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Perot Museum of Nature and Science by Morphosis, Dallas, USA

Rising above the distracting blare of its surroundings, the new Perot Museum is an eloquent paean to the cosmic and geological forces that shape our planet and buildings

It is now forty years since Morphosis first began its critical and unsentimental interventions into the urban fabric. Thom Mayne has never lost sight of the original agenda of the firm’s collective sensibility, continuing to cast his work into disjunctive conversation, critical dialogue or combinatory discussion with the urban context, but never deferring or merging in to it.

For the most part that visual commentary on the setting has been so determinedly and ruggedly urbanist that it has been hard to make connections to the sensory, to the dynamics of the body and its comprehension of space and light, or to nature and the larger landscape in which all buildings sit.

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Now, in a most unlikely setting, with a Dallas museum of science and nature that rises into a sky punctuated by a hundred lonely glass and concrete boxes, on a forlorn site beneath a downtown flyover, abutting a wilderness of parking lots on three sides and a sentimental neo-Victorian apartment complex on the other, he seems to have found a voice for the poetics of the city.

Dense, opaque and monochromatic, conceived at the wonderfully satisfying scale of a castle keep and cast in a gorgeous concrete skin whose narrow extrusions evoke the strata and striations of the natural world, the Perot Museum tower comments on the arbitrary, mis-scaled flimsy lucent high-rises around it with an almost visceral solidity, while the folds of the shallow concrete skirt that falls from it to the street and flow around the visitor in its plaza are positively melodious.

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Jurassic car park – within this disconnected milieu, the building has the presence and solidity of a modern castle keep

The whole scheme, not only in its didactic programme but in such factors as its studied attention to conserving resources, and to bringing light into a closed container, talks to the planet and its crisis. Some steps in this direction are less successful than others. The sloping podium from which the concrete container of the museum rises wraps around it an arc of the geological and living environments of Texas. Where this undulating sequence becomes a roof, a layer of shale flagstones and grasses is laid down, the orientation allowing it to shed and capture water. This didactic and rather ghastly demonstration of natural living environments along the roof of the plinth becomes visible from many points, including the adjacent freeway.

As a result there has been much discussion of the concrete forms and other fabricated elements of the building that were very oddly scattered among the rocks at a late stage of design. To some − including the architects − a positive symbolic message seems plain enough: that buildings grow from the shaping of materials drawn from nature. But the idea is growing that they represent shards that fell from the great slash in the side of the building during some recent fictive catastrophe, and that, as memories of rupture, they are therefore predictive of cataclysms to come.

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The green podium ripples above pedestrians

Where the approaches are less didactic or self-conscious and grounded in the experiential, they have real clarity and force. Some sensory moments are positively luxurious in their attention to the body and its awareness of motion. The main entry is the pedestrian equivalent of an on-ramp. A sweepingly curved walkway, under a luminous canopy, skirting a forest glade, and broken by a stream of the museum’s circulating water system, guides your feet to the entrance. The initial entry comes where these fluid lines converge on the base of a great glazed shaft cut up through the dense container.

Such splittings are now a signature Morphosis gesture. They have a ‘combinatory’ intent, connecting the life inside the building to that of the city outside by unveiling each to the other, drawing in forms and materials from the exterior language and exposing to the world at large elements and activities on the inside. Here the open shaft is also used to display − as if it were a kind of science in itself − all the varying heights, scales, materials, shapes, systems and lines with which the building operates. Thus we are welcomed to the museum by an anatomical section of the structure and its armatures rather as if it were the skeleton of a dinosaur. In another nod to the morphology of buildings and towns, a busy and brightly lit entertainment district − store, café and theatre − spills off from this, settling under the gently rising landscaped roof that serves as watershed.

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Gigantic concrete beams strewn across the podium seem to presage some terrible cataclysm

It is all a little too compressed and complicated, but both the compression and the complexity have their points, especially in nudging visitors − like the bridge at Breuer’s Whitney or the great steps of a 19th-century gallery − into the change of speed and gaze that has to mark the transition from street to sanctum. In this case Morphosis leads us from an automobile city in which the privilege of motion is almost entirely granted to the machine to an alternate world in which the body and mind pace movement and can recognise the moments of wonder that can come with that slowing of motion. One of those moments comes very soon in a vast, shockingly dim basement lobby. It is a sudden explosion of space, undulating surfaces and visible structural members, covered by a high web of starlights beyond which it is impossible to exactly discern the finite ceiling.

Morphosis says only that the lobby’s patterns ‘reflect the dynamism of the exterior landscape, blurring the distinction between inside and outside and connecting the natural with the manmade’. But, decorated with a single giant dinosaur, this evocation of the ‘great hall’ seems to say much more. It could be seen as a lovely and mysterious reminder, as the museum’s tale of the planet begins, not simply of how one’s journey began in the great halls of the traditional natural science museum but of the smallness of the human place in our universe and of the vastness of the human capacity to comprehend it. This is one of a number of points at which Mayne’s work transcends the determinedly virile and unlyrical manner in which his team describes it.

