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Commentary: The Steeple

By Joan Davidow, KERA 90.1 commentator

Commentary: The Steeple

Dallas, TX –

The moon hung on a string in the midnight blue sky just to the left of the steeple, as we exited the Meyerson Symphony Center after a summer concert. I told my friend, "This is a terrific moment. It's just the perfect way to see the steeple, in its pure, unadorned state."

I realize it's temporary. We should photograph and celebrate it. It's a magnificent opportunity to see something in this unusual stage of transformation; we can imagine it as a modern tower.

Metal poles brace each of the four corners, holding the newly constructed steeple atop the rising brick tower. It looks like a real life construction of Lego blocks and an Erector Set merged in an elegant, sophisticated way. At this moment in the midst of construction, it hearkens to Russian Constructivism - structured forms influenced by 1920's modernism.

As a way to celebrate its centennial, the Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe raised $3 million to complete the bell tower. The goal was to finish the tower as it was envisioned and designed by its architect in 1890, and to give the structure the historic designation it deserves. A peg to our city's history and a cornerstone in the Arts District, its sound, red brick facade holds, and has held the corner proudly for 100 years.

I'm reminded of Biblical times, when the shofar blower, with a ram's horn (that sounds like a trumpet), stood high on a mountaintop calling the Jews to worship the New Year. Chiming bells in the tower serve the same purpose in the modern era - calling parishioners to prayer. The sounds came from on high and the purpose was the same.

Where my imagination takes me, is that the steeple could be the heralding for the church and the welcoming of the 21st century simultaneously. A high tech steeplechase would complement and mark the dynamic new architecture progressing in the Arts District - Norm Foster's rising red drum for the opera house, Rem Koolhaus' reaching tall box for the theater center, Lionel Morrison's white gridded office tower, and Renzo Piano's aerodynamic roof on the Nasher Sculpture Center.

Frank Gehry, the well known architect whose flying metal buttresses caught the world's attention for the museum in Bilbao, Spain, began a movement in architecture called Deconstructivism, taking a structure apart while putting it together. Other contemporary architects today are using metal in graceful ways, such as Herzog and deMeuron's lacy steel roof on a new stadium in Beijing and our friend Renzo Piano's wavelike roof on a museum in Bern, Switzerland. So why not follow the pattern and permit the tower to remain in its structural state?

I see keeping the defined metal shape open as a visual concept. Someone else might see the openness as a symbolic statement. Something happens during construction, when the supporting members are standing in their parallel positions, defining the skeleton the building will follow. Another friend said when she sees a church under construction, the bare framework without its enclosure is the most spiritual way to see a church - as a symbol of religion with its openness to the world.

Right now we can see the past and the present in the same structure. Then soon and forever more, it will be wrapped in its history.

The bells will ring. The Cathedral of Guadalupe will be our historic marker in the Arts District. I wish I could hold the moment a bit longer, with the architecture as a constructivist statement, to tell the world Dallas knows how to blend the old and the new.

In this highly defined, esoteric edge of downtown Dallas, we call our city together to enrich our life with culture and to be a community with spirit.


Tag: Joan Davidow is director of the Dallas Center for Contemporary Art. If you have opinions or questions about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.