The camera glides under the glossy, glass and white-lacquered metal of the Chevron Building’s circular, Jetsons-esque pedestrian walkway, floating a couple stories above the streets of Dallas. We soar through the glimmering Dallas skyline, then cut to—
Outside any urban center, a Black cowboy gallops past white shotgun houses set on cinder blocks. He wears a black cowboy hat, black riding jacket, light blue jeans and reflective sunglasses like Neo’s in “The Matrix” as he passes by the rowhouses of Houston’s Third Ward, two hundred and some miles from our previous scene. The clip lasts only a handful of seconds, then cut to—
Solange, in a black cowboy hat and riding jacket, dancing outside Dallas City Hall. Her left hand rests below her rib cage; above it, a glistening black breastplate. She holds her right hand out to the side; sways her hips; does a two-step. The choreography is avant-garde-meets-house-party. Behind her, a crowd of dancers, dressed in monochrome black. Behind them, City Hall. Even by the dozens, the dancers are dwarfed by the building’s massive scale. Sixty-eight feet of concrete cantilever over them, jutting out diagonally in an inverted half-pyramid. The building, dancers, and expansive concrete plaza are dimly lit. The only glimmering comes with Solange’s movement, the breastplate revealed beneath the jacket.
The scenes come from Solange’s music video for “Things I Imagined / Down with the Clique,” the opening songs from her 2019 album “When I Get Home.”
Where are we? An alternate present? An Afrofuturist vision? An alternative past? The future? Solange rearranges shapes, buildings and bodies. She claims the powerful and brutal(ist) seat of Dallas municipal government for herself. She rehearses an elsewise, or an always-has-been. Dallas City Hall keeps the specter of governance close at hand: she is writing a new script surrounding an obelisk of state power. She asserts herself and her dancers over government; she literally foregrounds people before concrete bureaucracy.
At night, the light thrown forward by City Hall’s horizontally stretched window bays is more prominent than its hulking mass, and I.M. Pei’s fortress assumes a graceful stature. If the presence of Solange and her dancers offers some challenge to Dallas City Hall—as the present body of authority—its architecture and materiality are assumed, subsumed, appropriated and taken into the aesthetic of the video. Solange’s filmography explores monochronism, texture, crowds (of dancers/peoples/bodies), and the beauty in material and subtle difference; her aesthetic shares common ground with a Brutalist sensibility.
Solange croons, in one of the album’s sparkling interludes:
I can’t be a singular expression of myself
There’s too many parts, too many spaces
Too many manifestations, too many lines
Too many curves, too many troubles
Too many journeys, too many mountains
Too many rivers, so many-
The audio breaks off. The language of her expression is spatial; architectural. She is an environment in an environment; abuzz with versions of herself; so many concrete veins pumping trucks and people through loop-de-loops and up spiraled ramps. Palimpsetic and overdetermined. Endlessly morphable, evolving like a skyline. Much like a city.
CAB 5: This is a Rehearsal, the fifth installment of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, opens September 21 across the city. Its curators, the Floating Museum collective, approach “design as an iterative rehearsal process to explore architecture, cities, and the different social, ecological, economic and political forces that shape them.” The collective is composed of artists, poets, designers and educators. They ask us to “challenge and envision alternatives for the following: how we understand and address the needs of a city, who plays a role in imagining and making the city, and how our potential solutions attend to the overlapping crises that now inform our everyday lives.” How are we to take design, and architecture, seriously as rehearsal processes for our future?
A sixty-eight-foot mass of concrete, jutting forward in an inverted half-pyramid, cantilevers over rows of dancers, dwarfing them—even by the dozens. Dallas City Hall looms large in “Things I Imagined / Down with the Clique,” literally but also figuratively: I.M. Pei’s iconic building grounds an ambitious collage of footage, in a video which cuts rapidly between cities, scenes, figures and geographies. Its weight is monumental; it exerts a certain gravity. In a 1979 review published in Progressive Architecture, a year after construction was completed, Peter Papademetriou wrote that “City Hall remains distant in its reading by the individual, who is dominated at close range by its monumentality.” The Architectural Review wrote that the building “took twelve years [to build] and looks like it will stand for 212.” That I.M Pei is “a man with the unusual gift of combining grandeur with an abstract geometry—and producing as a result buildings that are liked by the public.” That “America is still thirsty for symbols and this building is certainly potent with concrete grandeur.”
