Illuminating the Nasher: Museum Tower Invades Piano-designed Oasis
Who knew that architecture could be so painful? In Dallas, a new skyscraper is causing the plants at the Nasher Sculpture Center to wither and making the administration move paintings out of the way of direct sun reflected off the curving glass façade of a 42-story skyscraper—ironically called the Museum Tower. The moment of serenity within the Dallas war of bigger-is-better is being invaded by not shadows, as some had feared, but light.
Photo by Johnson Fain Architects
What interests me most about this story is how we do not notice the effect buildings have on our environment until we confront an extreme example. The fact that our cities have become giant heat islands, that we devastate vast territories because of all the resources we have to bring into our downtowns and the waste we take out, the lack of human scale in most central business districts, the presence of countless materials that may or may not cause cancer, and all the dangers the built environment builds into our daily lives are largely invisible. Only when a particular combination of forms creates a strong wind tunnel, or a new building threatens to create a long shadow or block views, do we realize that the replacement of nature by buildings, the stacking of people on top of each other, and the creation of artificial environments, actually comes at a price.
Photo Nasher Sculpture Center
Truth be told, I have never been that enamored of the Nasher’s skylight system. It is ingenious to be sure, consisting of a number of layers whose most sophisticated one consists of a series of elongated openings tuned so that no direct light enters into the space. I find the ceiling itself, like much of Renzo Piano’s architecture, overly fussy, and, what is more important, the quality of light so even as to be dull. The nearby Kimbell, by contrast, has plenty of diffuse light, but also shafts that streak across walls, hot spots and places of shadow. Kahn and his lighting designer, Richard Kelley, did not so much cause the reality of the Texas light to disappear, as they modeled and transformed it.
Photo Nasher Sculpture Center
The Nasher, with its relentlessly even light, does, however, create a cool oasis within the city, where you can see some pretty terrific art. Now the reality of what pays for all that art (though Nasher, the donor, was a shopping mall, not office tower, developer) has invaded that oasis. This is what is most interesting to me: the logic of the city and its effects have become something you notice. I know it is not good for the art, but I do hope that the Nasher can find some way to work with that invasive revelation, rather than trying to make it go away. I doubt they will have much choice, as replacing the curtain wall on a building this size will be quite an operation. Good art makes us aware of not only its own materiality and form, but also of the real context out of which it came and in which we experience it.
I even wish the Nasher could commission an artist to work with these new reflections in a way that would comment on or make us aware of where they are coming from, both in an immediate and a larger, social and economic sense. And, by the way, the Museum Tower, designed by Scott Johnson, is a pretty decent building, a lot better than most of the soulless and harmless structures around it. I am sure the architects had no intention of doing anything to harm the Nasher’s art, but out of such unforeseen circumstances I hope some illumination might come.