City Lab ran an interesting piece about Mark Lamster, architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News, called “Dallas Finds Its Voice.” Lamster was brought to the city from New York by a joint hire between the newspaper and the University of Texas at Arlington. The goal was apparently to bring in a top notch out of town critic who wasn’t afraid to apply the same lens to Dallas that he did to the Big Apple. He appears to have succeeded:
Mark Lamster’s very first assignment for The Dallas Morning News was a bombshell. His review of the George W. Bush Presidential Center appeared on the front page of the paper in April of last year, days before the library opened to the public. It didn’t pull any punches. “Everywhere competent, it nowhere rises to a level of inspiration,” Lamster wrote. The newspaper’s newly minted architecture critic called out the project’s host, Southern Methodist University President R. Gerald Turner, for a directive that “precluded a work of more adventurous design.”
“It was very embarrassing to a lot of what I’d call boosters in town,” says Bob Mong, the editor-in-chief of The Dallas Morning News, who brought Lamster down from New York. Mong nevertheless put it smack dab on A1. “It got everyone’s attention, let me tell you. When you stand back from it and look at what he wrote, it holds up very well today.”
Readers greeted Lamster cautiously. “Must be a Democrat,” said one commenter. “The review was written before the yankee [sic] got there,” chimed another.
But while Johnny Football would’ve ruined one of Dallas’s greatest institutions, Lamster is elevating the city through his reporting and criticism. “Welcome to Dallas: Paradox City,” a September report on the conflicting interests driving development there, could double as a mission statement for his work as a critic. Earlier this month, he explained the function and history of a complex of jails that he describes as the “unholy gateway to our city.” That report segues neatly into “Building the Just City,” the title for the third annual David Dillon Symposium, a conference he is helping to host today and Saturday for the University of Texas at Arlington School of Architecture.
It’s worth reading the whole thing.
Lamster’s hiring seems to have filled a key gap in Dallas, namely finding a knowledgeable critic who is willing to call them like he sees them. Finding this sort of realistic self-assessment is very hard for cities that aren’t in the first cultural tier. In my experience, grade inflation and softball reviews are rampant.
I’ve thought about the dynamics of this with regards to smaller cities for a while. One is that the audience is primarily made up of locals who aren’t plugged into cultural capitals. The comparison is generally versus what existed in the local market previously – which often results in seeing marked improvement – rather than a comparison against an outside standard or a comparative benchmark. One reason I started my blog as a regional blog is that so few people were aware of what was going on in places even just a short drive down the interstate that they believed things like downtown condo construction meant something special was happening in their town – as opposed to the reality that it was simply a trend that was hitting everyone else also washing over their city. Critics, maybe because in smaller cities newspapers and such sometimes simply assign a local reporter to that beat, seem to judge by the same standards.
A second problem is social. And it’s a two-fold problem. The first part is that strong critique has likely never been a part of the local culture, thus it’s simply not how things are done in the town. It’s hard to argue with this in a sense as a community is certainly free to adopt those values. But such a value set comes with consequences.
The other part is that even in regions as big as two million or more, the cultural class isn’t that large and is very interconnected. It’s inevitable that you are going to have to interact with the people you write about socially at some point. So if you write a critical review, that’s going to make for some awkward moments. In a place with no culture of it, people might not react well to being critiqued, and the reviewer himself probably doesn’t have a lot of experience at dealing with blowback, and so is emotionally sensitized to it.
Thirdly, there’s generally a desire in these places to want to support local businesses, cultural groups, etc. A lot of the folks engaging on the field of battle culturally are those who could have left town, but elected to stay. And there’s a desire to support them in their choice. In fact, the people who did make that choice can even feel entitled to that support. This isn’t just in small places either as “buy local” reigns almost unquestioned as preferred among the intelligentsia.
Again, that’s a valid cultural decision to make. I myself prefer to patronize local establishments where I can, and I’m even willing to pay a bit of a penalty in terms of price and quality to do it. But too often I think local purveyors of various products and services and cultural activities are basically given a free pass on quality. And often the people doing the truly best work aren’t appreciated, particularly if it’s innovative. By definition innovative work is contrary to the conventional wisdom, and to the extent that smaller local markets seek to boost their status by glomming on to trends, innovators can seem genuinely uncool. Additionally, people locally may not recognize or be willing to pay for true quality. For example, their definition of a luxury watches might include Rolex, but they’ve never even heard of say FP Journe.
Now Dallas is bigger than the regions I had in mind. I speculate based on the article that they had a similar relationship to criticism, however. It would take a local to say for sure what cultural factors are at work. But it’s interesting to see them stepping out a bit. I haven’t done enough analysis of Lamster’s work to judge, but if the comments even on City Lab are any judge, he’s already stirring up trouble.
Whatever the case, this shows that the Dallas Morning News at least wanted to try to elevate the game of Dallas. As I wrote in a previous post, some in Dallas are no longer satisfied with purely commercial success and are seeking, like other boomtowns before it, for Dallas to get classy too. This would appear to be in line with those efforts. That requires a community that’s willing to take a hard look in the mirror and be honest with themselves about where they don’t measure up versus their aspirations (and boosterism rhetoric). When it comes to architecture, they’ve apparently gone in search of someone who will hold up that mirror. The question is what they are willing to do with the images they see.