In 1963—the year before Dallas City Council appointed a committee to investigate new City Hall locations—President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in the city. Dallas earned a new name, “The City of Hate,” which then-Mayor J. Erik Jonsson was eager to ditch. Dallas was looking to take its place among the most dynamic and largest American cities, where architecture long signaled ambition, sophistication and prosperity. Reflecting on the assassination, and the plans for a new City Hall, Mayor Jonsson recalled that “People in Dallas were being talked about in every other quarter of the world as living in a city of hate. We wanted architecture of outstanding quality: the strength, the inner simplicity that almost inevitably goes with beauty, and the straightforward look that to me sums up what Texans were and how they felt and how they stood up against their problems.” It is no surprise, then, that the Council’s planning committee selected world-renowned architect I.M. Pei to design the structure. They asked for and received nothing less than a monument.
In a 1978 review headlined “Bold Symbol of a City’s Image of its Future,” John Pastier writes of Dallas City Hall as “embody[ing] familiar and perhaps even old-fashioned values: monumental scale, studied formalism, structural daring, thoughtful detail and a heroic, futuristic stance.” His oxymoronic proposition of a “futuristic stance” as an “old-fashioned value” reveals a feature of architecture—especially civic architecture, public architecture, monumental architecture—to guide publics into their vision of a future. Pastier describes Dallas City Hall and park plaza as “bold and confident symbols for a sanguine and expansive city,” a “new center of government [which] represents the way Dallas has always liked to see itself, namely as progressive, sophisticated, cultured and, perhaps paradoxically, as both future-oriented and tastefully conservative.” The building is tasked with representing the ethos of the city.
Dallas City Hall bears resemblance to the Forum Hotel in Krakow, Poland, and the Slovak Radio Building—a true inverted pyramid—in Bratislava, Slovakia. It is altogether at home with the Brutalist architecture of the Eastern Bloc. The aspirational spirit of Brutalism is legible across improvised and improvising worlds, from Mayor Jonsson’s dreams of a globalized Dallas to communist dreams of global social revolution. They make uncomfortable bedfellows. And, perhaps in their “old-fashioned” commitment to “a heroic, futuristic stance,” many such buildings have come to symbolize the state opposite to how it would like to be perceived.
Dallas City Hall is no exception.
Bold, confident, a symbol of “concrete grandeur”: I.M. Pei’s architecture conjures a government which is monumental, powerful and impressive. Also opaque and out of reach.
There is beautiful thought in Dallas City Hall’s design. The building’s iconic cantilever is use-driven: lower floors, which contain public spaces, have a smaller footprint than those above them, which house the more space-intensive offices of bureaucracy. During scorching Dallas summers, the building’s sixty-eight-foot northern cantilever shades the plaza at City Hall’s base. In these respects, Dallas City Hall represents the best that Brutalism has to offer: innovative, socially-minded, utilitarian design.
Despite, or maybe because of all this calculation, it is also not a particularly popular building. (It does not suffer this fate alone, but among kin: architectural historian and author Brian M. Sirman refers to Dallas City Hall as one of the controversial Boston City Hall’s “most conspicuous ‘children’” and Thomas Leslie, author of the recently published “Chicago Skyscrapers, 1934-1985,” offers the Brutalist courthouse in Joliet, Illinois—which recently escaped demolition—as a child of Dallas City Hall.) In a 2022 column by Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster, “Dallas City Hall: Why the city’s most hated building might be its greatest masterpiece,” he wagers that if a poll were taken, City Hall would rank as the city’s least favorite building. The article begins: “You are wrong about City Hall.” Lamster’s opinion finds company amongst other defenders of Brutalism, who paradoxically celebrate socially minded, class-conscious architecture while dismissing popular distaste for the style. This distaste should not be discounted as philistinism. Even in his glowing review of Dallas City Hall for the AIA Journal, Pastier acknowledges that the building’s unfailing commitment to monumentality weakens its commitment to the public:
“Five of the six major bays fronting the plaza are blank concrete to a height of fifteen feet. When combined with the width of seven solid service bays, the result is a first story that is nearly nine-tenths windowless masonry, almost three times as tall as an average person… Here the otherwise impressive gestures of formal monumentalism become inadvertently brutal: There is no ground level transition of scale receptive to human presence. In this single instance the building fails as a civic symbol, for it seems designed to overwhelm its constituency rather than show its deference.”
