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Raising the Modernist Flag in Dallas--It’s European and Green

Two Portuguese architects, Atelier Data and Moov, bring new (and old) ideas about building performance and urbanism to Texas

By Zach Mortice

Associate Editor

In Dallas, some rather old-world architectural sensibilities are set to emerge in a very contemporary, sustainable way. Though Modernism matured and became the dominant architectural movement of the Western world during a time of cheap energy and ecologically heedless construction, a project in Dallas asks whether the social and communal aspirations of classic European Modernism can also serve as a paradigm for contemporary, rigorously sustainable architecture.

After a competition set up and run by the San Francisco non-profit Urban Re:Vision, a local affordable housing developer (The Central Dallas Community Development Corporation) selected a team of Portuguese architects to design a mixed-use complex of apartments last fall on a site just outside downtown Dallas. A jury selected the winning entry (called Forwarding Dallas, designed by the Lisbon-based firms of Atelier Data and Moov) over two American proposals. John Greenan, the executive director of the Dallas non-profit, says that Forwarding Dallas stood above the other entries because of its sense of innovation and conceptual integrity. It will, he says, stand up well to the inevitable changes in budget, program, and schedule that are common to publically funded affordable housing, its core identity intact. Already, the project has reduced in size from over 400 units to 300, and construction has been delayed to a completion date of 2014.

And this identity is decidedly European. Filipe Vogt Rodrigues of Atelier Data calls the mixed-use, mixed income endeavor a “social project,” and its pre-fab Brutalist material palette and massing makes it clear that its philosophical and aesthetic ancestors are projects like Corbusier’s Unite de Habitation, Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens, and other social welfare housing that was the enduring dream of the original European Modernists. Modernist architects began with the idea that sustainable building must uplift the human spirit and affirm and empower their communities. Contemporary architects interested in sustainability have often started talking about materials and carbon footprints first, but have grown to understand the Modernists social concerns as an element of sustainability.

Forwarding Dallas is filled with the kind of communal spaces, resources, and programs that are now referred to as elements of social sustainability, but were intensely tied to the social ambitions of Modernist architects intent on reorganizing society away from hierarchical relationships and democratizing the designed world. There are communal child care centers, shared urban agriculture plots, live-work spaces, and a car-share parking garage.

All of these space aim to create a self-sufficient micro-urbanism all their own that can kick start a more urban method of development in car-dependent and pedestrian-shy Dallas. All around the Forwarding Dallas site, Dallas’ central business district is filled with skyscrapers informed by Modernist and Postmodernist tastes, but down on the ground, the practical sustainability and essential social contract of Modernism’s past and present will truly be tested with Rodrigues’ project.

The urban hillside

At first, Rodrigues was shocked by the apparent emptiness of Dallas. He saw a seemingly abandoned downtown filled with cars on their way to parking garages. “You don’t have a town when you don’t have people outside,” he says.

In the end, he based the project around ubiquitous natural landforms: the hill and valley. The approximately 400,000-sqaure-foot complex is organized as a series of four bands of towers. Each section has two or three towers of varying heights, up to 22 stories. Set next to each other, the peaks and valleys are offset—each peak looks out to a valley and vice versa, providing expansive and engaging views, optimizing surface area for urban farming, and offering ideal solar orientation. A thin footprint encourages natural cross-breeze ventilation.

The project is meant to consume net-zero energy, and it has an appropriately open mind about integrating both high-tech and low-tech sustainable solutions. (With a modest $50 million budget and affordable housing units that need to be subsidized, an open mind about using a few seemingly primitive building systems is one investment Atelier Data and Moov can’t afford not to make). Its encyclopedic array of green building features begins with locally-sourced straw bale insulation on the north façade. On the southeast and southwest facades, an ingenious system of triangular blinds rotate to track the sun with two sides of photovoltaic panels and one side of mirrored glass. There are also PV panels and wind turbines on the roof, as well as a recycled water reservoir for the building’s grey water recycling system. Water will be heated with solar energy, and the building’s structure will be made of a prefabricated steel and concrete system. Expansive ribbons of greenscaped urban farmland will cover the east and west facades. At the highest elevations, where conditions are harsh and soil is thinner, mosses and sedums will grow. Lower down, there will be grasses, shrubs, and herbs. At the lowest levels residents will enjoy the shade of trees and will harvest vegetables.

The base of the building will house most non-residential functions: a fitness center, child care faculties, a restaurant, flexible event space, and lots of education spaces to teach new residents and the community about sustainable lifestyles. This serious effort to engaging the community, and the fact that the project will offer cutting-edge sustainable housing to the poor, is another way it reaches out to the original social conscious of Modernism. Forwarding Dallas takes sustainable design off a classist pedestal and begins anew, like Modernism did, with an architecture that’s accessible to all.

Provocative and performance-based

Forwarding Dallas’ hill-like topography helps to enhance it sense of micro-urbanism. Its parallel bands of peaks and valleys create view corridors and a sense of street wall enclosure that’s equal parts Italian hill town and Piranesian fantasy. This topographic organization also acts as a sly comment on the relationship between constructed, artificial landscapes and “real,” or “natural” landscapes. In profile, the building appears as a nearly two-dimensional outline of a hillside that might appear in the background of a child’s drawing. The building simulates and appropriates natural ecosystems, but very obviously (like the child’s illustration) it’s clearly a designed, artificial intervention. It’s not a particularly graceful or painterly image, and it’s not meant to be. The building seems to remind architects to not confuse their own ability to design quasi-natural ecosystems with nature’s own talents, a more and more important lesson as designers become increasingly interested and adept at simulating earth’s ecosystemic relationships in their buildings.

Rodrigues admits that the shape is “provocative,” but plays down any intentional sarcasm. He says the form of the building is only “a result of the inputs we put in the program of the building.”

Rodrigues says the building comes from a stringently anti-formalist design methodology. His work is data and performance-driven, without formal assumptions. It’s creative, yet rational and practical to the core. It’s an approach shared by a number of successful European firms (the Dutch firms OMA and MVRDV are examples) that seems to be on the rise now that the depressed building industry has put an end to form-for-forms-sake tinkering. Rodrigues says his building is quite simply “a diagram of a program.” He compares it to something as graphically mundane in its formal appearance as a computer spreadsheet. “You put all the data inside and it becomes a graphic,” he says. That it even has a graphic appearance at all is little more than a byproduct of the data input process.

Still moving beyond style

Forwarding Dallas shares this sense of formal inevitability with much of old Modernism. Its proponents sought to create an architecture beyond style, to wash away the failures of a world they felt would soon no longer exist, fresh, clean, forever. They were the first to posit building as machines for fulfilling their program (which sounds like a full-throated endorsement of contemporary performance-based building sustainability), but they weren’t able to reliably measure how their buildings performed these tasks, and often let obsessions about formal purity pull the discussion in the wrong direction.

Hopefully, with history as a guide, neither of these mistakes will befall Rodrigues and his contemporaries. Today, architects have the technology to measure how buildings perform, and a few have taken a bold step back from basing projects around mercurial aesthetics. If a project like Forwarding Dallas succeeds, it will show the world that Modernism can live up to its latent sustainability aspirations after all.


Atelier Data and Moov’s Forwarding Dallas is based around a ubiquitous natural landform: the hill and valley. The approximately 400,000-sqaure-foot complex is organized as a series of four bands of towers. Each section has two or three towers of varying heights, up to 22 stories. All images courtesy of Atelier Data and Moov.


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