Billy Surface

An unusual agreement between a newspaper and a university brought Mark Lamster to Dallas. Now this transplanted New Yorker has become Big D's fiercest critic of mediocrity.

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. That's to be expected: If you'd asked people on the street which public figure they would've liked to see lured to Dallas, plenty would've said Johnny Manziel.

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.

More and more, the decision to bring Lamster to Dallas looks like a prudent investment. Yet it's not a move that the newspaper could necessarily afford to make alone. The Dallas Morning News brought Lamster from New York to the Big D through a joint appointment with the University of Texas at Arlington—where he also teaches.

It's an unusual arrangement for an architecture critic, but then again, so is Dallas. For a number of reasons, Lamster's work could serve as a model for places like Dallas: paradox cities where the need for criticism is plain, but the means for underwriting it are nearly nonexistent.

* * *

Dallas was not Lamster's first choice. "He certainly saw the potential," Mong says, noting that he brought him in two or three times before Lamster signed on. "It was like coming into an alien planet."

Dallas, Texas (Brandon Wade/AP)

"When I first proposed it, he said, 'No way,'" says Inga Saffron, the Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Mong had asked Saffron to help scout for someone to follow in the footsteps of the inestimable David Dillon, who died in 2010. (Dillon had taken a buyout from The Dallas Morning News in 2006.) "Everyone I approached said, 'Ew, Dallas, no.'"

"Moving out of the place where I'd been so long was going to take a lot of convincing no matter where it was," Lamster says. In New York, he worked as a frequent contributor to design and general-interest publications, including Architect, Metropolis, and Architectural Record as well as The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. A polymath, he wrote a well-received book on the spycraft of Peter Paul Rubens and another on baseball apostle Albert Goodwill Spalding.

The seed was planted after Dillon's wife donated his papers to the University of Texas at Arlington in 2011. After his archives came to the school, The Dallas Morning News gave a donation to support the creation of the David Dillon Center for Texas Architecture, which was launched the same year by director Kate Holliday. Lamster met Holliday while doing research for a forthcoming biography of architect Phillip Johnson, whose thumbprint is all over Texas cities. Mong's search for a new architecture critic began in earnest in 2012.

"With the donation of the papers it really created an opportunity to try to, instead of talking about something, to do something," Holliday says. The school was receptive to Mong's proposal to co-fund a new position: The newspaper would get an architecture critic, and the institute would get a fellow. (Mong tells me that The Dallas Morning News pays his salary and benefits, and UTA sends the newspaper a check on a quarterly basis—compensation for the class he teaches there and other advisory responsibilities. The parties signed a three-year agreement.)

All they had to do was convince Lamster. His family, too: Lamster's wife, Anna Kuchment, is now a staff writer with The Dallas Morning News and a contributing editor at Scientific American; his daughter is enrolled in private school. "It wasn't some kind of dreaded thing," Lamster says. "Dallas is symptomatic of so many problems of American urban culture. I felt there were a lot of things I could do here, and that was really appealing."

The George W. Bush Presidential Center, designed by Robert A.M. Stern, in Dallas (David J. Phillip/AP)

So he rolled up his sleeves and got to work. Earlier this summer, Dallas Baptist University published a monograph on the architectural history of its campus, which includes faithful recreations of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, Philadelphia's Independence Hall, and Providence's First Baptist Church. What The Dallas Morning News might've let slide before Lamster's tenure, the critic skewered, framing the campus as symptomatic of "trophy building" culture in Dallas.

"Dallas Baptist's audacious pastiche makes it an easy target, but it's hardly an anomaly in Dallas," he wrote, in a rollicking essay that drew heated responses from readers. "Perhaps because the city is at once so insecure about its history and yet so bent on prestige, it has often looked elsewhere for architectural validation."

"I would say that I've always admired his work for being pugnacious, historical, and occasionally contrarian," says critic Alexandra Lange in an email. Together, Lamster and Lange wrote Design Observer's Lunch with the Critics, an irreverent year-in-review awards romp. "It was his idea, and I enjoyed showing how smart people can disagree, and getting criticism to unbend from the form of the newspaper column," she says. "He's done a great job in Dallas of handling learning in public while pulling no punches."

"There were a lot of people really desperate to have this position filled," Lamster says. Indeed: A couple of commenters weighed in on his review of the Bush library (designed by architect Robert A.M. Stern) with points about Stern's thorny admiration for the Nazi architecture of Albert Speer, the in-house architect of the Third Reich. That's one of the great but insider-ish debates in the world of architecture, so it's surprising to see it spill over into the pages of The Dallas Morning News. Then again, Lamster says: "Readers react strongly to everything in the DMN."

