Downtown Fort Worth is a lively urban place that includes a central plaza, shops and restaurants, movie houses, theaters, a concert hall, and a public library. At the head of Main Street is the 1895 Tarrant County Courthouse, which resembles the state capitol in Austin, but with a clock tower instead of a dome. The downtown architecture is a mixture of styles: the Renaissance Revival courthouse, Sullivanesque office blocks from the early 1900s, Art Deco buildings from the 1930s, and modern towers from the 1980s (notably two glass hulks by Paul Rudolph). Most of the commercial construction tracked recurring oil booms. “When we get some money we like to build,” Edward Bass tells me. Bass is the motive force behind Sundance Square, the development company that is responsible for the revival of Fort Worth. There are different models for successful downtown renewal: an activist civic leader (Mayor Joe Reilly in Charleston), a take-charge business improvement district (Center City District in Philadelphia), a thriving real-estate market (Washington, D.C.). In Fort Worth, it’s a benevolent developer. Sundance Square owns about 30 city blocks in downtown (currently about half built-up), and has been developing them since the mid 1980s. This sort of long-term stewardship is unusual. Bass had read Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte, and he took their teaching to heart. The result is commercial development that is pedestrian-oriented, lively at sidewalk level, and—most unusual—small in size. “We wanted lots of buildings, not a few big buildings,” says Bass. The tallest new office building is 16 stories, and most are much lower than that. Unlike most American cities, which have “exciting” skylines, Fort Worth is more like a downtown of the 1940s—human scale. The architecture is like that, too. David M. Schwarz Architects is responsible for all Sundance Square’s commercial buildings, as well as the expanded central library, the new concert hall, and some of the county buildings. Normally that would produce mind-numbing uniformity, but Schwarz is a cheerful eclectic with a scenographic bent, so the result is a pragmatic mix of historic buildings, restored landmarks, invented landmarks, repurposed old buildings, and new buildings in a variety of styles: Beaux-Arts classical, Art Deco, Art Moderne, Viennese Secession. Schwarz has described his firm’s goal: “to make places for people, created out of a fabric that was familiar and easy to understand.” In Fort Worth, he succeeded.
I spent a weekend in Seaside, the emblematic small beach town that launched a thousand traditional neighborhood developments. Seaside is now more than thirty years old and looks it—in a good way. It is not merely a question of mature landscaping and weathered materials, but also of the indefinable small adjustments that take place when a place grows into itself. Unexpected things have happened, of course, not least a real estate bonanza. At Seaside, modest wood-frame houses on small lots regularly go for well over a million dollars. A beachside house designed by the late Aldo Rossi—nothing spectacular—is on the market for $11 million. And the town center is a runaway commercial success; it was crowded with people on a Sunday in November, which is not the high season in this part of Florida.
The architectural influence of Seaside is visible up and down Route 30A, the coastal highway, in houses, roadside eateries, even strip malls. There are also second generation Seaside-type resort developments such as WaterColor, Rosemary Beach and Alys Beach. They make an interesting comparison. WaterColor is a commercialized, scaled-up, mainstream version of Seaside. Both WaterColor and Seaside are riffs on a homegrown Southern vernacular: shady porches, shuttered windows, tin roofs. Think Thornton Wilder, Norman Rockwell, and Frank Capra. Rosemary Beach and Alys Beach, on the other hand, are spicier mixtures. Rosemary Beach is part Caribbean and—weirdly—part Bavarian, with rustic woodwork and steep roofs. Alys Beach is a combination Mediterranean village, Moorish coastal town, with a dash of Casablanca. Stucco walls, patterned tiles, wooden screens, hidden courtyards with trickling fountains. What started in Seaside as an earnest search for roots has turned into a fusion of exotic images that have little to do with a “sense of place,” or, at least with a sense of this actual place. That is unexpected, too.
There was a Q and A after my Landmark West! lecture on New York’s Upper West Side. One person wanted to know what I thought about the exceptionally tall residential towers that are radically changing Midtown’s skyline. One57, Christian de Portzamparc’s skinny 75-story condominium, under construction on West 57th Street is an example. I’ve written about this new trend. The current phenomenon is a function of globalization and real estate, and has little to do with architecture. But, then, that was always the case with Manhattan. As late as the 1940s, the high-rise real estate development projects of numerous entrepreneurs produced a memorable skyline: animated, varied, and quite beautiful. But that skyline was a happy accident; there was no master plan, no rules, no grand design. This time around, I’m less sure of the outcome.
As this postcard shows, downtown Fargo, North Dakota in 1924 was a busy place. Broadway is not as crowded today, but it’s much more lively than when I was here last, more than 20 years ago. The North Dakota energy boom is taking place a two-and-a-half hour drive away, but in some ineffable way the prosperity has trickled down. I am told that real estate values are way up, and apartment builders can’t keep up with demand. The architecture school of North Dakota State University is celebrating its centennial and I am giving a keynote talk tonight at the Fargo Theater. In 1940, Duke Ellington’s orchestra played a gig in Fargo, and the resultant legendary recording is considered one of Duke’s best. I hope I can do even half as well.
A month ago the Wall Street Journal ran an article about the current building boom in Bogotá. It described a planned luxury residential building designed by Richard Meier. Why import an architect from thousands of miles away, who has never built anything in that city? “One aspect of new construction is important to local buyers: no red brick. Exposed brick is so prevalent in Bogotá that many apartment buildings look the same.” Well, Mr. Meier’s building, which is white steel and glass, will certainly not “look the same.” Indeed, to my eye, it will likely stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. No doubt, other “not-the-same” buildings will follow, and soon this brick city (look at those wonderful buildings on the right side of the image above), will look like everywhere else.