In eye-catching new museums, art is both on the walls and the walls themselves

McClatchy Washington BureauAugust 19, 2013 

— The gray cubed structure pierced by a glass rectangle is a startling sight, perched alongside a busy elevated highway with no hint of what it is or what’s inside.

The Perot Museum of Nature and Science is one of several newly opened museums with innovative exteriors as well as interiors, all part of a new wave of architecture that’s redefining the cultural landscape.

The Perot, which debuted in December, is named for Dallas billionaire and former presidential contender H. Ross Perot and his wife, Margot.

Meanwhile, in East Lansing, Mich., the eye-catching Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University had its debut in November. Among its distinctions is the designer, Zaha Hadid, the only woman to win architecture’s top Pritzker Prize, an honor shared by several of the designers at the vanguard of new museum design.

And in Florida, the new Jorge M. Perez Art Museum of Miami-Dade County, a glass-lined tropical retreat with hanging gardens under construction on Biscayne Bay, is set to open its doors in December.

All three are symbols of a design wave begun in the late 1990s by Los Angeles-based architect Frank Gehry, who created a revolutionary swirling construction for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

The so-called “Bilbao effect” is what’s driving museums, communities, and donors to create new city landmarks where the buildings, as well as their collections, generate enormous attention and visitors.

“You need a building to be eye-catching if you are trying to attract the public,” said G. Martin Moeller Jr., senior curator at the National Building Museum in Washington. “People are walking around in a city and they are pulled in by architecture.”

The Perot is located in what was most recently a Dallas parking lot, creating a sensation among locals and tourists.

“I think it’s visually thrilling,” said Carolyn Perot Rathjen, chairman of the museum, named for her parents after she and her four siblings contributed $50 million – $10 million each – for the naming rights. “It’s really energized the city.”

The Perot nature museum had an earlier incarnation in North Dallas before architect Thom Mayne, whose work runs the gamut from federal agencies and courthouses to university buildings and Spanish public housing, went back to the drawing board.

“We wanted to use the building itself as an exhibit,” said Perot CEO Nicole Small.

A museum that promotes the study of nature, the exterior walls are made of pre-cast concrete slabs with a series of ripples to represent the Earth’s strata. The design is also “green,” with solar panels and a cistern to collect rain water.

The massive structure is broken visually by a glass-enclosed rectangle housing an escalator attached to the front at an angle. It’s an arresting and practical design, giving museum-goers a feeling of openness, as well as an efficient route to the top floor, where curators want visitors to begin the tour and move down.

At night, the lit-up escalator stands out even more.

The result is a dramatic blend of hard and soft textures, the concrete and glass edifice accented by landscaping intended to evoke the different ecosystems of the state; from the piney woods of East Texas, to the prairie to the dry desert of West Texas.

Already nearing a million visitors, which officials did not expect to reach for a year from its opening in December, “we’ve way exceeded attendance expectations,” said Small.

Small, who plans to step down to run a Dallas foundation, said the museum has had to extend “members” nights because of demand. The imprint of Perot, the enigmatic Texas businessman, maverick White House hopeful and civic promoter, also gives the museum instant identification.

Perot Rathjen said that her father, now 83, was thrilled to have the building named after him and his wife. The famously button-downed Perot even likes the building’s look.

In East Lansing, the Broad art museum is a startling geometric combination of steel, concrete and glass on the Michigan State University campus, with an inventory of art from the Middle Ages to the present day, including 18 works donated by the Broads.

Eli Broad is a billionaire philanthropist and art collector who gave $28 million to his alma mater to build the museum. Hadid, the designer, is an Iraqi-British architect known for her daring work, including the London Aquatics Centre built for the 2012 Olympics.

“The Broads has a strong vision that they wanted something really radical and new,” said Michael Rush, the museum’s founding director.

Indeed, he said that because of its different angles and protrusions, “Many first-time visitors say coming into the building is disorienting.”

Designed so that the western end of the building is higher than the opposite end, Rush said, “It feels like an enormous gust of wind blowing from east to west."

Compared to East Lansing, it’s harder to be noticed in Miami among the city’s glittering architectural canyons. But the Perez art museum is helping to transform a rundown part of downtown into a waterfront oasis. Jorge M. Perez, a real estate billionaire, has pledged $40 million in cash and art from his contemporary Latin American collection for a new building to house what had been the Miami Art Museum.

Designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, it relies on new construction techniques and materials to minimize the number of pillars to support the structure, which employs glass to create a feeling of spaciousness.

“It’s going to be almost completely open,” said Leann Standish, the Perez museum’s deputy director for external affairs. “The main staircase will have dual use; during the day, stairs, and then as an auditorium with the staircase providing seating with a system of cushions and backs. Everyone is deeply excited about the museum.”

Sometimes excitement is not enough.

In Washington, there was considerable buzz in art circles for an idea that, in the end, proved to as unsettling as it was daring: an inflatable bubble to be used as a seasonal meeting space and conference center popping out of the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on the National Mall.

After a four-year planning effort, museum director Richard Koshalek resigned when he was unable to get his board’s final support for a $12.5 million fundraising campaign to finance the project.

Still, the trend of cities seeking to embrace a vibrant and even radical kind of museum design seems alive and well.

“For an architect,” said the National Building Museum’s Moeller, an architect himself, “a cultural institution is kind of a dream project.”

Email:; Twitter: maria_e_recio

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