THE ELEMENT, DALLAS, TEXAS 2005-2008

Those of you who know something about architecture will recognize that this week’s title represents something of a challenging dichotomy.  Joseph Eichler was a developer of single story modern tract homes in California from 1949 to 1966, having been inspired by a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Hillsborough, California that his family lived in for a short time.  I think that everyone knows what a high rise is and will understand the challenge.  One day, I got a call from a long time client, Ron Ratner of Forest City, who had an issue that he needed some help with.  He had hired IDEO, the industrial design firm that had designed the original Apple mouse, among other famous products, to apply their process to conceptualizing the development approach to several blocks of empty buildings the company had purchased in downtown Dallas.  The first phase was the buildings that made up the former Mercantile Bank and Trust complex across the street from the flagship Neiman Marcus department store.  The complex included the historic 1940’s iconic office tower with its clock and weather spire, a 1950’s annex that was to be torn down and replaced, and the Continental, a former parking garage that was added onto and converted to office space in the 1960’s.

IDEO researched the current state of the downtown residential market, the target populations, and the characteristics that would draw additional people to live downtown.  The results showed that most people who wanted to live downtown (as opposed to uptown if you know Dallas) were new arrivals moving from other urban places.  They quickly saw that the historic tower would attract people who wanted to live in historic buildings and thus the interiors should reflect a “working loft” with dark paneling and bronze accents– a restore and re-use approach.  The new building to replace the annex would have a very different identity, and IDEO labeled it “The building that features you,” complete with transparent “party boxes” that put the residents on display.  These images described the desired design language.

All images courtesy of IDEO.

The local architect, already on board for the renovation of the Mercantile Trust Tower, was having some difficulty translating the “Eichler High-rise” brief into a building that appealed to Forest City.  We were given one week to see what we could come up with, and if successful, were told that we would become the design architects.  Having some experience with the client, I knew a couple of things: one, that the design we came up with could not cost a lot more money than what had already been proposed, and two, that the budget would rein in some of the IDEO conceptual ideas.  Add to this the fact that the new building would sit on the existing parking garage that stood under the 1950’s annex; so our column grid was already established, dictating the width of the building.  With this background, we began to study the characteristics of the typical Eichler house.

An example of an Eichler home demonstrating the classic characteristics.

After seeing the design images from the local architect’s earlier studies, my intuition told me that they were interpreting the IDEO drawings too literally, and I wanted to make sure we avoided that same trap.  What we saw when studying Eichler’s houses were the dominance of the long low sloped roofs, the planar quality of the walls, and the emphasis on horizontality . The first conceptual thing we tried was to respect the angles of the roof, but flip the roof form upside down to get the “lift” a tall building often needs. We decided to contrast the strong verticality of the Merc Tower with horizontal wall planes that bracketed a conceptual glass box.. The glass box revealed itself at the corners and provided some of the indoor/outdoor feeling of Eichler’s houses. I worked with a young designer, Tom Melville, who really understood the concept and was able to run with it, continually improving on these ideas with each new iteration. Tom’s rendering at the top of the post demonstrates these concepts and how well the new building complements the tower through contrast rather than mimicry.

Early sketch showing the IDEO party box concept that had to be abandoned due to cost and structural complications Right: Two story elevator lobbies and slab sunshades on the south façade.

Both Forest City and IDEO approved our concept and we were integrated into the team as the design architect, working with Beeler Guest Owens as the architect of record for the annex site.  The third site on the block would be cleared down to the below-grade parking structure so an amenities deck could be created on top of it.  We brought in local landscape architect MESA, with whom we had previously collaborated on the Legacy in Dallas, to design the pool and landscape.  There was also a singular point of entry called the Jewel Building between the two towers which was added to our scope.

Ultimately marketed as “The Element,” the 15-story, 153-unit modern residential tower was completed in January 2009.  As a companion to one of Dallas’ most recognizable historic skyscrapers – The Mercantile Trust Tower -The Element tower was designed to be both complementary to its context and unique as a statement of Main Street’s future as an urban residential neighborhood.  Inspired by mid-century modernist optimism, the signature butterfly sloping roof and expansive glass windows provide an alternative living style to its classic neighbor.  The Element was placed along Main Street to provide continuity of the well-defined street edge. With the incorporation of a commercial floor at the ground level, retail activity along Main Street is continued as well.

Employing a design language of thin stucco planes overlaying glass curtain wall, the Element Tower creates a dynamic of figured planes slipping across the building structure. The north elevation is characterized as a large stucco plane carved with long horizontals shared alternatively by recessed balcony spaces and glass windows. Tinted stucco and exposed portions of its post-tensioned concrete structure blend chromatically with the warm gray limestone of the Merc, achieving the effect of a single cohesive residential complex.

