News and Features

Former DMN Architecture Critic David Dillon Dies

The architecture critic at the Dallas Morning News from 1983 to 2006, Dillon died suddenly this morning at his home in Massachusetts of an apparent heart attack. He was 68. His death comes as a shock because David had managed to beat an earlier bout with cancer.

North Texas was extremely fortunate a) to have a designated architecture critic at all for a leading newspaper (even before the media downturn, they were rare) and b) to have a critic of his caliber and national reputation. From my arrival at the News three years after David, he was one of the paper’s arts writers whose work I always admired, always enjoyed. It was thoughtful, considered, sometimes stylish and droll.  I always learned something from him.

In office meetings with editors and bosses, David could be depended upon to see beyond our immediate grievances or management’s latest favorite half-baked theory and ask the question that made the rest of us stop and get a glimpse of the long view.

Dillon had an MA and Ph.D. from Harvard University and was a Loeb Fellow at its graduate design school in the late ’80s. He was the author of several books, including The Architecture of O’Neil Ford and The Cowboys Stadium: Art & Architecture. He was a contributing editor of Architectural Record. After taking a buyout from the News in 2006, Dillon continued to write and lecture and even worked as a design consultant for what became the AT&T Performing Arts Center.

He also returned to North Texas to write the occasional ‘special contribution’ — like his last appearance in the paper on March 28, a tart dismissal of Sammons Park, the inadequate greenspace under the wing of the  Winspear Opera House.  (” ‘We needed a French landscape architect for this?’ is how one baffled visitor put it.”)  And there was this from the Architectural Record on the George Bush Presidential Library:

The selection of Robert A.M. Stern to design the George W. Bush Presidential Library at Southern Methodist University does not surprise Dillon. “It was a foregone conclusion that there was not going to be any adventurous architecture—Gehry or Libeskind, no way,” he says. “It’s a conservative institution with a very conservative architectural culture. The list of firms considered was farcical—there was not a great deal of interest or expectation among Texas architects that they would want that job or even get that job.”

The last time we met — in late 2008 — David and I were part of a panel at the Nasher Sculpture Center with Veletta Lill, discussing the future of the Arts District. As ever, I learned a lot listening to him, sparring with him. We went for drinks afterwards and he invited me to visit him sometime in Massachusetts.

I never got the chance.

Local filmmakers Mark Birnbaum and Manny Mendoza have graciously shared these clips of Dillon from Stop the Presses, their 2006 documentary about the newspaper industry.

  • Anne Bothwell

    I was always so impressed by David’s work. He was a true critic with a big mind, one whose opinion was respected and sought, even by those whose buildings and projects he disliked. But I’ll remember most how generous he was with his time, his advice and his praise, especially for younger writers and architects. What a sad day.

  • Rawlins Gilliland

    Smarter than he had to be, he was an instantly missed loss when he left the News. To those who knew him and mourn his loss, my condolence. I looked up to this man because I never felt he was talking down to his readers but, rather, conveying information in an interest sharing the subtlties of architectural analysis. Very sad news.

  • Bill Marvel

    It goes without saying the David was a brilliant writer and a deep thinker. He understood that architecture was more than beautiful buildings — people had to work and live in them.
    He was also deeply ethical. Many years ago management had some hobby horse going that they wanted David to write about. David refused on ethical grounds, at some peril to his job. A higher authority was called in for a confrontation. I watched David argue his case and win. In the end, an outside was hired to write the piece.

  • Anne Bothwell

    Mark Birnbaum just sent along the following quotes from David, who was interviewed for “Stop the Presses,” the film about the newspaper biz that Birnbaum made with former DMNer Manny Mendoza.

    This is what David had to say about the role of the newspaper and his job (his interview didn’t appear in the film):
    “I see a newspaper as a civic institution, a kind of civic responsibility. I think in Dallas we like to talk a lot about how a great city needs a great art museum, a great city needs a great concert hall…Well, a great city needs a great newspaper to provide some sort of perspective, to inform people about what’s really going on in the city, to push an agenda, to articulate a vision…to sketch out a future. All of those things are very important.
    It’s a civic undertaking, not just a money-making undertaking.”
    “I came to the Morning News in the early 1980s, when the city really was in its first modern boom, and things were just exploding everywhere. And nobody was saying anything about it, and basically that’s why I was hired…It was news. It still is news.”
    “When I came in the ’80s, I had no journalism background at all. I was an academic and I had been teaching at SMU and then I left SMU and was writing…Dallas had no architecture critic at that time at all, but I was writing about the city in magazines and locally and nationally, and I was approached by then managing editor Bill Evans, who basically said, ‘The city is being rebuilt overnight in front of my eyes and I can’t make any sense out of it, and I don’t think anybody else can make sense of it. Would you like to make sense of it?’…What was interesting was that I was allowed and encouraged to throw as wide a net as possible, that I wasn’t simply to write about buildings. I was to write about the city, and that meant writing about planning, that meant writing about urban design, that meant writing about politics, economics…I was allowed to cover the city, so I thought of myself as an urban writer and urban critic more than just an architecture critic.”
    “Dallas has finally arrived as a cultural and architectural destination. We like to talk about Dallas as a city of the arts, but most of what we had before was just hype, you know, just smoke and mirrors. Now, there’s something really there. Now we have the Nasher Sculpture Center, and we have this performing arts center coming along. We have the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth. We have the Trinity River Project…we have the Calatrava bridges, we have the redevelopment of Fair Park…We’re not just talking about a building here and a building there.
    We’re talking about the transformation of a city.”

  • http://www.tvworthwatching.com Diane Werts

    Editing David’s copy as a Morning News arts editor at his arrival in the ’80s was always a joy. The perspective, the intelligence, the humor, the graciousness — he made me a better editor (and later writer) along the way. When I left for New York, he gave me a going-away gift of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable — so apt, because he had such a great sense of both. A singular person.

  • Veletta Forsythe Lill

    It is difficult to believe there won’t be any more conversations with David. I learned a great deal from him and even when we disagreed I was still learning from him. He was witty, thoughtful, brilliant, and sometimes acerbic. For those who counted him as a friend he was generous with his time and supportive with his words. His opinion was always valued, even from the people who did not benefit from it. And in a time of instant gratification and short-term memories David always took the long view and stayed true to his principles. He loved the American city and its possibilities. He believed in the power of good urban planning and good design. And he never stopped pushing others to believe in that power. In the coming weeks I will be moderating a panel, conversing about Philip Johnson’s John F. Kennedy Memorial at 40. When I was asked I thought I should call David and visit with him about his insights into the Dallas landmark. Unfortunately, I hadn’t made that call yet. There won’t be any more conversations with David. David – you will be missed.

  • http://www.arup.com/theatreconsulting David Taylor

    David was a key collaborator in the creation of the Arts District and a solid, honest and reliable critic, in particular of the Winspear and Wyly Theatre projects. He was a strongly principled journalist, and a creative aesthete. I will certainly miss him.

  • http://Www.theatreprojects.com Benton Delinger

    I had the privilege to be on the USITT architectural awards jury with David a few years ago. His insights into how architecture should be more than just a building but also about establishing place was wonderful. Performing arts buildings large and small have important roles to play in society. David really understood this.
    He will be missed.

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