WRITTEN BY WILLIS WINTERS, FAIA
In 2022, GFF marks its 40th anniversary. It is a time of celebration, reflection, and inspiration for the talented professionals who have all contributed to the respected firm achieving this milestone. Over the past four years, GFF’s remaining two founding partners retired, marking the end of a succession transition to the current management team of eight principals now leading a staff of over 140, spread among offices in three Texas cities. The firm has come far since its humble beginnings in 1982 and its first office in Dallas’s West End. The original partners’ early and enduring passions for their city have been manifested in a vision deliberately developed over the course of GFF’s first four decades: to deliver complex projects in a proven practice of collaboration, sustainability, and client service excellence and to be a recognized leader in innovative design and memorable place-making.
A 40th anniversary places GFF in rare company. Only a very small handful of design firms in Dallas can claim a longevity of this duration. It takes calculated foresight, dedication, stamina, and perhaps even a little luck, to successfully navigate any type of business – much less an architectural practice – through 40 years of cautious but sustained growth in a sometimes-volatile market and economy.
1982 was a propitious time to start an architect’s office in Dallas. Downtown was at the front end of a building boom that would last another five years. Three high-rise office buildings were under construction, including the LTV Tower, which would famously become GFF’s second home in 1985. The Arts District was beginning to take shape with the construction of Flora Street and the new Dallas Museum of Art. Beyond downtown, major city-defining projects and developments were underway during this period, including the Crescent, the Galleria and Las Colinas. In a strike-shortened season, memorable for Tony Dorsett’s 99-yard touchdown run in Minnesota, the Dallas Cowboys lost to the Redskins in the NFC title game. On the SMU Hilltop, the Pony Express duo of Eric Dickerson and Craig James led the Mustangs to an undefeated season and a Cotton Bowl victory over Pittsburgh. The beloved hometown airline – Braniff International – ceased operations after an agonizingly slow death spiral, and the United Kingdom fought a one-sided war with Argentina in the Falkland Islands. In America, the 1982 World’s Fair opened in Knoxville, Chariots of Fire won the Oscar for Best Picture and the first edition of USA Today was published. Big changes were also underway in the architecture profession in the early 1980s, with the introduction of computer-aided design and drawing (CADD) software by such companies as Intergraph and Autodesk. IBM, Apple and Commodore brought the first generation of personal computers to stores. The first compact discs hit the market, and the first computer virus was created and deployed.
This is the historical and technological context during the birth of GFF in 1982. As one famous writer proclaimed in London over a century earlier, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The worst of times for the architecture and construction industry in Dallas would begin in a mere four years with the precipitous collapse of Big Oil, Texas banks and the state’s real estate market. This was a case of unfortunate timing for a confident and energetic young architecture firm with its sights keenly affixed on a bright future, as they moved into one of the most desirable office locations in Dallas. Despite this optimism, within a few years GFF would be forced to tighten its belt during “the worst of times” since the Great Depression.
The economic recession of the late 1980s was a good time for self-assessment, introspection, and adjustment. One of GFF’s strengths has always been its ability to adapt to different economic, social, and cultural pressures and conditions that determine the ultimate shape of a work of architecture. While many Dallas architectural offices closed during the downturn, GFF survived and emerged stronger than ever, with a renewed commitment to its city and to the profession of architecture. Between 1986 and 1996 three GFF principals served as presidents of the Dallas chapter of the American Institute of Architects – establishing a precedent for professional and community service that continues today. GFF’s current management team (and staff members) continues the legacy of the founding partners through their volunteer activities and leadership positions for a remarkable array of local non-profit and civic organizations, as well as local, state and national professional associations. Locally, GFF principals have served on the boards and committees of such diverse entities as the Dallas Arboretum, Downtown Dallas, Inc., the Trinity Park Conservancy, the Dallas Assembly, Incarnation House, the American Cancer Society, the Stewpot, the Women’s Auxiliary to Children’s Hospital, the YMCA, and the Rotary Club. The principals’ civic engagements include the Zoning Ordinance Advisory Committee, the North Oak Cliff Municipal Management District, the Downtown Connection TIF, and the Friends of the University Park Library, among others. Professional activities the GFF management team participates in include the American Institute of Architects/Dallas Chapter (the fourth GFF principal to serve as the Chapter President occurred in 2020), the Texas Society of Architects, the American Institute of Architects (national organization), the Real Estate Council, the Greater Dallas Planning Council, Preservation Dallas, the CFO Alliance, the Society for Human Resource Management, the Urban Land Institute, the Dallas Architecture Forum, and the Dallas Regional Chamber (various Leadership Dallas classes).