* * *

Late last month, the critic wrote a dispatch from a demolition in downtown. In that report, he described a separate incident in which a wrecking ball demolished 1611 Main Street, a 129-year-old landmark building, after virtually no debate. That Sunday demolition took place during a Dallas Cowboys game, cover that falls darker than night over the city.

In an essay whose title ("We regret to inform you that your city has been destroyed") is a callout to Philip Gourevitch's book on the Rwandan genocide, Lamster laid the blame for these civic "acts of vandalism" fully at the feet of Tim Headington, the billionaire developer behind the forthcoming Joule Hotel. But Lamster spared some blame for everyone else in Dallas as well.

"Watching these buildings fall in recent days has felt, as much as anything, like a collective failure," he writes. "Each and every one of us who cares about the city must take responsibility for these losses."

The Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, designed by Santiago Calatrava, in Dallas (Dana Driensky/AP)

Bulldog is just one of the roles that Lamster plays for The Dallas Morning News. "Racially, economically, the poverty here is just staggering," he says. "My feeling is that the physical city does a lot to reinforce the segregation and the balkanization of the population." Which means that Lamster finds himself writing about the "cradle-to-school-to-prison trajectory" that black men follow in Dallas—in addition to the urbane Thomas Heatherwick exhibition at the Nasher Sculpture Center. The idea of a traditional architecture critic who only writes about new buildings is over, he tells me.

He isn't being lyrical: Following David Brussat's departure from the Providence Journal, there are fewer than a dozen architecture critics working full time for U.S. newspapers today. Some of them pull double duty as art critics. But more to the point, most if not all of today's architecture critics have expanded beyond the model set by Ada Louise Huxtable—the grand dame of architectural criticism—to write about broader issues, including planning, urbanism, and even transit and infrastructure.

"In the old world, we had these jobs. I’m lucky to have one. They pay me a salary, I get healthcare, I have a little cubicle," says Saffron, sounding a familiar refrain in journalism. But she is quick to point out that, while there are fewer critics working for still fewer newspapers, there are a "zillion sites" focusing on ever-narrower corners of the built environment. "It's an incredibly vibrant, fruitful time," she says.

With all the newer niche publications online, is a co-funding model, like the one devised by The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Arlington, a workable solution to focusing critical debate about planning and the built environment? Is it even necessary?

"If you have the right person in the job—and I think Mark so far has done really strong work—then the teaching and the criticism can inform and strengthen each other," says Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne by email. "I'm not teaching now, but when I have, it has helped focus my thinking and more to the point my reading and research on issues related to the architectural and urban history of Los Angeles."

Lamster is the first to point out the flaws in his own employment model. All of his employers are accommodating, he says, but his work on his Johnson biography has slowed. "It’s hard to be an architecture critic at a daily newspaper and not have it metastasize into a full-time job," Lamster says. This isn't the only joint position at The Dallas Mornings News: An epidemiologist who specializes in infectious diseases joined the paper as a jointly funded science writer just before the Ebola virus arrived in Dallas. And Rick Brettell, the paper's art critic, is a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. ("Getting 20 hours of Rick Brettell, in my opinion, is like getting 60 hours from some other people," Mong told the Nieman Journalism Lab last year.)

"I think the model pursued by UT Arlington and the DMN is a really encouraging one, not just because it suggests a way for midsize papers to maintain a strong roster of critics but also because it offers universities a new platform to study their host cities and teach students about urbanism," Hawthorne writes.

Lamster's role at UTA is bound to change somewhat in short order. The School of Architecture is merging with the School of Urban and Public Affairs. Holliday says that she is "waiting with bated breath" to find out who the university will bring on as the school's founding dean. A joint School of Architecture and Public Affairs may be a more appropriate perch for studying the subjects that Lamster intends to explore next: mobility, transportation, and healthcare.

Not everyone in Dallas will follow where he goes. But the subjects close to his heart—the Trinity Toll Road ("the urban planning equivalent of the Iraq War"), the future of Fair Park ("the would-be centerpiece of a Dallas Olympics")—are important to Dallas readers. The Cotton Bowl is as dear to Dallas residents as Tom Landry's fedora. Of course they care what Lamster has to say about it, even if they disagree.

Lamster isn't alone in writing about these subjects: He cites Patrick Kennedy's blog for D Magazine as a must-read. Yet as the city's only architecture critic, who also serves as a fellow for its only architecture school, he wields a big bullhorn. The Dallas Observer was cutting up when they named Lamster the Best Dallas Architecture Critic of 2014. Yet the whole reason to even designate that category was to make one larger point: "He is a public intellectual, which is rare around these parts."

"People in Dallas, there's nothing they love talking about more than Dallas and the future of Dallas," Lamster says. "To the extent I'm doing that, I think that's appreciated."

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