The Museum Tower, a 42-story condominium in Dallas, borrowed cachet from the neighboring Nasher Sculpture Center to brand itself and sell $4 million apartments.
Then it proceeded to fry the museum’s art with the glare from its glass walls. The two-year-long dispute has boiled over recently with city-council members and the arts community calling for solutions and one man losing his job over phony Facebook postings.
The Nasher is a sculpture garden edged by enclosed galleries covered with a glass roof that lets daylight display the art. Museums across the U.S. have fallen in love with architect Renzo Piano in large part because of his bravura manipulation of daylight.
One of Dallas’s cultural jewels, the Nasher houses a collection assembled by Raymond Nasher, a shopping-center developer, and his wife, Patsy. Major museums sought the collection, which includes artists ranging from Picasso and Mark di Suvero to Barbara Hepworth and Anish Kapoor.
Working with lighting designers at the global engineering firm Arup, Piano designed a glass roof with a painstakingly engineered metal screen mounted above it that filters the harsh local sunlight through egg-shaped openings aimed north. Such gentler light is deemed best for art.
The $200 million Museum Tower began shooting searing beams of light directly into the apertures as its reflective glass panels were applied. The reflections burned plants and ruined the effect of the Skyspace James Turrell built in the sculpture garden.
The tower’s architect, Scott Johnson of the Los Angeles firm Johnson Fain, has unintentionally turned what is usually just annoying into a harmful phenomenon. In an interview, he said that he had visited and admired the Nasher with its director, Jeremy Strick, prior to construction and was aware of the building’s reliance on roof light.
Still, he went ahead and designed the tower with its broadest side facing both the garden and the intense afternoon sun and sheathed it in floor-to-ceiling glass.
The tower plan is oval-shaped and its sides taper, both qualities that aim more glass at the Nasher for longer periods of time than a flat building would.
Johnson said he assumed the reflections wouldn’t be harmful. He might have thought of the glare focused by the polished surface of Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which made global headlines by searing surrounding buildings and blinding drivers.
His client, the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System, could have reminded him that an earlier owner of the site had added a covenant (since expired) that required any future development not to harm the Nasher’s light.
“I am so sad about this,” Johnson said. He should be.
The Nasher has hired experts who propose that the Museum Tower add less-reflective retractable shades. Such systems are used in Europe where it is deemed an insane waste of energy to build an all-glass wall facing directly into the hottest sun angle. In a phone conversation, architect Piano said he had included such screens in a Berlin tower built for Debis, the financing arm of Mercedes Benz, in 1998.
Retrofitting the Museum Tower comes with a host of technical challenges and costs, and the pension system has rejected it in favor of a new light-filtering system for the Nasher that would reorient the apertures, screening the reflections from the tower. The Nasher says the configuration won’t light the galleries properly and fails to solve the burning of shrubbery in the garden.
“Because the building is primarily for sculpture, we designed it for much higher daylight levels than you usually need to,” Piano explained. “This is what makes the space quite magical.”
The controversy appears to be harming not just the Nasher but the surrounding Dallas cultural complex, which includes the art museum, symphony hall, theater and opera house. The arts community pleaded for a resolution in an opinion piece in the Dallas Morning News.
The issue took a bizarre turn with the recent Morning News revelation that a public-relations executive hired by the Museum Tower had been using fake Facebook identities and online postings to create the appearance of support for the tower’s position.
The executive has resigned from the firm he founded. Pushed by city-council members, the pension system agreed to review the Museum Tower’s strategy.
Lacking a clearly persuasive compromise, the Museum Tower owes the Nasher a solution that restores the museum’s extraordinary quality of light. Unfortunately the cost would be borne by the city’s police and firefighters thanks to their asleep-at-the-wheel development team.
(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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