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A glazed bar containing an escalator is clamped to the side of the building, offering views of its dystopian environs

The second moment of intended amazement is less successful. Taking its cue from Wright’s Guggenheim, the Perot addresses the problem of the vertical museum both aesthetically, by celebrating the vertical circulation, and pragmatically, by carrying you first to the top and allowing for a gradual descent. Models show an extraordinary amount of attention to the huge glass escalator shaft that breaks out from the most visible facade of the museum. It follows the same lines and serves much the same purpose as a giant telescope, taking visitors to the roof of the building and − with vistas of the city along the route − leaving them at the end of its trajectory among a discussion of the stars in the museum’s gallery of the universe.

Yet so much has been done by the time one takes this ride to introduce this experience − the most conspicuous feature of the building and its most touted − that there is very little surprise or excitement in the short journey; positive disappointment in the dismal vista of parking lots and banal office towers it affords along the way; and no excitement at all in the final meagre and vertiginous little observation deck it takes you to (with an urban view of next to nothing).

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Interior spaces juxtapose organic and angular forms to Scharounian effect

The best views by far are actually those looking down and around, to the very elegantly crafted and beautifully lit white stairwells, the simplest and clearest passages in the entire building and the least cluttered with ideas. The memory of those stairs becomes an essential counterpoint to the overwhelming visual noise of so many of the galleries, in which the spiral scheme, the architecture and especially the unfortunate specimens themselves, all become lost in a garish forest of labels, billboards and flickering backdrops.

The few points of focus and repose in this busy scene − the quietly glowing hall of minerals is one − serve only to point out where the museum best and most surprisingly succeeds in arousing a desire to keep this earth intact, which is not in its displays, nor in the rather fierce and didactic xerigraphy of its landscape scheme − but in the many moments of almost loving, sensuous spatial poetry with which its supposedly cool, proudly prosaic, rugged, critical and urbanistic architect has endowed it.

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The museum’s conversations between straight line and curve, softly dense wall and decisive cut, completed box and open cylinder are too abrupt at times. But there is in that abruptness something true to how nature shows itself in an urban setting; so that one walks away rather moved by the memory of this fiercely lovely silo settling on to its wandering plinth like a morsel of gravel on an oily raindrop, catching the light and casting reflection in a thousand ways.

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Credits

Photographer: Iwan Baan
Architect: Morphosis
Associate Architect: Good Fulton and Farrell
Task Lighting/exterior: Erco
Acoustic Ceilings: Hunter Douglas: Techstyle
Structural Glazing: Novum structures
Locks and door closers: Dorma

Readers' comments (1)

  • Thom Mayne and Morphosis work is among the best in the U.S., and the Pritzker tells enough about his architectural and cultural value. Surely this museum confirms his qualities and sensibility.
    Nevertheless, in my opinion, from the urban point of view the building seems more a victim of its surroundings than a potential focus for the public realm and for a different and more sustainable use of it. The museum is surely a powerful visual focus of great quality, texture, richness and so on, but it appears enclosed in the grid of cars' pathways. It seems its main access will remain the great car park south-west of the building, as the entrance is reached through a beautiful court, but this is set on a podium and substantially hidden from Field Street (the main pedestrian access). Furthermore the podium gently slopes down just toward the southern car park. I think the atmosphere of a contemporary castle/manor wouldn't be diminished if the main access would be a plaza set north-east of the building and at the same level of Field Street. Actually that portion of the street might be just a part of the plaza itself, at least visually. Many people could start considering a walk from dinosaurs to Downtown Dallas, that is less than a kilometer far, and vice versa.
    The rigidity of the urban grid is in effect the main problem concerning the quality of public realm in U.S. cities, and what you get is some Seagram Building or Lincoln Center Plazas and so many cars and car parks. Thus a different approach to the relationship between pedestrian movements/perceptions and the grid itself could be one of the issues for a more sustainable public realm for the American cities, also because a true sustainability can arise just if we love the place we live in, as many times said on the AR pages.
    I say this because any American city can be seen as a case study for a contemporary urban intervention, as they are all built from tabula rasa, none of them has anything (for example) of the urban quality and the warmth of an European medieval center, and none of them (at least today) is thought from the pedestrian point of view. In other words any American city is a perfect product of modernity, modernism and its cultural values. Field street surely isn't Fifth Avenue or Michigan Avenue, but this case can be seen as representative for any approach to the relationship between buildings and the public realm, as this is the typical recent urban environment in all the U.S.. I think we should, as architects, ask ourselves how a new architecture for the twenty first century should try to be urban, to be life-enhancing, to create a sense of community and belonging. To create places we desire to be in.

    Bruno Tonelli
    Twitter: @brunotonelli

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