Building Beatdown

Dallas architecture expert rebukes LA Times bashing of Perot Museum

Dallas expert rebukes LA Times bashing of Perot Museum

Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas
LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne really doesn't like the new Perot Museum. Photo by Mark Knight Photography
Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas
Hawthorne seems to enjoy the lobby a bit more than the exterior, but then he realizes that the rest of the interior isn't like the lobby. Photo by Mark Knight Photography
Glass-enclosed escalator at Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas
Resident architecture expert Kate Holliday of UT Arlington says that Hawthorne has some valid points, but she also argues that he's a little harsh and perhaps overly critical of a museum with a gem room.  Photo by Mark Knight Photography
Lyda Hill Gems Hall
Look at this giant grape jelly geode. Just look at it. It's freakin' huge.  Photo by Jason Janik
Perot Museum
Holliday says she likes the facade and its callback to the concrete architecture of the '60s and '70s.  Mark Knight Photography
Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas
Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas
Glass-enclosed escalator at Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas
Lyda Hill Gems Hall
Perot Museum

In case you missed it — which seems doubtful, because it was in the Los Angeles Times, and you read that every day, right? — architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne said some mean things about the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science.

Hawthorne takes the Perot to task for being a trophy building for architect Thom Mayne and his California firm Morphosis, describing the building as “a largely windowless crypt, a cube lifted dramatically above the streets around it and wrapped in puckered and striated precast concrete panels.”

But Hawthorne is just getting warmed up. He’s moving Perot around the ring, dictating with jab after jab. He throws a right cross and says, “It is a thoroughly cynical piece of work, a building that uses a frenzy of architectural forms to endorse the idea that architecture, in the end, is mere decoration.”

Architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne takes the Perot to task for being a trophy building for architect Thom Mayne, describing it as “a largely windowless crypt.”

Hawthorne goes on to pick apart the museum piece by piece, working the body when he says, “The building’s apparent radicalism is tacked on, its braggadocio paper-thin.”

He chronicles the plight of those that must park in a lot “squeezed under the long concrete bar of a freeway onramp” before moving on to the lobby.

Here, he sounds like he could almost like the escalator ride with the view of downtown — before he winks and lands a left hook with, “It doesn’t take long, though, to realize that this entry sequence represents a ghettoized architecture, fully sealed off from the exhibits.”

Damn, someone get the Perot Museum directions to the nearest burn center. I’m cherry-picking the worst of the worst, but the whole thing goes on like this, alternating between bashing the Perot and generally shitting on Mayne while also criticizing the lack of cohesion between the exterior and interior. 

I’m trying to keep a level head about an architecture critic writing about a building, because that’s his job. And even though I drive by the thing every day on the way to work, I’ve yet to go inside or really explore the building, so it’s hard to disagree with what he says. Also, I know very, very little about architecture, and what I do know mostly has to do with Gothic churches in Europe.

But Hawthorne, you better watch your back. You don’t get to say that kind of stuff about our buildings. Only we can say that kind of stuff about our buildings.

Which is why I asked CultureMap’s architecture expert, UT Arlington architecture professor Kate Holliday — who just got back from speaking at an art deco conference in Havana — what she thought about Hawthorne’s takedown. In her own words: 

Christopher has some good points, especially in the building’s hostility to its surroundings. It’s yet another siloed, unconnected monolith in a neighborhood that has plenty of them already.

Because Mayne has made a name for himself trading on ideas of ‘combinatory urbanism,’ it’s a particularly egregious mistake to seal the building off from the city so effectively. There’s just no excuse for this, particularly after the good discussions that have happened about the failures of the Arts District buildings to create a dynamic, interactive, rich urban space around themselves.

But I do think he’s too hard on the design of the façade. Given how much attention has been paid recently to the concrete architecture of the ’60s and ’70s and how unloved much of it is, I actually welcome the use of molded, sculptural concrete panels. It’s pure ornament, yes, but I don’t see anything wrong with that at all.

Concrete is a fluid, after all, before it sets, and to see it spread across the surface is joyous in its own way. I do see the argument that it would have been good for that striated, extruded feeling to extend to the interior from a design perspective — but from the perspective of a 10-year-old (a.k.a. my son) no one cares at all. They just love the dinosaur races and the gem room.

That’s how you diffuse an architectural bomb right there. And now I have to go to the Perot because I had no idea there was a gem room. From the sound of it, Hawthorne missed it when he was there too.