When the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum opened in 2019, nearly 75 years had elapsed since the fall of the Third Reich. And yet, the number of anti-Semitic hate crimes was reaching record highs in the United States. Mark Holsinger, a principal at Dallas-based Omniplan who led the design of the museum, says working in this context added a sense of urgency to the project. “Any time there was an incident”—such as the 2018 fatal shooting of 11 people at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa.—“it reinvigorated the team,” he says. “Everyone sensed the importance of getting this building right.”
Because the building falls within Dallas’s West End Historic District, it is subject to a city ordinance that dictates everything from primary façade material (fired brick) to the arrangement of fenestration (vertical and horizontal repetition). “We were trying to find a balance,” Holsinger says. “This is an important district in Dallas, and the client wasn’t interested in disturbing that fabric. At the same time, this is a museum for civil rights and human rights, and there was this idea that this building wanted to be a beacon.”
The three-story, 52,300-square-foot, U-shaped building’s height, massing, and earthy coloration echo those of nearby brick structures while reinterpreting individual elements to create something contemporary and monumental. But the building’s most eye-catching exterior feature is its faceted crown of copper panels, which tops expansive elevations of foreboding gray brick with punched windows.
From the beginning, copper was central to the building’s design, Holsinger says. “It started to symbolize this idea of perseverance. Here’s this material that can withstand almost anything. Yes, it changes and evolves, but it continues to persevere.” Visually separated by a recessed light cove, the museum’s brick and copper planes never quite meet, creating the sense that the copper crown is floating.
Upon entering the museum, visitors are directed to the topmost floor, where most of the exhibitions are located. Holsinger says Omniplan and exhibition designers Berenbaum Jacobs Associates wanted visitors to have a sense of ascension—not only physically but also of “your knowledge and your awareness rising.” On the exterior, the building's copper cladding mirrors this journey. One proud facet in the copper traces a path upward from the northeast corner of the building; to exaggerate the sense of movement created by this facet, the staggered, different-sized copper sheets hang at an angle, following the facet’s path.
To construct and install the copper cladding, Omniplan worked with Baker Triangle, a drywall, acoustical, and metal fabricator with offices throughout Texas. “We had originally detailed this copper band thinking that they would want to frame it in the field,” Omniplan technical director Steve Brookover, AIA, says. But Baker Triangle “came to the table with the idea of unitizing the subframing.” Using Omniplan’s Revit model, Baker Triangle prefabricated the subframing panels in its Dallas facility, which Baker Triangle's vice president of business development Preston Pressley estimates saved 2,560 man-hours over assembling and construction them in the field. Prefabrication also reduced the likelihood of mistakes. “It would have been extremely complicated and time-consuming to create the geometry that Omniplan had created off of boom lifts and scissor lifts,” Pressley says.
Baker Triangle’s virtual design and construction team divided Omniplan’s façade design into 88 individual subframing panels, each approximately 30 feet tall by 10 feet wide, and produced a digital model for each. The team deployed cold-formed steel, with studs 16 inches on center and what Pressley calls pyramid framing to create the running copper cladding facets. Because the facets occur at different locations for every stud, no two panels are alike. “It was one of the most complex geometries that we’ve worked with and one of those things that we love—nasty, complex, scratch-your-head, how-do-we-do-this projects,” he says.
A layer of fiberglass mat gypsum sheathing tops each steel subframe, followed by a layer of polyisocyanurate insulation, and then plywood, which serves as the copper substrate. These prefabricated subframing panels were trucked to site, craned into place, and bolted to the museum’s steel frame. Once installed, Baker Triangle applied a liquid air and moisture barrier to the outboard plywood face.
Unlike the prefabricated panels, the building’s 3,500 copper sheets were fabricated and folded on-site in sequence, using dimensions produced by Baker Triangle’s virtual design and construction team. To avoid scratches or dents, the crew followed strict protocols and donned white gloves while handling the copper, which was sourced from Finland. The 20-ounce copper was so malleable it was “basically like a Coke can,” Pressley says. “You couldn’t stack [one piece] on top of the other because it would scratch. If … you’ve got guys with grease or anything on their hands, that’s getting put onto the copper and it’s not going to go away.”
The flat-lock copper-sheet panels were then attached to the plywood using conventional clips. Baker Triangle foreman Carlos Cabello oversaw the installation. “This is one of those guys who has a unique way of understanding how things go together,” Pressley says. What was anticipated to take 50 days to complete on-site without any prefabricated panels ended up taking just 10 days.
Holsinger says the recessed light cove and building corners were the most challenging aspects of the copper system. A series of mock-ups built on-site and at the Baker Triangle’s facility helped resolve the difficulties.
The museum has already begun to adapt to its surroundings. The copper cladding has weathered more quickly than the architects expected, deepening from its original, metallic brilliance into a dark, leathery brown. It will never attain the characteristic green patina due to the lack of salt and humidity in the north Texas air.
The new structure represents an evolution of a different kind for the museum, which was founded in 1984 by a local group of Holocaust survivors. Previously, the institution was housed in an old warehouse a few blocks away and had a fairly low profile, Holsinger says. “Having this building, they are now able to have a louder voice within the city. Their message, and the lessons they have to teach, are rising in the city.”
Editor’s note: The Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum was also the subject of the recently announced AIA Film Challenge 2020 winner.