Redefining Downtown Dallas

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Published in Contract, October 2018

Look around at new construction in any dense American city and you’ll likely spot office towers with ground-floor transparency designed to engage the sidewalk and passersby. But nearly four decades ago, fortress-like boundaries were more de rigeur in uber-corporate America. A byproduct of that ’80s era, 400 Record in Dallas sported barriers ranging from a blocked-off perimeter to a massive granite wall obstructing views into the lobby.

“The building’s former nickname amongst the locals was the ‘Death Star’ because of the foreboding presence on the streetscape,” recalls Christopher Goggin, a design director at Gensler, the firm enlisted to remedy these overbearing qualities.

Relocating its headquarters to 400 Record, family-owned utility company City Electric Supply (CES) tapped Gensler to revamp the 17-story structure and add a restaurant feature. The project team, in turn, saw potential to radically reshape the building—for both the client and public—while keeping much of the structure intact.

Open to the public

“One of the common features of the 1980s is a lot of these great outdoor plaza spaces were designed to be seen, not necessarily used,” says Ian Zapata, a design director at Gensler. It didn’t matter at the time, he adds, given that everyone drove to work. But like many other cities today, Dallas is now rethinking walkability, alternative transportation, and other aspects of pedestrian friendliness. The architects thus began by opening up the building’s surrounding plaza and entrances. Where possible, they removed the edge barriers that walled in the outdoor spaces and furnished the plaza with comfortable organic seating to entice passersby to sit down and linger.

After carving out the granite wall that existed on the Record Street side, the project team inserted a new glazed entrance in it place with a striking 24-foot-high aluminum-louver canopy. Power-coated white, this element shades and lightly protects from inclement weather, but also serves a visual purpose: By starting on the outside, continuing into the lobby, and extending all the way through to the opposite side of the building, the feature dissolves the barrier between building and street farther. The exterior louvers tilt 45 degrees but possess a slight twist just before they meet the glazing, and then turn flat beyond the glass. This manipulated linear component conveys movement and helps draw the eye into the lobby and its impressive collection of contemporary art amassed by the president of CES. In fact, the lobby—converted by Gensler into a soaring double-height space—is now a gallery that’s open to the public during business hours.

A golden touch

One other eye-catching element that cuts through from one side of the building to the other is a peculiar floating gold container with two glazed sides. This is home to the new restaurant Bullion, which is also owned by the client. With interiors designed by Martin Brudnizki, Bullion is a see-and-be-seen venue that engages the plaza and streets further. Elevating it above the plaza was actually an idea pitched by the client—and Gensler thought it brilliant. “Once you lifted it, you wanted it to be something prominent,” says Zapata, whose team explored many forms for the restaurant before settling on this lozenge-like shape.

After researching cladding materials with the client, they eventually selected an aluminum-copper alloy that has a gold tone but will eventually streak due to the copper content. “We wanted it to be identifiable, independent from the rest of the project,” says project designer Justin Bashaw. “We’ve got this clean, crisp white plaza, but then this gold metal object that weathers over time.” Gensler specified a whopping 18,000 bespoke fish-scale shingles made of this material and mounted them to a substrate that wraps the restaurant, save for the glass walls offering glimpses of diners. Meanwhile, a new glass-enclosed helical staircase on the plaza punches through the bottom to provide direct access to Bullion.

Hidden interventions

In addition to the dramatic plaza and lobby overhaul, Gensler focused on two amenities not immediately visible to the public as they’re at the top of the building where the CES family’s offices are situated. On the north elevation, the architects did away with an existing balcony, enclosed it, and added a two-story, floor-to-ceiling window wall that affords dramatic views of the city skyline. To reclaim some outdoor space, they converted an awkward solarium-type sitting room on the south elevation that was topped by a slanted skylight. By removing the skylight and weatherproofing the space, Gensler created a new outdoor “sky garden,” and inserted a frameless glass guardrail to enhance its views of the city. What’s more, this new rooftop terrace visually connects to the plaza with a similar shading canopy of white louvers tilted 45 degrees.

In a sense, one critical intervention was made by the client: CES was initially unsure of moving to this building because, in addition to dated architecture, the site was in the much less popular downtown side of the city. With all the action taking place in uptown Dallas, “it took a special client with a certain imagination to envision possibilities for this building,” says Zapata. The owners looked toward the future potential for the neighborhood should Texas approve the proposed high-speed rail connecting Houston to downtown Dallas. And CES’s own move here may also be just the catalyst downtown Dallas needs. Less than a year in, 400 Record is already generating buzz and its restaurant is luring new crowds. “Having a high-end restaurant and a major company moving the headquarters to this building sends a signal,” Zapata adds. “I think it changed the perception of this part of town in the minds of a lot of people.”

Sidebar: Beacon Brasserie

While Gensler conceived the exterior elements of Bullion restaurant, Martin Brudnizki Design Studio (MBDS) fashioned the interiors, mostly with bespoke touches that help make the venue a dining “experience.” Taking cues from the client and the city itself, “we wanted to create a contemporary take on a brasserie that had a glamorous flare,” Brudnizki says. “Something that felt reminiscent of the midcentury whilst also working for today’s Dallas, which has experienced a bit of a culture renaissance in the last few years.”

To instill this sentiment, the designer used form, color, and tactility. As guests ascend the restaurant’s dramatic entry staircase, for example, they’ll feel the luxurious blue leather wrapping the stairs’ handrail and again repeated on the armrests of the dining chairs. This helical stair also cleverly highlights the client’s art collection, spiraling around Jean-Michel Othoniel’s two-story, blown-glass necklace. Upon reaching the second level, the guests arrive at a lounge outfitted with bespoke plush blue club chairs, onyx-and-brass occasional tables, and a Macassar ebony–topped bar.

On the other side of the staircase is the dining section, replete with custom wool-mohair banquettes that feature brasserie-inspired metal railing with integrated silk-shape lamps. High-gloss wood wall panels nod to the midcentury-modern aesthetic, as do hand-spun solid-brass ceiling luminaires by MBDS’ own product design studio, And Objects. Additionally, rose gold-leaf on Ceilings Plus acoustical ceiling panels magnifies the glamour factor while echoing the scales of the restaurant’s exterior. Another tie-in to the exterior, the ebony-stained oak floor accentuates the Gensler design by following the curve of the restaurant shell on the east and west ends, extending halfway up the walls.

Elegant as the interiors are, they’re also exposed to the street-level pedestrians to animate this aspect of the building. However, for extra-special occasions, two banquette niches offer semi-privacy. One bosts a stunning red wall, which is actually a triptych by Matthew Chambers, another work from the client’s art collection. This is, in fact, the designer’s personal favorite feature within the entire project. “The contrast between the blue leather and red artwork is striking,” he says. “The arrangement of the booth also makes for a cozy spot, perfect for gathering with friends and family.”