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Perot Museum of Nature & Science, Dallas, Texas

Issue 80 August / September 2014 : Retail: Museum


The Perot Museum is the latest in a string of new architectural gems to appear in Dallas. The city, which is going through something of a cultural boom, has seen new buildings constructed by the likes of Foster+Partners, Rem Koolhaas and Renzo Piano in just five years. When tasked with designing a museum named for and inspired by the pioneering spirit of Ross Perot, Morphosis Architects and the Office for Visual Interaction looked to match the architectural greats that now call Dallas home.

The Perot Museum of Nature and Science in uptown Dallas is yet another addition to the thriving museum and gallery scene in the Lone Star State.

The museum was named for Ross Perot, the maverick Texan billionaire and twice failed presidential candidate (1992 and 1996 in case you wondered) who once famously, in an act that could either be summed up as a perfect conclusion or a historical dereliction, bought a copy of the Magna Carta, because he could, and later sold it, donating all the money to educational causes in Texas. Who would have thought that the great charter of English liberty, signed by King John and his barons at Runnymede, would go on to fund good causes in rural Texas? Certainly not them and certainly not the good people of Texas.

The museum is a fine testament to the Perot family’s long standing commitment to education and takes the form of a cube shaped structure that undulates dramatically over an impressive entrance plaza. Pritzker Prize Laureate and Morphosis Architects founder Thom Mayne was responsible for the design of the building and the architectural lighting design was produced by the New York based Office For Visual Interaction (OVI).

The undulating landscape that the building nestles in means that, to the visitor, the structure is always revealing new sides of itself. As people wander around the site, they undertake an exploration of unexpected spatial relationships which are evocative of the spirit of discovery that the museum promotes.

Another overarching theme of the site’s design is the juxtaposition between natural and man-made environments and the building’s architectural lighting has been developed with these themes in mind, allowing the creation of an iconic night-time identity.

The look of the museum is, in many regards, inspired by the spurt of new public buildings that have appeared in Dallas during the last four years designed by the likes of Foster+Partners, Rem Koolhaas, and Renzo Piano.

“What the wave of construction meant for us as lighting designers,” says Jean Sundin, who, together with Enrique Peiniger co-founded OVI in 1997, “was that a thorough study of context was required as to where our work would fit into the greater cultural landscape of Dallas. Then more specifically, we needed to come up with a lighting strategy that did justice to the building as a stand-alone architectural achievement.

“We needed to create something that would not only be appealing to our design partners at Morphosis, but something that would also be appealing to a ten-year-old child coming to see their first T-Rex skeleton.

“The lobby is one instance where you see this duality play out; the exposed bands of light above the metal mesh ceiling complement the refined industrial style of the architecture, while the intentionally dispersed lighting layout adds a welcome sense of playfulness.”

At night, the glowing atrium core visually bursts through the crevice-like glazing of the façade giving the building a warm look when viewed from afar, while acting to accentuate the building’s sharp, sculpted form.

Defined vertical surfaces within the multi-layered atrium design are more intensely illuminated, while the exterior façades glow softly from Sill floodlights positioned in the surrounding landscape.

“When you visit the museum, you can really see and experience the interlocking series of spatial volumes that make the interior so exciting,” comments Jean Sundin. “Part of our design challenge was to visualise the relationship between these juxtaposed volumes before they were built, to make the mental translation from 2D to 3D and to create a cohesive lighting scheme that works from every angle. This is particularly evident in the atrium, where lighting ties together the multi-story glowing volume that contributes to the overall nighttime identity of the project. Additionally, we have lines of light under the bridges, criss-crossing at multiple points and creating dynamic and unique views from every vantage point.”

A continuous-flow escalator emerges from the façade and is treated with a central luminous light line, reinforcing a sense of upward movement within the structure.

Colour temperatures are playfully calibrated to enhance the building’s distinctive nighttime identity. Instead of employing one colour temperature throughout the interior warmer colours can be seen visually contrasting against the cooler exterior escalator, emphasising the dynamic signature of the building. Rather than trying to achieve this effect using ‘colored’ light, the aim was to showcase the range of ‘natural’ white light by using colour temperatures of 6500K
at the main escalator and 3000K in the central atrium. The playful, yet subtle result is in keeping with the museum’s dynamic spatial juxtapositions and creative use of materials.

In the main lobby the lighting is a visual echo of the architectural façades. Light lines of different lengths are arranged in a ‘stitch-pattern’ that are suspended above the undulating metal mesh, continuing the sense of movement that complements the refined industrial style of the architecture. Denser fields of luminaires are clustered towards focal areas that require higher light levels, while dispersed patterns are used to illuminate circulation areas.

Oversized pod-shaped forms are transformed into crystalline lanterns leading visitors through transition zones, while light and shadow articulate architectural elements and focal points of various scales throughout the building. The atrium walls and façades are evenly lit to express their spatial volume and provide visual anchor points for key spaces.

Luminous lines provide ambient light levels and draw visitors throughout the museum, creating an intuitive way-finding
system, which the escalators, bridges, and stairways dramatically penetrate through.

In the lecture theatre, a critical plank in the museum’s educational program, fluid light lines form unexpected waves of light and shadow, evoking a sense of discovery and insight for visitors and pupils.

Lighting such an intricately designed structure, did, of course, pose its challenges to the design teams working on the project, but they were skillfully overcome.

“The start of this project was a key time in the architectural lighting design industry,” says Jean Sundin, “because LED luminaires were getting to the point that lighting designers saw the advantages to specifying them, but quality luminaires were scarce and clients were naturally very wary of the initial hardware costs and of the overall new-ness of the technology, thus it was initially decided that we would proceed with metal halide and fluorescent options. We committed to these light sources on paper, all the while designing in such a way that LED lighting could, conceivably, be substituted at some point in the future. 

"The technology was improving so rapidly that by the time the years-long design process ran its course, price and quality were finally both appropriate in order to justify a partial-LED scheme. When it came time to purchase the luminaires for the museum of Nature and Science, it made sense from the client’s perspective to go for it. Because we had been preparing ourselves for this possibility, the transition went smoothly and we delivered a state-of-the-art building on time and within budget. It was a lesson we learned with the competition and subsequent implementation of the New York City LED Streetlight: work with what’s available now but always plan for the future.”

The educational and aspirational ideals that form the core of the Perot Museum’s reason for existence mean that it is an organisation with the future very much on its mind. The forward looking architecture, which aims to represent the museum’s creed in physical form, supported by a cutting edge lighting design, mean that the Perot Museum’s home is entirely representative of its mission.


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