Friday, June 15, 2012

Gnashing of Elite Teeth over Tower

Sometimes, neighbors can be annoying.

But what do you do when you believe your new neighbor is destroying your own property?

Well, in this case, perhaps "destroying" is a bit harsh.  But the world-famous architect whose small museum is being marginalized by the luxury apartment tower rising next to it would probably agree with the term.

He's already gone on record as describing his museum as a "victim" of the "aggressor" skyscraper.  And it's all because of something we get plenty of here in north Texas:  bright, hot sunlight.

What Could Go Wrong?

When celebrated architect Renzo Piano was commissioned by the late Ray Nasher to design a jewel box of a museum to hold the shopping center mogul's modern sculpture collection, a prime site in downtown Dallas, in the middle of the city's fledgling arts district, was chosen.

At the time, this location seemed to make sense, since the Dallas Museum of Art would be a neighbor for the new Nasher Sculpture Center, and I.M. Pei's wonderful Meyerson Symphony Center already anchored an expanding performing arts community just down the street.  To the Nasher's immediate south, a high-rise office building owned by one of Dallas' most prominent families flanked the edge of downtown's commercial skyscrapers, and to the Nasher's immediate north, an existing freeway was about to be covered over so a new, elevated park could be constructed.

Apparently, however, nobody gave much thought about what was planned for the property just to the east of the Nasher; property that for years had been a lowly parking lot.

So the Nasher was designed and constructed to considerable local acclaim, featuring glass ceilings that filtered natural sunlight to bathe sculptures on display with as little artificial lighting as possible.  Piano's design featured an expansive walled garden, where larger sculptures could be displayed amongst lush lawns and trees, like its own secluded park.  One outdoor piece consisted of a concrete shell large enough for a few people to walk inside, look up through an open-air oculus, and see nothing but the changing sky framed by a dark rim.  Maybe it sounds boring - and a bit silly - to construct something that frames the same sky we can gaze into on our own, but the actual effect when you're inside the artwork, stripped of distractions, can be kinda cool.

Except that now, a 42-story glass tower partially obstructs your view!

Not only that, but the still-to-be-completed Museum Tower apartment building is clad in a reflective glass that incessantly refracts piercing sunlight into every nook and crevice of the Nasher from noontime until the sun goes down.  Those skylights Piano designed to capture and diffuse sunlight tilt to - guess! - the east, so glare from the far stronger western sun isn't as prominent.  But now, to the east of the Nasher is where the objectionable skyscraper rises.


Shine Some Light On It

At least for Dallas, this poses an unprecedented dilemma.  Sure, other conflicts between notable neighbors have existed before, but most of those have had to do with aesthetics, design philosophies, or even sagging foundations if excavation next-door undermines an existing structure.  But aesthetics and design philosophies don't literally render a structure worthless, and repairing damage to a neighbor's property during construction is party of the reason developers have to take out insurance.  In this case, the developers of the high-rise apartment building have violated no zoning laws, construction principles, or even aesthetic considerations.  Granted, Museum Tower looks like any other glassy skyscraper, and hardly worth the prices developers are charging for its apartments  But as far as glitzy skylines go, Dallas' is already fairly eclectic, so a building's designer would have to go pretty far off the deep end to make a new tower a complete eyesore.

And Museum Tower is no eyesore.

Art purists in Dallas insist that it's still an inferior building to Piano's Nasher, however.  To which it's easy to respectfully disagree.  Yes, the Nasher is elegant and pleasant enough, but an irreplaceable treasure for the city?  No.  A timeless piece of art all its own?  No.  One of Renzo Piano's best works?  No.

