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Computer Illustrations of Dallas' New 1,000 room Convention
 Hotel Do Not Dazzle Some Architecture Critics

Scott Cantrell Column

By Scott Cantrell, The Dallas Morning NewsMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

August 2, 2009 - Dallas is all about dazzle, making a mark, putting on a show.

Our skyline glows with light-trimmed buildings and a huge flashing ball. Our Arts District has one of the world's densest concentrations of buildings by star architects.

We drive fancy cars -- well, maybe you do -- sport designer fashions and keep plastic surgeons busy.

But we may be welcoming tens of thousands of visitors a year with a convention center hotel that city council member Angela Hunt says looks like "a glorified, ugly Holiday Inn." Construction could begin by mid-October.

In computer illustrations, the new hotel is projected as a big, boomerang-shaped building at Young and Lamar streets, north of the Dallas Convention Center. It's shown clad in a crazy-quilt pattern of glass panels in different shades of blue. But there's no tactile articulation, either vertical or horizontal, to break up those vast sweeps of glass. And the building is pulled too far back on the site to engage Lamar Street and the sidewalk.

Alas, it looks like a partner to another major welcoming facility, D/FW Airport's international terminal, aptly decried by architecture critic David Dillon as "big, bland and boring" and "all volume and no articulation."

And this is for a construction cost of $346 million, only $8 million less than the combined cost of the Winspear Opera House and the Wyly Theatre, both by major international architects, opening in October.

For conventioneers, an airport, a city hall, a convention center and its hotel are some of a city's defining features. They say what it's about, whether it's edgy or cautious, daring or dull. And chances to build these signature buildings come but once a lifetime.

We blew it with the D/FW terminal. With a convention center that's a confusing jumble of several different projects, we really need a strong, coherent hotel.

At least details of the hotel, projected to open early in 2012 under the Omni marquee, aren't entirely set in stone. There's still a chance to make this big building -- 27 stories, with 1,000 rooms and 83,000 square feet of meeting space -- better.

Acknowledging complaints about the cladding, Scott Lowe, managing director of the architecture firm 5G studio Collaborative, says, "We are looking at options currently, as the budget is still a significant driver in what this facade can be. Also, Omni has some input that needs to be considered still."

In any case, Lowe says, the exterior will be a curtain wall, "with some type of articulation." He adds, "The idea of 'pattern' is still there, but very much in flux at the moment on exactly how this idea will ultimately play out."

Other details still to be finalized, he says, include "landscaping, sidewalks, terraces, dining terrace, porte cochere, drop-off and interior design."

Switching architects

How we got here is a story in itself.

The city approached "something like eight" developers for the project, according to assistant city manager A.C. Gonzalez. The choice then was narrowed to three, and, in June 2008, Matthews Southwest, developer of the Southside on Lamar rehab of the old Sears warehouse and the new Beat condos, got the nod.

Matthews' hotel experience was limited to serving as construction manager for a Ritz-Carlton in Toronto. But the Dallas hotel proposal offered a world-renowned architect, London's Foster + Partners, designers of the Winspear Opera House.

Cost estimates for Foster's two different preliminary concepts for the hotel -- one a tower in a three-petal shape, another spread out like an elongated question mark -- were "$200 million higher than the city was willing to spend," says Matthews Southwest president Jack Matthews.

"We had several team meetings with Foster + Partners throughout the month of August 2008," Matthews says. "By early September, it became clear that we would be unable to achieve their design concepts for the hotel with the funding available."

Cue the big switcheroo.

In the original proposal, 5G, a small three-year-old local firm, was to be the architect of record, the firm that would work with Foster to prepare construction documents and supervise nuts-and-bolts construction. When Matthews pulled Foster off the project, last September, he promoted 5G to design architect, a big assignment for a young firm. BOKA Powell, a much larger firm with 35 years' experience, was then named architect of record. Balfour Beatty, an international construction firm, was picked as builder.

