Last year, when Mark Lamster—a well-respected New York writer and editor—was named architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News, he made it clear that he had no intention of simply writing about the city’s dazzling buildings, of which there are many. In recent years, big-name architects like Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA; Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA; Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA; Thom Mayne, FAIA; and Santiago Calatrava, FAIA, have all put their mark on Dallas with signature downtown projects.

“Genius architecture gets you only so far,” Lamster wrote in one of his first columns. “A few isolated works of esthetic ambition might generate excitement, but in the end, they won’t transform a city any more than a star slugger will save a baseball team that can’t pitch and field. You can’t live in a museum or a concert hall. You need places to live, work, shop, learn, eat, and play.”

Lamster, whose position at the News is a partnership with the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), called Dallas a city “burdened by a built legacy that has left it physically and metaphorically divided.” (According to the Pew Research Center, Dallas is one of the 10 most economically segregated cities the United States.) One of his primary tasks, he wrote, would be to report on how city officials, architects, and developers can bridge those divisions by responding to the concerns of Dallas’s underserved communities. Architecture would still be part of his agenda, but not his sole focus.

Lamster has made good on his promise. He hasn’t neglected “genius” architecture, but he’s made a point of covering what he calls “the bureaucratic city around it.” His provocative columns have dealt with a variety of urban issues, including planning, transportation, housing, preservation, and more.

He’s supported a plan to tear down I-345, a barrier between downtown Dallas and the transitional Deep Ellum neighborhood. He’s criticized plans to build a toll road along the Trinity River. He’s described the massive Lew Sterrett Justice Center, Dallas County’s primary jail facility, as “the unholy gateway to our city,” whose “long history of neighborhood red-lining, restrictive housing, and highway construction suggests a willful distortion of physical space in ways that were inherently unjust.” He’s railed against “warehouse prisons” and their “deplorable” conditions.” He’s called his adopted home “a city … of immense private prosperity offset by sweeping poverty, a city of newly erected architectural marvels set amid a crumbling public infrastructure too extensive for it to cost-effectively maintain.”

It’s all too much for some Dallas Morning News readers. “The DMN hired this guy as an architecture critic, and all they got was an advocate of getting rid of highways and cars,” said one online commenter. “Sure would be nice to hear his opinion on architecture instead of city planning.” Another reader lobbed, “Is it possible to buy Lamster and his liberal stories a one-way train ticket back to New York?”

Lamster says he’s just trying to start a conversation in a city that resists self-criticism. But his outsider’s sensibility isn’t always appreciated in the Big D. “I think it’s been a shock to some people here, what I’ve been doing,” he says. “Dallas is a place of southern hospitality, and not everyone wants to have these discussions. But there are important issues to talk about.”

Calatrava's Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge
Gus Rios Calatrava's Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge

And so, on a recent Friday evening at the Trinity Groves events center—practically in the shadow of Calatrava’s dramatic Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge—Lamster touched on Ebola, Franklin Roosevelt’s “nothing to fear but fear itself” line, prisons, and how “irrational fear” shapes our built environment as he kicked off the third annual David Dillon Symposium, named for the longtime Dallas Morning News architecture critic, who died in 2010. The topic: “Building the Just City.” Lamster and his UTA colleague, architecture historian Kate Holliday, had assembled a diverse group of about a dozen speakers—architects, sociologists, criminal justice professionals, city administrators, and others—to address, as Lamster puts it, how public space can “reinforce a common sense of justice or … undermine it.”

For the keynote, Lamster chose Raphael Sperry, AIA, founder of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility. A San Francisco–based architect, Sperry wants the AIA to amend its code of ethics to prohibit its members from designing spaces “for killing, torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” Sperry singled out federal Supermax prisons in particular for their inhumane treatment of prisoners, who are kept in solitary confinement for as many as 23 hours a day. Architects, he told the audience of about 100 students, faculty members, designers, and city officials, should get out of the business of designing prisons altogether. “As architects,” he said, “I think we should say no.”

The next day, the symposium continued in a small theater at the serene Renzo Piano–designed Nasher Sculpture Center, in the downtown arts district. Dallas police chief David Brown, a 30-year veteran, recalled that he started his career with a “let’s put them all in jail and let God sort them out” attitude, but he’s become a strong believer in community policing, and he said the “experiment of high incarceration was a failure, just on the metrics.” The use of force, he added, needs to go “hand-in-hand with community engagement, particularly with our youth. … No matter what police action you take, if the community doesn’t trust you, you will have outcomes like Ferguson.”

University of Wisconsin-Madison art historian Anna Vemer Andrzejewski summarized the history of prison design in the United States, starting with Philadelphia’s Eastern State Prison, where solitary confinement was considered a form of rehabilitation. Surveillance, through guard towers and other means, has long been a key design element of U.S prisons, and it was later adopted for use in non-detention institutional settings, such as post offices and schools. “As much as we laud surveillance, now by means of cameras and computers as much as built mechanisms,” Andrzejewski said, “it cannot and will not assure complete order, even as it continues to serve as a prominent sign of it.”

Dallas chef Chad Houser talked about his plans for Café Momentum, which will provide post-release paid internships for juvenile offenders. “The idea is very simple,” he said. “The kids we work with, while they’re incarcerated, complete a culinary program. When they’re released, they’re able to come work at the restaurant. They’ll do everything from waiting tables, washing dishes, and everything else in between.”

As if in response to Sperry’s anti-prison speech, architect Gregory Cook, a senior project designer for HOK’s Justice Practice, explained how his firm is designing new facilities that are more aligned with restorative justice principles, not retribution. Historically, he said, prisons have been designed for “extreme sensory deprivation,” with prisoners “totally removed from the communities from which they were brought and totally removed from nature.” But there’s now a move away from that mindset. HOK’s prisons, including Iowa State Penitentiary, are designed to give prisoners more freedom of movement, and include more natural light and group spaces.

“The vast majority of those that are incarcerated actually return to their communities,” Cook said. “As architects, we have to be aware of that, and anything we do as it relates to design has to support that mission of reintegrating these folks back into their families and communities.”

A cellblock in HOK's Iowa State Penitentiary
Jacob Sharp A cellblock in HOK's Iowa State Penitentiary
A gym at the penitentiary
Jacob Sharp A gym at the penitentiary

Later, Lamster reflected on the symposium. “It was a learning experience for me,” he said. “I think the takeaway is that architects can’t save the world by themselves. Maybe they can’t save the world at all, but they can certainly be part of the process of building better cities, and they can only do that when they’re working with other professions.”

He said he planned to revisit some of the issues raised at the symposium in future columns.

“I don’t want this to be a one-time-only kind of thing.”