Envelope inspired by history of Dallas’ African-American community.
For the past 20 years, San Antonio–based Muñoz & Company (formerly Kell Muñoz Architects) has focused primarily on what president and CEO Henry Muñoz III calls “the architecture of identity.” The bulk of that work, in turn, has been concentrated on the United States–Mexico border, where the architects collaborated with clients in majority-Latino communities.The commission to design Billy Dade Middle School (in a joint venture with KAI Texas) represented a departure from the firm’s usual context. “It struck us that this particular campus had such a rich history and location—in the urban core of the city, and an area where the African-American community has been so important, historically,” recalled Muñoz. “It was a great opportunity to explore what that means in the 21st century.” Working closely with local residents, Muñoz & Company settled on the metaphor of a quilt, announcing the school’s commitment to culturally attuned education with a translucent facade in multicolored glass and illuminated brick.
Much of the preparation for the project took place outside the studio. “We approached it not just as designers, but in a more scholarly fashion,” said Muñoz. The architects researched the school’s namesake—educator, parent, and activist Dr. Billy Earl Dade—through interviews with family members and colleagues as well as archival materials found in a local museum. The linchpin of the design, however, fell into place at a dinner event Muñoz attended. There he asked Claudine Brown, assistant secretary for education and access at the Smithsonian Institution, to help him brainstorm a symbol of cultural identity in the African-American community, one that could help inspire young minds. “Immediately, with no hesitation, she said, ‘I think you should look at quilts,'” said Muñoz. As the conversation and further research progressed, he learned that quilts have been used to tell stories, as visual signposts for safety, and as subtle acts of resistance—as well as to meet a basic need for warmth. In addition, said Muñoz, “We found superb artistry, [including] quilting collectives that keep the tradition alive.”
On the school’s exterior, the architects expressed the quilt metaphor with multicolored glass walls fronting diagonal bays. Beyond the reference to quilts as cultural artifacts, the pattern projects a belief in the community’s resilience. “That glass wall is an important way of expressing how anything can be woven together,” said Muñoz. A patchwork rhythm recurs more subtly in the facade’s brick walls, where transparent glass elements preserve a sense of openness. “At night, when the glass curtain wall is so transparent—like a lantern—you also get a sense of that in the brick wall,” he explained. The entrance canopy, clad primarily in metal, deepens the material diversity of the building envelope, underlining the design’s focus on inclusiveness. “You should be able to be yourself as you walk under it,” said Muñoz.
The quilt theme continues throughout the interior, notably in the tiled floors (inspired by the work of quilting cooperative Gee’s Bend), displays of text from Dade’s writings, quilts commissioned for the library, and a collection of salvaged doors lining the lobby walls. “Dade was a really strong mentor in an intergenerational fashion,” explained Muñoz. We looked at a speech he made about opportunity and thought, ‘What if we harvested doors from the neighborhood?’ So in the lobby you see this patchwork of doors, meant to be doors of opportunity.”
Built to meet Dallas Independent School District’s stringent environmental standards, Billy Dade “combined [environmental] sustainability with the idea of cultural sustainability,” explained Muñoz. Though in keeping with the firm’s track record of community-based design, the project was nonetheless a learning opportunity for the architects. “This was the first time that we’ve [designed] a school that is multicultural in a different way than what we’ve been used to working with,” he said. “While the population was different, I hope people found something that they can see themselves in.”