Although established only in 2005, 5G is populated by architects who formerly worked with the design-and-build firm The Beck Group. They had to scramble to put together conceptual designs for the hotel.

Computer illustrations and a wooden model were unveiled barely a month later, in October 2008.

Although convention hotels in big cities are, by definition, big structures, they're rarely great architecture. But within this decade, Fort Worth and Houston have erected more interesting examples.

The Omni Fort Worth, designed by the Dallas office of HOK and opened in January, cuts a slender, edgy profile, with balconies serrating the southern tip. The six-year-old Hilton Americas-Houston, designed by the Miami firm Arquitectonica, is clad in a striking basket-weave pattern of precast concrete, metal and glass.

The W Dallas Victory, which opened three years ago, raised the bar for hotel design around here. The local firm HKS created a bold and sculptural presence, neatly articulating the different hotel and condo sections. The mid-tower cutout for a pool is a snazzy Miami Vice gesture. Public areas are super-high style.

The W is a hotel emphatically for the city Dallas wants to be. Inevitably, interiors will be changed over time, but the exterior looks likely to age well.

Not so the present plan for the Convention Center hotel.

Of the crazy-quilt cladding, 5G's Lowe says, "We would want to see some sort of playfulness on the facade. We would not want it to look like an office building."

Good in theory, less in this realization. The west end of the boomerang looks promising, with projecting window frames. But the random-zigzag panels of the main facades are superficial stand-ins for the bolder articulation needed for those vast swooping spans.

And it's a recent design cliche that's already looking passe. By the time the hotel opens, it may well be as tired as the mirrored glass so overworked here in the 1970s and '80s.

Sprucing up

There's still time to improve the design.

The boomerang shape is attractive and practical, almost a throwback to playful hotel designs of the 1950s. But look at the sadly derelict Statler Hilton/Dallas Grand Hotel, a few blocks away, and, on a smaller scale, see what a difference texture and punctuation make. The convention center hotel facades are like huge newspaper pages of prose with no indents, just words randomly picked out in different-colored inks.

For a construction budget the city has capped at $346 million, we'll get no stone cladding. But, as Lowe says, even a glass curtain wall needn't look like an office building. Animating facades this large, though, needs more than varicolored glass.

More, too, could be done at ground level. Protruding, wraparound "eyebrows" shading some of the lower floors could make the building a more inviting street presence, less a sterile flat wall.

There's also the question of the hotel's siting. The current plan has it set well back from Lamar, leaving space for potential future development. Matthews imagines a couple of intervening low-rise buildings, a mix of retail and eateries.

That could be great, if and when it happens. But in the meantime, we'll have a triangle of dead space with maybe a few trees and no engagement of the street.

It's too bad, too, that guests on the inside of the tower's arc will look down on a vast expanse of roof covering the ballroom and parking garage. Some greenery, at least, would help.

The hotel project now hangs on the sale of $514 million in bonds, to cover the land acquisition, reserve funds and other expenses as well as the actual construction. The timing depends on interest rates of 5.5 percent or lower; Matthews is hoping for early October at the latest. Construction could begin 15 days later -- and needs to by then, if the building is to be done in time for conventions booked early in 2012.

The convention center hotel won't be just another office building. For decades to come, it will be one of Dallas' signature gateways, a building that will tell visitors who we think we are and what we're about. This is an opportunity not to be squandered. A supersized suburban Holiday Inn will not do.How to improve design

--Break up big facades with vertical and-or horizontal articulations.

--Ditch the crazy-quilt glass patterns.

--Add protruding "eyebrows" to shade lower levels of the facade and make the building more welcoming.

--Use promenades and greenery to animate the huge roof over the ballroom and parking garage.The critic

Classical music critic Scott Cantrell has also written about architecture for The Dallas Morning News, The Kansas City Star and the Rochester (N.Y.) Times-Union.


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