Indeed, GFF is fully ingrained in its home city. This notion is manifested not only through its deep-rooted involvement in the welfare, culture and civic governance of Dallas and other local cities, but also by the sheer magnitude of the firm’s impact on the architectural landscape of North Texas. They are one of the pre-eminent architectural practices in the region, with notable clients and a diversity of project types that include commercial and mixed-use developments, innovative workplace environments, secondary and higher education facilities and campuses, places of worship, high-rise multi-family residential buildings, recreation and civic buildings, and much more. Over the past 15 years GFF’s commercial and mixed-use projects have grown in both size and programmatic complexity. Their office and residential buildings are also increasing in height, where they now make a sometimes-dramatic contribution to the skylines of Dallas, Austin, Plano, and other cities.
The firm’s projects are responsive to the influences and variety implicit in a multi-faceted society, to the contextual implications of urban and natural settings, and to the unique demands of each new problem. GFF’s work has clarity and at the same time respects the complexity and variety of modern life. Fundamental is the firm’s abiding sense of design as a collaborative undertaking. Their collaborative, studio-based approach has a single-minded focus: producing outstanding buildings that serve their clients’ needs and their cultural framework. Because GFF professionals carefully consider context – the city, the culture, the market forces, the time, location, and history – as part of their design process, the results are elegant solutions appropriate to their place. The design process is a vehicle to reinforce the identity of a client or community, without sacrificing the building program, design innovation, or long-term sustainability. GFF strives throughout the design process to maintain the highest levels of collaboration and innovation, along with a balanced approach to architecture and nature, that ultimately respects a community’s culture. To be successful, a work of architecture cannot be selfish or exclusive – but instead must open-up to the broadest participation, interpretation, and respect for all within its communities. The foundation of GFF’s design approach lies in this collaborative process, as well as to their commitment to social and physical sustainability, and the underlying philosophy that a work of architecture is an expression of its clients, its location, and its time.
Another form of collaboration is inherent in GFF’s extensive experience and market success working with historic buildings. This is a specialized expertise that differentiates GFF from most other large architecture firms in Dallas – the capability and passion to bring renewed life into old buildings. Dallas has particularly benefited from this aspect of the GFF practice over the past 15 years through the adaptive re-use and restoration of the Old Parkland campus, Fair Park and the former West End Marketplace.
The world has changed exponentially over the past 40 years, and the role of the architect has evolved. GFF understands that to have a successful project, the design process must include the voices of all stakeholders – encompassing both philosophical and practical outcomes. This convergence of both the philosophical and the practical is found in all good architecture, where the two become inseparable. Both are essential to serve the range of physical and psychological forces, ultimately determining a real sustainable future for GFF’s clients and the communities they serve.
Year by year, GFF builds what is best in the new Texas landscape. Their structures and spaces are both interesting and arousing, standing out from the blur of background mediocrity. Future successes will come, in part, from the vision developed by the firm over the course of its first four decades: to be a recognized leader in innovative design, and to deliver complex projects in a proven practice of sustainability, design and client service excellence. This volume, dedicated to the firm’s recent work of the past 15 years, is full of these attributes. It contains a richly constructive fragment of GFF production, full of connections to past work and imbued with the potential of what is still to come. As it embarks on its fourth decade, GFF is operating in prime time. One senses that their work will stand the test of time gracefully. Indeed, it already has.