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03.18.2013
Crit> Morphosis' Model Museum
Michael Webb explores the firm's first museum, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas.
Iwan Baan

The Santa Monica firm Morphosis has completed its first museum, and it’s a model of its typology. The Perot Museum of Nature and Science fuses the programs of three institutions that abandoned their old quarters, merged their operations, and commissioned a shared building. According to Morphosis principal Thom Mayne, “The first scheme was much more aggressive and architectural, but [museum officials] couldn’t deal with that, and we developed a cube raised on pilotis as an alternative.”

Though the firm may have reined in its invention, the final design is a brilliant match for the site and the program. It’s located on the far side of an elevated freeway, away from the glittering towers of downtown and the axis of the Dallas Arts District. It anchors a barren expanse in the Victoria Park development, and its form and facades aptly express the museum’s function.

The massive concrete cube is cut away at the southeast corner and glazed to pull natural light into the five-story atrium. A glass-enclosed escalator projects from the south facade, beckoning visitors to enter and explore. A low podium extends from the base of the cube, and both are faced with precast concrete relief panels that simulate rock strata (and were themselves inspired by a nearby rock quarry). As project architect Arne Emerson explained, “Fabricators prefer repetition, but we devised a system that combines a few variants to achieve random patterns.” The depth of the relief diminishes from the base to the top, dematerializing the mass, and creating a constantly changing chiaroscuro, as the sun moves around the building.

 
 

School buses drive up to the entrance of the podium that contains the children’s museum and educational wing on the east side. To the west, families park their cars and proceed up a curved and canopied ramp to the entry plaza. The roof of the children’s museum is a boldly landscaped terrace that opens out of the lobby and can be viewed from above. Shale and native plantings recreate a typical Texas landscape while concealing a tank for the collection of rainwater—a precious commodity in this drought-prone city.

A flexible black box for displays on the second through the fourth levels morphs into transparent public areas at the entry level and around the atrium. Offices are located on the fifth floor. Many science museums pack everything into a windowless container, or go to the opposite extreme of building a glass house, like Renzo Piano’s California Academy of Science in San Francisco. Here in Dallas, there’s a sharp divide between dark and light. It gives the curators what they need, and visitors can enjoy the alternation of immersion and release.

 

Open staircases, escalators, and glass elevators provide easy access to the upper floors, and many visitors head straight to the lofty fourth level for its spectacular displays of dinosaur skeletons, a vivid history of the universe, and a bird display in the mezzanine gallery. The second and third levels house displays of minerals, robots, and biology; a platform simulating earthquakes of different strengths; and (this being Texas) an exhibit on oil prospecting.

At the entry level, a café and shop flank a 300-seat theater with state-of-the-art projection and well-honed acoustics. Wavy recessed lighting slots punctuate the fabric-covered sidewalls and ceiling, in an echo of the rippling concrete cladding. In the lower-level Sports Hall, you can try to outrun an animated cougar or T. Rex, roaring down a parallel track, or else match skills shooting hoops with a pro. As business director Jennifer Scripps, observes, “You can learn a lot at home on a computer, so a museum needs to offer a visceral and social experience.”

 

Dallas was a latecomer in acquiring good venues for the arts, and now the sciences, but when the city finally caught up, it did things right. Symphony Hall is one of I.M. Pei’s best buildings. Renzo Piano’s Nasher Sculpture Center is a jewel. OMA and REX designed an adventurous theater. And there’s a flamboyant but functional opera house by Foster and Partners.

The new museum, largely funded by the Ross Perot family, is a triumph of bold architecture and enlightened philanthropy. Both elements are lacking in a city like Los Angeles, for example, where the County Museum of Natural History has done a good job of restoring its Beaux Arts legacy, but has failed to realize the bold addition it commissioned from Steven Holl.

Michael Webb