Arts / Museums

Demolition Man

This Dallas Architecture Expert Sees the Beauty in Destruction — and a Billionaire’s Neighborhood Makeover

BY // 09.15.15
photography Rachael Wise

When architecture teacher Jay Cantrell isn’t designing buildings for clients, he’s documenting the compelling decay and destruction of old structures in downtown Dallas as they give way to new. Fascinated by architectural ruins and the visual drama of demolition, Cantrell sets out to capture fleeting moments in the city’s ongoing evolution using pencil and paper.

“It’s rare that a day goes by that I don’t draw something,” he says. “I always have a sketchbook, and I use those to do more formal drawings, paintings and investigations.”

Cantrell, who lives in the historic 1913 Kirby building, has only to walk out his front door to find subject matter. Last year, he began sketching the various phases of demolition along Main Street across from The Joule Hotel, which includes the site for the new Forty Five Ten store, slated to open in fall 2016. The development is spearheaded by billionaire businessman Timothy Headington, who has spent 12 years and $150 million revitalizing the city’s urban core, including the Joule and adjacent venues such as the Espa spa, Traffic and TenOverSix. Cantrell has captured much of the area’s transformation in sketches, later translating those images to large-scale works in watercolor, mixed media, acrylic and digital. A dozen or so of his artworks are carried at the Beaux Arts gallery, including paintings of the Forty Five Ten construction site and next to it, Tony Tasset’s arresting three-story eyeball sculpture, Eye, surrounded by debris. An acrylic rendering of the scene is on loan to The Woolworth Restaurant and Bar next door, located inside an historic building across from Neiman Marcus.

“It’s a wonderful neighborhood,” says Cantrell of the Main Street District. “I really like what Headington is doing. The preservation society has gone bonkers about some of the buildings he’s torn down, but he always replaces them with something extraordinary.”

Jay Cantrell
A panorama of the extension to the trolley line on McKinney Avenue. (Image courtesy the artist.)

Cantrell grew up in Sherman (65 miles northeast of Dallas) surrounded by Victorian houses and historic buildings, such as the stately 1914 Carnegie Public Library. Inspired by the town’s previous generation of notable architects such as Frank Welch and Mark Lemmon, Cantrell went on to study architecture at UT Arlington and spent 10 years working for legendary Dallas architect Ralph Deusing.

He later earned a master’s degree in architecture at the University of Virginia and in 2009 won the prestigious Gabriel Prize, an international award dating to the Renaissance that is presented to one person each year. The $20,000 fellowship, which promotes the study of classical architecture and landscape in France, sent Cantrell to study and sketch in Paris for three months. While there, he drew the city’s dozens of remaining 19th-century iron and glass shopping arcades, “where the light coming through the glass passages was phenomenal,” he says. “Light can be a fantastic spatial animator.”

As a part of the program, he had to produce three large renderings based on the sketches. “My time in Paris really honed my drawing skills,” he says, “but I was already doing a lot of that, because when I went to architecture school in the ’90s, hand-drawing was everything.”

From his Gabriel Prize win: Cantrell's "The Passages of Paris," a tryptich of three views of Passage Vivienne, based on different station points: pedestrian, merchant and architect. Based on Walter Benjamin's writings, "The Arcades,” from the early 20th century. Photo courtesy the artist.
From Cantrell’s Gabriel Prize win: Cantrell’s “The Passages of Paris,” a tryptich of three views of Passage Vivienne, based on different station points: pedestrian, merchant and architect. Based on Walter Benjamin’s writings, “The Arcades,” from the early 20th century. (Image courtesy the artist.)

While in Europe, he also spent time in Rome drawing the ruins and studying the architecture, and it was there he became enamored with the vibrant juxtaposition of crumbling buildings and modern edifices in glass and steel. Back in Dallas, he looked for similar contrasts to record in his notebook. “The demolition and construction process fascinates me,” he says.

Cantrell’s collage of photos and a drawing of the 1900 Elm building. (Image courtesy the artist.)

Cantrell’s most recent projects include designs for a 5,000-square-foot house in the Park Cities and the original artwork for interior designer Jan Showers’ upcoming wallpaper designs for Kravet Couture. He also heads up the architecture cluster at Skyline High School, a four-year program that preps students to go on to study at full-time architecture programs such as his alma mater, UTA. He continues to teach architecture classes at El Centro College, the two-year program he launched there in 2013 and modeled after UTA’s first two years of curriculum, he says. He teaches students to look up from their cellphones and focus on what’s around them, including how light comes into a building.

“I’m trying to break their preconceived notions of what architecture is. It’s not about square footage or expensive finishes. Architecture communicates to the soul, like music does.”

For Cantrell, artistic nourishment can derive as much from what’s coming down as what’s going up. “In Dallas, when I see piles of bricks and cranes and construction, it’s exciting. I feel like I’m back in Rome again.”

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