And the artwork housed in Piano's Nasher?  Some of it is pure junk appreciated only by those who crave attention from hallowed art snobs.  Nasher developed Dallas' beloved NorthPark Center, one of the nation's first enclosed malls, and despite competition from newer, bigger, and more gaudy malls, NorthPark remains the top retail shrine in the shopping mecca that is Dallas.  Indeed, when Dallasites talk about "going to the mall," they mean NorthPark.  If they're going to any other mall, Dallasites will name that mall specifically, and usually defend their decision not to go to NorthPark by complaining about it's incessantly notorious traffic.

Nasher and his wife, both of whom are now deceased, fancied themselves as experts on modern art, and modern sculpture in particular.  For years, NorthPark has featured works from their extensive collection throughout their facilities, and it's hard to deny that they make the mall quite unique in terms of ambiance.

But most of these sculptures are made of stone and metal - elements hardly at risk of damage from sunbeams from the western sky.  Officials at the Nasher claim that refracted sunlight from Museum Tower is forcing curators to relocate some sculptures considered more fragile and susceptible to fading.  Which, yes, isn't a desirable problem to have, but is hardly calamitous.  Then there are claims that grass and trees in the Nasher's outdoor sculpture garden are getting scorched from the refracted sunlight, but wilting and browning vegetation is part of everyday life here in Texas, even despite an abnormally wet spring like the one we just finished.

Officials and Piano insist it's not their responsibility to try and accommodate the sunlight glaring from their new neighbor.  Suggestions of retrofitting the Nasher with screens and blinds of some sort have met with stiff resistance from both the museum and well-connected arts patrons who bristle at the notion of crass commercialism like that of some petty capitalist apartment developers forcing changes to something as sacred as a sculpture museum.

But the Nasher isn't sacred.  Neither, for that matter, is the capitalist trophy tower next door, which will soon be home to some of the city's most expensive - and loftiest - apartments.  City leaders have arranged for a mediator to help forge some sort of compromise on this issue, but so far, no agreement has been reached.  In fact, it was rather surprising for Piano to speak out so publicly this week, since supposedly some sort of gag order is in place.  Yes, a gag order - after all, Dallas takes both its art and its construction projects very seriously.

Much Ado About Sunlight

So, what's the big deal, you ask?  Egypt is on the brink of anarchy, Greece and Spain may soon short-circuit the whole of Europe's economy, Russia still thinks it should have the right to sell arms to the merciless Assad regime... and Dallas is bickering over two ephemeral buildings in its pretentious arts district?

This debate isn't about art.  It's not even about property rights.  It's about ego.  Piano and Nasher officials are sore because the Dallas citizenry, on behalf of their beloved museum, hasn't risen up in fury against the skyscraper's developers.  They're frustrated because nobody - not even themselves - thought to more closely evaluate the effect the glass walls of a nearby tower would have on the Nasher.  After all, had the tower featured a conventional brick facade, or even balconies to break up the mirror effect of the glass, it would just be a tall neighbor, not a blinding one.

As far as the developers of Museum Tower are concerned, downtown Dallas is primarily a neighborhood of tall buildings.  City planners and arts patrons who mapped out the redevelopment of downtown's near north side for museums and concert halls had even included skyscrapers in their proposals, so the Nasher and its fans knew full well what the future held for the properties around them.

Personally, I'm a bit surprised at the attitude of Nasher's rich patrons.  Where has the enigmatic imagination that used to so pervade the city of Dallas gone?  If y'all hadn't fawned so much over Piano's building to begin with, and admitted it wasn't all that remarkable, you could have viewed this latest challenge as an opportunity to finally make a signature architectural statement out of the place.

Besides, Piano is one of many current architects known for their white sail motif, which would make a perfect addition to the roof of the current Nasher structure.  Strategically-engineered sails rigged over the Nasher could deflect the intense light from the tower next door, leave the current structure relatively intact, and lend their warmly dramatic aesthetics to helping make it the landmark building it currently isn't.

How much would it cost?  Please!  Since when has the inferiority complex which motivates arts patrons here ever fussed about cost before?

Frankly, Dallas, this whole episode doesn't show you in a good light.

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