Dinosaurs, Bones Cavort in $185 Million Science Palace

The base of the Perot Museum of Nature and Science’s undulating roof has broken stone slabs and concrete shafts. They might be ancient bones bleached by the sun.

The main body of the $185 million Dallas museum rises in a 170-foot-high cube of blistered concrete. It features a big gash that is crossed by a glass prism. (At night, visitors inside can be seen gliding smoothly up an escalator.)

Thom Mayne of the Los Angeles firm Morphosis Architects wants to inspire curiosity about science, the natural world and technology. And he succeeds. The Perot’s architecture evokes wonder, the way ancient ruins, animal skeletons or petroglyphs do.

A lot of people wish wilfully spectacular architecture like the Perot’s would die off. Mayne, who recently received the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal, shows us what it can do at its best.

He rearranges the senseless ordinariness of America’s contemporary parking lot and billboard urbanism into theatrical, episodic experiences.

Beyond a garden shaded by spiky native trees, a tentacle of the building embraces us. Mayne has textured its concrete panels into ribbony striations that evoke geological strata.

High Atrium

The entry at the base of the high glass fissure brings visitors to a vestibule atrium that rises the building’s full height, crisscrossed with ramps and stairs.

The best view of the “garden” of stone chunks and concrete shards is from a terrace outside the lobby. Native grasses, selected by the local landscape architecture firm Talley Associates, poke out of crevices.

As I rose to the top floor on the glass-enclosed escalator, a spectacular view of the downtown skyline opened, reminding me of how humans and technology have made a world too often at odds with the natural processes depicted within the museum.

The Perot’s collection merges those of the Dallas Museum of Natural History, Science Place and the Dallas Children’s Museum. The new 180,000-square-foot museum was named for Margot and Ross Perot (presidential candidate and founder of Electronic Data Systems Corp.) to honor a $50 million gift by their children.

To cover such vast territories of knowledge, the Perot asked three specialists to lay out the 11 exhibition halls on five levels.

Dinosaur Draw

If you want to pack in crowds, bring on dinosaurs. Amaze Design mounts fascinating fossils to draw the visitor into the way life evolves, building a context for the spectacular beasts that tower overhead.

Comparing prehistoric and modern animal skeletons shows how animals adapt and how they interact with their environment. That exhibit was a high point.

Some choices are scientifically questionable. In displays on water and weather I could find no consideration of climate change -- the defining natural-science challenge of our time.

The Tom Hunt Energy Hall, created by Paul Bernhard Exhibit Design & Consulting, distorts the energy picture, giving short shrift to both coal and alternative energy. It misstates the role of geothermal energy today. (It uses ordinary earth temperatures rather than the rare volcanic steam depicted.)

Oil Focus

The focus on oil is no surprise, yet the Perot botches this display. A huge, menacing oil-drill model dominates an incomprehensible exhibit featuring computer-interactive displays blinking in the gloom.

People wandered off and became entranced by the spectacular gems and minerals hall next door.

Too often, the lesson-plan calculation of the exhibit design was careful instead of exhilarating. When the Perot engages, it’s with far fewer touch-screen gizmos than many science museums use. Perhaps more of us hunger for the reality from which technology can isolates us.

Mayne’s architecture may mystify, but it provokes open-ended curiosity. It’s got the visceral punch the exhibits sometimes lack.

(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.)

Muse highlights include Max Abelson and Mark Beech on music.

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