Only a decade after its completion, Pei’s city hall was used as the headquarters of the fictional, semi-privatized police force of “Old Detroit” in “RoboCop.” The movie takes place in 2043, a year we are now closer to than the movie’s release in 1987. (While our technology is considerably behind that of “RoboCop,” our corporatized government is not: since 2019, Dallas’ actual police have been in business with Amazon, collecting data through their Ring security service.) In only a decade, Dallas City Hall, designed as a futuristic force in urban renewal, became an iconic scene-setter for a lions’ den of neoliberal apathy and corruption.
It has been the scene of real apathy and corruption, too. In 2009, Mayor Donald W. Hill—among other defendants, including his wife—was convicted on conspiracy to accept bribes from one affordable housing developer and extorting another, the third such scandal in thirteen years. During the summer of 2020, Dallas City Hall became a meeting point for the Black Lives Matter movement; and a battleground. On May 30, 2020, the Dallas Morning News reported that “Protests at Dallas City Hall again prompt tear gas as demonstrators against police brutality say ‘No more.’” The article continues, “Early Saturday afternoon in Dallas, several hundred people of various ages and races had gathered peacefully at City Hall, chanting ‘No more’ as workers inside peered from the windows. ‘How do you spell racist: DPD?’ the crowd asked, turning its attention to the building.”
Dominating, overwhelming, “inadvertently brutal”: I.M. Pei’s architecture conjures a government which is monumental, powerful, and impressive. Also opaque and out of reach.
Dallas City Hall is thick with versions of itself, with manifold scripts being rehearsed. Architecture either becomes phenomenologically symptomatic of or actually informs the sociopolitical: the state, as we see it and as it sees itself, and the degree of humanity with which we approach one another. That’s design, considered quite seriously, in the case of one building. But rehearsal is endlessly scaleable—from the iconic, scene-stealing black cowboy hats of “When I Get Home” to the cityscapes they populate.
CAB 5 implores us to think of cities as such: interacting and cross-contaminated with different styles of architectures; visions of the future; and budgets. Floating Museum offers that “Cities are always evolving—continuously shaped and reshaped by the millions of people who inhabit them through a process of action and reaction. Over time, the accumulation of buildings and infrastructure creates a layered index of the ideals and policies of past generations. Rehearsal invites new possibilities through open dialogue, creative invention, and a generative process of discovery to understand how hope and care can emerge in architecture.”
What were we rehearsing when?
On a cloudy, bright Friday in August, I walked into Chicago City Hall through a gilded revolving door on North LaSalle Street. The building is ten stories, Neoclassical in style. Its interior lobby is composed of large archways tiled in creamy stone and laurel-patterned mosaics. People pass through; wait. Most of the golden wall pendants have functioning lights.
The building was completed in 1911, but it harks back thousands of years, to the birthplace of democracy, rehearsing the future through an idealized past. At least that’s what I gleaned from its Corinthian capitals and fluted columns.
I exited the building onto North Clark. Across the street, in Daley Plaza, a DJ booth blasted remixed steel drums. The plaza’s periphery was surrounded by food trucks and its tables filled with people eating, talking and swaying in their chairs.
The Daley Center was designed by Jacques Brownson in the Miesian International Style that has come to dominate skylines across the world. Like Dallas City Hall, it was conceived with a large plaza abutting the building—though this one has no concrete overhang. The plaza is un-encroached from above, partly dominated by an amusing—even cute?—abstract Picasso weighing more than 160 tons and made of the same Cor-Ten steel as the building opposite it. A 1969 thesis submitted to the Division of the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago found that “On an average spring and summer weekday, some 2500 persons in the Chicago ‘Loop’ area have in mind a visit to the Civic Center plaza as they begin their lunch hour.”
The Daley Center building is less monumental than Dallas City Hall, its glass walls less mysterious than Dallas’ concrete. It is less monumental, even, than Chicago City Hall, despite being twice and a half as tall (unlike Chicago City Hall, the Daley Center building does not fully occupy its lot). It is not monumental, nor overwhelming or dominating. Its design does not reach back to Ancient Greece; it facilitates a weekly farmers’ market.
None of this is to suggest the International Style is somehow the answer—but rather to examine one excellent example of civic design and shifting priorities.
What can we do freed from old-fashioned ideals of futurism? What else can we rehearse?