Poking out over the squat, one-story barbecue joint in the photo above is a relentlessly iterative office building, with not a single variation in its fenestration across all thirty-nine of its upper floors. Windows look the exact same, row after row after row. The only exception is the far left and far right of this façade, but those are almost like margins on a sheet of graph paper. This monotonous window pattern evokes an architectural language that I’d say hybridizes international style and brutalism. Plenty of cities have buildings like this one. In this instance, the structure presides over the western edge of downtown Fort Worth. The name is Burnett Plaza, and, while constructed in 1983, Burnett Plaza remains the tallest building in this increasingly prominent Texas city. This winter Google Street View offers a better impression of the full façade, no longer obscured by buildings or summer foliage. As the image indicates, Burnett Plaza looms over an actual plaza using the more customary definition—that small bit of greenery known as Burk Burnett Park. The same Burnett.
What’s that now? Is this a tower in the park? Built in 1983? For those of us attuned to urban redevelopment history, this is a bit late for that sort of thing. The peak of Urban Renewal, in which municipal governments cleared much of their “slums”—often some of the oldest neighborhoods, filled with aging housing stock populated by mostly low-income people—took place in the 1960s. During this period of precipitous downtown decline, redevelopment agencies used eminent domain to purchase the land from these low-income (often minority) communities, replacing the century-old homes with tall, sterile office or municipal buildings and copious green space. In Fort Worth, the combination of Burnett Plaza and Burk Burnett Park seems to evoke the efforts of urban renewal. But 1983 is at least a decade too late. Really the tail end of brutalist architecture’s brief decade of popularity. What really happened?
Well, the park element precedes urban renewal by a good chunk of time. Local rancher Samuel Burk Burnett purchased the three acres of land in 1917 to honor his children, and it has remained a signature park ever since, featuring the annual lighting of Fort Worth’s most prominent Christmas Tree. A 2002 installation helped enhance the park’s landmark status by giving it what is likely Fort Worth’s most distinctive piece of civic art: Jonathan Borofsky’s 50-foot sculpture Man With Briefcase.
So Burnett Plaza and Burk Burnett Park are not likely by-products of urban renewal, despite the fact that this configuration aligns heavily with the Corbusian “Towers in the Park” motif. The park arrived too early; the building arrived too late. So the aesthetic outcome is more coincidental.
Despite the fact that, architecturally, Burnett Plaza seems a bit at odds with its own time period of conception, it offers one other compelling feature that might reflect architectural prerogatives of the late 1970s, when the developers were conceiving this brutalist, concrete mastodon. The original photo at the top of this article offers one of the two main sides of the building—the same side the fronts Burk Burnett Bark. But I cannot begin to say if it is the front side. It could just as easily be the obverse side, which fronts a parking garage that fully supports personnel who work in Burnett Plaza. And this “back” side, in most respects, is more interesting. Here’s a view from another distant point in Fort Worth’s downtown:
Not quite as relentless of a window pattern, with some contrast offered by a a series of vertical columns stacked against one another like a bar graph with growing figures (or shrinking figures, depending on the vantage point).
It was this side that caught my eye, because never before have I seen such an obvious example of express elevators, where the elevator shafts, built to the exterior wall in the middle of the structure, don’t all offer service to the top floors. Judging from this side of Burnett Plaza, the elevator shaft to the left offers trips up to the first ten floors, while the next one offers trips from floors 11 to 20, then the next from 21 to 30, with the final elevator shaft to the right offers trips from 31 to 40. In fact, I’ve traced out the elevator shafts in this version of the photo, where it really does resemble a bar graph.
The shaft serving the lowest ten levels are in purple, barely visible peeking from beyond the self storage. Then orange, then green, then yellow. While it appears that the rightmost elevator shaft (which I outlined in yellow) extends the full vertical length of the building and could conceivably get passengers to any floor, it presumably provides exclusive and express service to those final ten floors, bypassing the others. Meanwhile, the fenestration reveals that the elevator to floors 2 through 10 simply can’t go beyond a certain point; the architects didn’t design the shaft in such a way, as manifested through the window pattern here on the façade. To put it bluntly, the elevator doesn’t go to the top floor.
I’m not certain when express elevators came into fashion, but I would imagine they followed from a point when skyscrapers reached a certain height, and it became obvious that elevators simply couldn’t reasonably serve all floors without causing tremendous backups of passengers at the first floor lobby, waiting eons to get to their destination floors. After all, if 20 people board an elevator, and they press buttons for floors 3, 5, 7, 15, 19, 23, 24, 25, 28, 31, 32, 33, 36, 37, 39, and 40, it’s hard to imagine how many minutes it would take for that single elevator car to convey all those people to their floors, all while new “men with briefcases” are pooling at the lobby to wait for it to get back down…and plenty of others will summon on its way down, so they can get back to the lobby. It would be a nightmare—a bottleneck of humans impatiently waiting, liable to result in stampedes when the elevator finally gets back down to the lobby and opens its doors.
Interior crowd control often operates under the same logic as vehicular traffic management on roads and highways, a subject I referenced several years ago by scrutinizing escalators at the busy Moscone Center in San Francisco. Burnett Plaza’s use of express elevators to bypass floors is no different, and it follows the logic of countless other skyscrapers all over the world. It’s just rare that the architects make this strategy so obvious. Dare I call it “Brutally honest”?