Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Southlake Town Square

Southlake Town Square is at the forefront of a new architectural and urban planning movement in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. I'm not even entirely certain what to call it, because it's such a new concept in this area. I will simply dub it the Town Square Revival Movement, because to be honest, it's not like this is an entirely new concept to civilization, it just hasn't been used in so long that it's a lot like the Romanesque Revival Movement in the late 19th century. Anyway, in case it hasn't officially been named yet, I call dibs on inventing the term. XD

Southlake is a very upscale community in the Mid-Cities area of the DFW Metroplex. It's the sort of place where the residents drive a Lexus, Infinity, BMW, or comparable luxury brand of car. Seriously. You know who is a resident and who is just passing through by the car they drive, and what condition it is in. The houses typically start at the $1.2 million mark, which for California or New York would be more like $6+ million. So if you're a penthouse pauper, I recommend Southlake to get a comparable style of living for about 20% of the price.

In the spirit of building community and commerce, Southlake has returned to the idea of building a very highly social town square around their new City Hall. It's 130 acres of mixed-use development, consisting of low-density commercial, plazas, parks, and skirted by medium-density residences (like town homes and luxury apartments). With most modern cities, the center of town is the most old, polluted, decrepit part. Southlake's goal is to turn this idea on its head, and make the center of town the most attractive area by sacrificing density for aesthetics. This Town Center effect makes it as much of a place to hang out and socialize with friends as it is to shop.

"What is your bidding, Psycho-Cow?"

Just in case you thought your eyes were playing tricks on you in the previous photograph, yes, that is a psychedelic cow in front of the town hall. These strangely painted cow statues are deposited all throughout Southlake and are known as the Southlake Stampede Longhorns. They add a whimsical touch to one of the most revered symbols of Texas, and are one of Southlake's own unique cultural contributions, similar to the CowParade Cows contest that goes on each year.

"Yipee kai yai yay, Psycho-Cow!"

This particular cow features a rather well-rendered painting of, appropriately enough, Southlake Town Center, with the Town Hall in the background, and the large event gazebo in the foreground.

The event gazebo provides a covered stage for performers on special events, like the Fourth of July. The fountain makes a great center to the area, and becomes prime real-estate for seating when attending crowded events on hot summer days.

The residences that skirt the town center are just a couple of blocks away. The furthest building back that you see in this photo is one of the luxury apartment buildings, with a serene, tree-lined walk right down the hill to one's choice of cafes. Though the area itself is very high-traffic, it is almost unnoticably so. Parking spaces are quite ample along the side of the street, and the only "lots" that exist are in hidden lots bordered by the backs of buildings, hiding the site of them from view. Because the town center is designed to be walked along and explored, one need not park directly in front of or beside their destination. The encouragement is to socialize with others, check out new stores, cafes, and enjoy the atmosphere.

As previously mentioned, it gets HOT outside. Often well in excess of 100F, and temperatures over 110 are not uncommon in our hottest months. Evaporative cooling systems outside some of the stores provide inexpensive and refreshing respite from the heat, as well as moisture for the plant life in the area. Locally they are known as "Swamp Coolers", even though "Desert Coolers" would probably be a lot more apropos. But if you're ever wandering Texas and someone mentions a Swamp Cooler, this is what they're talking about.

For the most part, the buildings try to stay vaguely thematic on each avenue. I say "vaguely," because as you can see there was a bit of disagreement over what type of columns or arches would be used for the colonnades in front of these shops. It is an interesting effect, however. The combination of all these different styles are united exactly by how they differ from one another. There is a feeling of both the modern and old world thrown together in a way that just seems to work. It's like "business casual" for buildings, providing enough of an air of sophistication that a nice date in formal attire could be spent wandering the restaurants and colonnades, but casual and different enough for people in a t-shirt and shorts to be comfortable shopping there as well.

Of course there are a few spaces where this breaks down a bit, but even at it's worst, the gaudy or out of place is often screened by the lush trees, and even when the uglier buildings are directly in front of you, the eye is immediately drawn to the more upscale buildings to the side of it.

One of the more unique features is the design of the street signs. They are clearly posted, clearly visible, with good contrast for reading the lettering at a distance, a lamp directly overhead to illuminate them at night, and a visually appealing aesthetic. They harken back to an age where signs were designed to be seen by people walking by at a slow pace, rather than driving through at high speed. Despite this, they remain clearly visible from inside the car. Poorly designed, maintained, and placed street signs are one of my biggest pet peeves when I encounter them, and it is rare when one actually impresses me as these do.

I feel like I saved the best for last in these photo. This plaza is one of the best-designed that I've seen in the DFW area, hands-down. Four free-standing porticos each use a trellis with lush, fragrant growth for shade. The placement of the columns, benches, the fountains, and the walks bordering it provide an excellent separation of space. Each encourages relaxation and idle conversation. Either end of the plaza is capped by a fine restaurant with patio seating, and the long edges are bordered by a walkway, then parking, the street, and then the stores. In this way, the stores themselves are available, but this plaza provides a refuge against the foot-traffic.

All in all, Southlake Town Center is an very well designed, laid-out, and built community. I sincerely hope this trend continues. Colleyville, another upscale city bordering Southlake, has already followed suit, and is currently in the process of building their own town center. I would love to see this trend continue in the smaller cities, as it is a beautiful, inexpensive treat to simply wander around and see the best of what each city has to offer in a casual outdoor atmosphere.

Tomorrow's post will feature the Southlake Town Hall itself.

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