DALLAS — It’s remarkable how slow — and disjointed — architecture can sometimes appear.
For nearly a decade, younger architects have pushed for a new agenda in the profession. They’ve been critical of the expensive, highly mannered and sometimes self-indulgent trophy buildings turned out by some of the world’s most prominent firms. And they’ve helped bring different and more public-minded priorities to the fore.
And yet the trophy buildings keep coming.
One of the pricey, preening old breed opened recently in Dallas. The $185 million Perot Museum of Nature and Science, designed by Thom Mayne and the Culver City, Calif., firm Morphosis, is a largely windowless crypt, a cube lifted dramatically above the streets around it and wrapped in puckered and striated precast concrete panels.
It is a thoroughly cynical piece of work, a building that uses a frenzy of architectural forms to endorse the idea that architecture, in the end, is mere decoration. Mayne’s design appears to put innovative architecture on a literal pedestal — or a plinth, to be exact — while actually allowing it to become peripheral, noticeably separate from the heart of the museum and its galleries.
The building’s apparent radicalism is tacked on, its braggadocio paper-thin. Like many of Mayne’s recent buildings, it is a work of architecture without the courage of its convictions — convictions that are shouted at top volume.
The museum, 170 feet tall, sits on a five-acre piece of land prominently visible from the highway that runs at its feet. The wide surface-parking lot that serves it on the southwest is mostly for staff; members of the public park in a second lot, squeezed under the long concrete bar of a freeway on-ramp.
Standing by the ticket desk, with a narrow escalator churning away and ready to take you up toward the exhibit spaces, it’s easy to hope that the whole building will be just as dramatically unsettled. That feeling is extended as you ride a series of escalators along the southeast edge of the museum, revealing views of the skyline in one direction and a slashing series of stairs and ramps in the other.
It doesn’t take long, though, to realize that this entry sequence represents a ghettoized architecture, fully sealed off from the exhibits.
The displays fill dark, high-ceilinged galleries where Mayne’s sensibility — or any architectural sensibility — is absent. On every floor you get a clear sense of leaving the architecture to enter the galleries, and leaving the galleries to return to the architecture.
A low point of the Dallas museum (funded in part by a $50 million gift from the adult children of H. Ross Perot and his wife, Margot) comes at one of the structure’s higher points. The glass skin sheathing the escalator continues past the edge of the building and juts out into the sky, a formal gesture that gives the museum a bit of extra energy from afar but adds nothing inside.
That detail sums up the museum’s relationship to the city. Because of its odd site, a little tricky to reach by foot from downtown but easy to spot from the highway, Mayne has an incentive to try out oversize architectural moves that look mannered and overdone up close.
It’s a kind of bullhorn urbanism. The building, marked by the civic aloofness that has become an unfortunate Mayne trademark, turns its back on the Dallas Arts District.