The two-story entry building is located between the Mercantile Tower and the Element Tower and is clad in green copper to contrast to the warm grey limestone and stucco of the two towers.  The entry building, referred to as the Jewel Building, was designed as the primary residential entrance for both buildings.  Conceived as one large open space with sloped ceiling planes reminiscent of the Element’s butterfly roof, the lobby features two free-standing cubic volumes, one clad in copper, serving as the packages storage room, and the other, internally illuminated and serving as the mail center.  From the mail center, residents may proceed into the Element Tower into the cabana lounge where they may catch up on e-mail, the latest televised news or grab a cup of coffee while looking out over the pool deck.  A full resident fitness center is located just beyond the cabana lounge and shares a view of the pool deck. The second floor of the Jewel building contains amenity spaces available to the residents of the building for general use or for reservation.  A living room and dining room supported by a catering kitchen overlooks Main Street and can be used by residents to host larger dinners than their apartment  could accommodate. The dining room can also be configured to function as a conference room, should that be needed.  A sports bar and gaming center is located on the second floor overlooking the pool deck and is adjacent to a poker room and a video entertainment theater.

A patina copper clad box serves as a package storage room and as a backdrop to the reception desk, and an internally illuminated mail center serves as its counterpoint in the southern half of the space.

The first floor cabana lounge incorporates interior glazing and clerestory to suggest a continuation of the circulation space directly through the lounge into the courtyard.

The interior spaces of The Element, furnished by our interiors group, were similarly inspired by mid-century modern architecture.  After careful analysis of Eichler’s interiors, key elements were identified as a way of achieving a continuity of design concept into the units.  Using an architectural vocabulary of thin planar elements, both in the vertical and horizontal seemed essential to create a sense of flowing space.  The use of natural light, through translucency and transparency in clerestory and interior windows, reinforces the perception of spaciousness.  Expression of structure is also a key feature as it creates an interesting dialogue between infill planes of finish materials and the unfinished building support components.

Left:  Early unit concepts    Right:  “Eichler Wall” with an extra bedroom door that opens up the unit spatially

Our work was eventually expanded to include the FF&E of the Merc Tower common spaces as well. Forest City made a great decision early on to save prior to demolition many of the iconic works of art and craft that were original to the historic tower and banking hall. These were reused in various places in the common areas to recall the character and beauty of this historic building.

Entry into the Merc Tower from the Jewel Building with original art deco detailing, tile murals and bronze castings as art. Right: Aztec sun tile mural on the pool deck.

The outdoor pool deck is the very popular center of the entire Merc on Main complex. The deck consists of a variety of spaces to serve the needs of the residents.  A quiet contemplative space located immediately outside of the Jewel Building features a large glass mosaic water wall and raised grass lawn.  A blank wall of the adjacent Merc Tower serves as a projection surface for nighttime film presentations and a channel of green glass serves as the figurative water feature separating the circulation path from the main deck.  Three tent pavilions and planting areas along the main lap pool are also located on the raised deck. The pool is bisected by a colorful orange wall that houses a waterfall which divides the main pool from the spa pool.  A colorful fabric panel roof trellis provides shade to the grilling area of the deck at the west end of the pool while an open trellis provides shade for the seating area around the fireplace at the east end.  The entire deck maintains the architectural theme of floating and intersecting planes, utilizing a variety of materials and colors to provide visual interest when seen from the towers above.

The amenity deck is really a metaphor for this project in that it was really a fun project.  At the time, there was a kind of arms race in Dallas for which new residential building could have coolest amenity deck. It was one place where the developers would spend money because when the building opened, it had to generate buzz and attract the beautiful people (and renters, of course). This is especially where the residents are put on display!

The whole project was a great deal of fun.  Forest City has always brought us interesting projects that are not the run of the mill developments and rising to the challenge is always an interesting journey.  Having a company like IDEO initiate the concept of the “Eichler High-rise” made this project more challenging than most, but also more interesting.  I am not sure if Eichler would recognize or entertain the idea of a high rise, but I think it inspired an interesting and appropriate solution to helping create a neighborhood out of a block of abandoned buildings in downtown Dallas.

I want to leave you with an image that the graphic designers created for the project. We are often interviewed by the graphic design and marketing consultants about the design to inform the marketing of the project. With varying levels of success, they sometimes capture the essence of the design. Here, Paul Hershfield of Davies Associates absolutely nailed it with this “Etch-a-Sketch” graphic of the buildings. I knew immediately it was right because I wished this had been our concept sketch at the beginning of the project.  It totally captures the mid century vibe of the project and the architectural horizontality of The Element in contrast to the verticality of The Merc, with the Jewel building in between.

Photo courtesy of Davies Associates.

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