Designing Through Gratitude: Introduction

Michael Friebele January 21, 2020

Designing Through Gratitude is a series discussing the strategy, design and implementation of Dallas, TX’s Thanks-Giving Square—the soul and spiritual hub of the community.

Over the course of six months, we have been working collaboratively with the Thanks-Giving Square Foundation on re-visioning of one of the most celebrated public spaces in Dallas, Texas. The Foundation has been an active voice amongst the philanthropic community in Dallas with a goal to bring together diverse people on the common ground of gratitude through their places, ideas and actions. They follow the belief that enhancing the presence and practice of gratitude in people’s daily lives can foster a mutual understanding that guides us all to a united place of harmony with others, our community and ourselves. Thanks-Giving Square, then, is the physical manifestation of this spirit: a contemplation garden, exhibition hall and interfaith chapel nestled in the heart of downtown Dallas.

A combination of the Foundation’s vision and newly opened park spaces Downtown together clarified the public function of Thanks-Giving Square. Dog parks are one example, accommodated closer to residents within new, adjacent public spaces. Photo Credit: Lenoid Furmansky.

As a public space, beyond the iconic Chapel within Philip Johnson’s composition, the purpose of the Square had become increasingly confusing. With mid-century works as Thank-Giving Square, what may be deemed as short-comings in design today need to be looked at through the lens of how the urban landscape has evolved around it over time. When considering Downtown Dallas itself, the transformation has been dramatic over the past two decades. According to Downtown Dallas Inc., nearly 12,000 people now reside in Downtown, with over 70,000 collectively within the overall city center. Another 12,000 residential units are currently under construction as we speak. Such rapid growth can be attributed to companies moving back into the core of the city, with CRTKL having been on the forefront. With the desire for urban living and all that it has to offer, Dallas also excels in terms of public and greenspace: 52 acres worth. Four new parks have been adding to this number.

Philip Johnson’s aspirations for the space rendered one free of visual noise. As visitors move downslope from the west entry, the Chapel seemingly rises from the ground to emphasize an infinite reach toward the sky. Credit: The Thanks-Giving Square Foundation.

Considering a contemplative space such as Thanks-Giving Square alongside the desire for more public space in the Downtown core is where the confusion resides. Johnson’s intent for an experience void of any visual or physical noise led to Thanks-Giving Square becoming more of a park as it aged. As a response, the move to recapture meaning compromised the original intent of the space as a contemplative one, with varying layers of information added over time in order to explain a message to the public. Such disconnect led to the core of the design challenge– one that our team will expand upon in coming conversations as we consider variables such as public spaces, open spaces, and the meaning of the public realm as active platforms. At the end of the series, we will share our response through workshops and engagement with the Foundation and a collective of designers from across the city.

Together with Leonid Furmansky, we documented Thanks-Giving Square on a typical weekend in Downtown Dallas, to witness how residents truly use the space. Johnson and the Foundation’s design intent was felt as people moved through the space, whether directly interacting with the Square or through just simply passing by. Photo credit: Leonid Furmansky.

My personal interest stemmed from the profound events that followed the murder of five police officers in 2016. Thanks-Giving Square roots came at a time following the assassination of JFK and, again, it seemed the Square found its purpose in the vigils and proclamations that followed. After attending the vigil, I felt a purpose to document the meaning of the events within the Square as well as the history of leading to its founding. As a frequent contributor to Texas Architect, the publication agreed to cover the story. Photographs by Leonid Furmansky were captured over a two-day period on a normal afternoon and reflected the then-current state of the Square. Photographs by Leonid Furmansky were captured over a two-day period on a normal afternoon and reflected the then-current state of the Square. His work was featured on Divisare shortly after publication and gives a glimpse into how Furmansky connected with the space during documentation.

Author Spotlight

Michael Friebele
Michael has channeled his professional and personal experiences as a critical medium throughout his work in architectural design, involvement in the community, and experience in journalism. After receiving his Master in Architecture from Kansas State University, Michael located to Dallas where he has spent seven years working in markets across the globe. As a Senior Associate with CallisonRTKL, Michael’s work focuses on connections, from physical to historical, as a means of informing performance-driven and client-centered design.