by Oglesby Greene (1986), is much more formal, but it draws citizens upward into a vaulted atrium warmly bathed with light. The glass lantern that rises above the octagonal council chamber adds to the sensitive use of space and light to mediate between the public and their elected officials.
Cities have developed other strategies of engaging citizens meant to replace city hall and bring government to where the people are. Community meetings held in neighborhood centers and churches, feedback gathered online, the “rolling” town halls that Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price held while riding in a miniature peloton — all of these techniques suggest ways of engaging citizens in the democratic process beyond the traditional city hall. But if the central spaces where civic leaders cast votes and make decisions remain intimidating, it is unclear how well these engagement practices work.
One of the central goals of Dallas City Hall was to intentionally break with the past. Fort Worth City Hall had more modest goals of projecting efficiency, but even the stripped-down version of Edward Durrell Stone’s design tied the image of a lean government to the power of brutalist concrete. Fort Worth City Hall turned inward, creating a skylit, air-conditioned indoor town square with a fountain and public sculpture (now sadly modified). City halls built from the 1950s to the 1970s across D-FW had similar goals, to show cities as forward-looking and modern, prepared for the future and unhindered by the baggage of the past. “Urban joy” meant rushing headlong toward the future.
But the more recent trend, with a few exceptions, is to look backward and embrace neo-traditional architecture. David Schwarz’s design for the Southlake City Hall (1996) helped set this trend by using the historic language of the Texas county courthouse and square as a starting point. Southlake became a city in 1956, well after the original typology was established, nor is it a county seat. Still, Southlake City Hall combines a pedimented facade with a city square and fountain, surrounded by two-story commercial blocks filled with shops as though from 1880s Lampasas or Georgetown, Texas.
Southlake Town Hall Square // Credit: Kate Holliday, Ph.D.
Plano City Hall // Credit: Kate Holliday, Ph.D.
The county courthouse image is a powerful one echoed at Coppell (1985), Keller (2002), Lewisville (2003), Corinth (2003), Trophy Club (2017), and many others. City leaders in Melissa, when contemplating their new civic complex, looked to Southlake as a model and built a more humble version with a single Richardsonian grand arch over the entrance (Beck, 2010) and a community green and playground as its front yard.
These nostalgic city halls reinvent the language of local democracy through romanticized images of a frontier past that have enormous public appeal. They are a far cry from the intentional break with the past envisioned by city leaders in the postwar decades and they provide a larger means to question the power of architecture to shape or simply reflect the civic culture. In a region distinguished by some of the lowest voter turnouts in the country, our fragmented traditions in civic architecture provide clues to the dynamics of power in local government and a provocation to engage more fully with our metropolitan political landscape.
Kathryn Holliday, Ph.D. is director of the David Dillon Center for Texas Architecture in the College of Architecture, Planning, and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington.
With thanks to the students in Architecture 4307/5307, Life of Cities, for the curiosity and hard work across the past four years, to Lily Corral, graduate research assistant in the David Dillon Center for Texas Architecture, and to Jennifer Sloan, doctoral candidate in Public and Urban Administration at the University of Texas at Arlington. You can read the stories they wrote about more than 60 city halls in Dallas-Fort Worth at our class website, Building Democracy, a work in progress with more stories to come here.
A lot has been written about architecture, space, and government. If you’d like to read more, here are just a few suggestions:
Swati Chattopadhyay and Jeremy White, City Halls and Civic Materialism: Towards a Global History of Urban Public Space (2014)
Kathryn Holliday and Colleen Casey, “Urban Sprawl, Social Media, and the Town Hall Square as a Symbol for Civic Culture in Dallas-Fort Worth,” Informationen zur modernen Stadtgeschichte (2019)
Timothy Hyde, editor, Governing by Design: Architecture, Economy, and Politics in the Twentieth Century (2012)
Jacqueline Lambiase, “Searching for City Hall, Digital Democracy, and Public-Making Rhetoric: U.S. Municipal Websites and Citizen Engagement,” Journal of Public Interest Communications (2018)