Inventing NorthPark Center: Similarities and differences between the two men who designed it

by | Architecture, Design

‘At the time we did NorthPark, art was not mentioned. The Nashers had no art. They had one painting …’

edited from a conversation with MARK LAMSTER | Photograph by Mark Lamster.

On the occasion of NorthPark Center’s 50th anniversary, Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster sat down for a conversation at the home of E.G. Hamilton, now 95, the original lead architect of the shopping center with his firm, Harrell + Hamilton (now Omniplan). Joining them was architect Mark Dilworth, now a partner at Morrison Dilworth + Walls, who directed the 2006 expansion of NorthPark while a principal at Omniplan.

MARK LAMSTER Maybe you could talk a little bit about the genesis of the project and how you became involved in it.

E.G. HAMILTON The NorthPark site sat there for years. It was part of the Hillcrest Foundation. Developers drooled over it, but Hillcrest didn’t want to sell it. The Nashers came up with the idea of leasing the property and that secured it for them. I think the idea for the name, NorthPark, probably came from Patsy Nasher. The idea that it be called a center instead of a mall came from me, because I didn’t like the sound of a mall.

ML How did the architectural team come together?

EGH Ray Nasher hired Harwood Smith to design the center, Lee Star hired me to design the Titche-Goettinger store and Stanley Marcus hired Eero Saarinen to do his [Neiman Marcus] store. Typically, in a shopping center with three anchor stores, each store would have its own architect, the center would have an architect and probably the free-standing cinema would — so there would be four or five architects working independently and uncoordinated. The result was visual chaos. The interiors would be long corridors lined by continuous shop fronts with no sense of architecture. This is what we saw in the industry going in.Ray Nasher loved to talk about these things, so he arranged to have a series of design meetings in the beginning. Harwood Smith arranged these in a conference room down in the Southland Center, and John Dinkeloo and Kevin Roche came representing Saarinen. We had these lofty discussions about how grand this was going to be. After about four or five of these meetings, Ray came to me and said that he was letting Harwood go and I would take over designing the rest of the center.

ML How did the team collaborate?

EGH When I went to work for [architect Minoru]Yamasaki in 1950, John Dinkeloo went to work for Saarinen. We were literally next-door neighbors in the suburbs of Detroit for two and a half years. We became very close friends. So instead of having five or six architects working independently, we had two architectural firms who were of like mind. They agreed immediately that we should try to beautify the center. The best way to do this was to do it by a single palette of materials. We had a tremendous advantage here because the architects on the job were together and had the same values, and wanted it to be a unified center. On the interior, I wanted a presence of the architecture. I conceived of the interior not as a corridor but as a series of spaces. I happened to be in the Museum of Modern Art in New York about this time, and the thought occurred to me that a series of spaces was more interesting than a long corridor. The courts were able to be different heights and different configurations. As a result, you had a series of spaces that you went through and this worked very well. Although people don’t realize it, they sense the scale that this creates. You’re comfortable in a series of spaces.

ML How did landscape architect Lawrence Halprin fit in?

EGH When Ray started the center, he said to everybody, “Look, don’t bother with an architect. The thing to get is the landscape architect.” Halprin had just finished Oakland Mall in Chicago, and that was all the rage. It turns out that his associate, Richard Vignolo, did all the work at NorthPark, and he and I became very close collaborators and friends. He did the landscaping, he did the fountains inside the mall. Another thing: We decided that there should be a uniform graphics standard. Herb Rosenthal, a Los Angeles designer, and I wrote the graphics criteria.

ML We associate NorthPark with luxury, but the materials used are quite modest. Why does it feel so generous?

EGH We had a very limited budget, and we had a very limited time schedule. By the time I got the project, we were already behind. If it was left up to Ray and his natural tendencies, we never would have gotten it done. Patsy Nasher was a great influence in the design. When Ray would have a hard time making up his mind, I would go see her and she’d help me make up his mind. We had quite a lot of discussions about what kind of brick it should be. The Nashers wanted it to be white brick. I found a source of white clay and got them to develop a brick with a white silicone finish and that became the NorthPark brick. The concrete floor was all we could afford. At first, when Ray first saw it, he thought it was terrible. He learned to love it, and 50 years later the same floor is there.

ML When did the art program enter the discussion?

EGH At the time we did NorthPark, art was not mentioned. The Nashers had no art. They had one painting, a Ben Shahn tennis player, because Ray was a great tennis player. Patsy Nasher, two years after NorthPark was finished, decided to start an art collection and decided to concentrate on large sculpture because large sculpture was more available than small sculpture, as very few people had places to display it. She did. We never thought of the word gallery when we designed the center, but it turned out we’d created a series of galleries. Later on, in Ray’s mind, I think he forgot that he didn’t start off with this idea. It sort of evolved and came about naturally.

ML Mark, how did you become engaged in the NorthPark expansion? What was at stake for you?

MARK DILWORTH When I joined E.G.’s firm in 1977, the very first project I worked on was one of the many expansion ideas for NorthPark. NorthPark was always around. It was a part of the firm’s legacy. When Nancy Nasher and David Haemisegger took over ownership and decided to expand it, they came and hired us to do it. The charge, I think, for both Nancy and for me, was to expand something that was incredibly important to both of our organizations in terms of their histories and their legacy, and do it in a way which did nothing to devalue the original, but tried to just extend all of the principles that were used in the original building forward in time. The architecture has a very quiet presence. It doesn’t try to compete with the retail. So much of what is done in the industry today is very themed, it’s very vocal. It looks as though it’s trying to compete with the stores.

ML It is remarkable how seamless the integration is between the original and the new. How did you manage that?

MD The biggest way is the continuation of the palette. The brick, while it’s not exactly the same brick, because that’s not available anymore, is as close as we could possibly get in color. The way light is introduced into the space is very similar to the original, even though it’s a different scale. Like the original, each of the courts is different; different in scale, different in composition. Some are symmetrical, some are asymmetrical. And there are not too many large regional centers that you can go into today and not find the concourses stuffed full of retail kiosks. That generates a lot of revenue. It represents a real commitment on the part of the ownership that they resisted that all these years. They’ve made the spaces much more for the people, and put art in them and beautiful landscaping.

EGH They deserve credit for the way that place is maintained. The landscaping is absolutely fabulous inside. Billy Hines, the manager there for the last 40 years, has been a tremendous help and a lot of credit goes to him with the way it has been maintained.

ML Looking back on it now, how do you see it?

EGH I wasn’t trying to do something spectacular or attention-getting. I was trying to do something with a lasting value. They tell me that 26 million people go through every year. If that’s true, think of all the people going through there in 50 years. Is there a place in Texas that has had more visitors? I doubt it, and it’s held up.

MARK LAMSTER is the architecture critic for The Dallas Morning News and is on the faculty of the David Dillon Center for Texas Architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington.