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ARCHITECTURE REVIEW

Elegant tranquillity

Renzo Piano's design for Dallas' Nasher draws viewers from an urban world into a more private place.

October 17, 2003|Nicolai Ouroussoff | Times Staff Writer

DALLAS — Renzo Piano has long been a darling of the international art scene. Since his completion of Houston's Menil Foundation in 1986, the Italian architect has been revered for his ability to balance the needs of art and architecture with exquisite delicacy.

The new Nasher Sculpture Center, which opens to the public Monday, should only add to that perception. As architecture, the building cannot match the exquisite perfection of the Menil. Nonetheless, the Nasher's elegant galleries are a tranquil place to view sculpture. With his extensive use of natural light, Piano creates a building that virtually dissolves into the surrounding landscape.

Piano first rose to prominence with the completion of Paris' Pompidou Center in 1977. Designed with the London-based Richard Rogers, the Pompidou's colorful high-tech facade -- with its famous escalators enclosed in glass tubes -- was a bold expression of a then-emerging pop aesthetic.

Over subsequent decades, the 66-year-old architect has increasingly turned to a more subtle -- even conservative -- architectural language. His best museum work is notable for its understanding of context and use of natural light.

The Nasher is the latest testament to that creative evolution. The center houses a collection of blue-chip sculptural works by such artists as Alberto Giacometti, Pablo Picasso and Richard Serra. The Dallas Museum of Art faces the building on one side; I.M. Pei's Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center is two blocks away. The soaring towers of Dallas' downtown rise just across from the building's main entry.

The building is conceived as a sort of psychological filter, drawing the viewer out of the surrounding urban context and into a more intimate, private world. A series of massive travertine walls is set perpendicular to the street, dividing the building into five parallel bays. The bays are enclosed in glass at either end, so that passersby can peer through the lobby and galleries out to a vast sculpture garden in the back.

That sense of flow slows as one enters the building, allowing the art to be brought into full focus. From the lobby bay, a series of portals is cut through the travertine walls, leading into the two main galleries, a bookstore and a cafe. Two broad staircases connect the lobby to the administrative offices, conservation lab and a 200-seat auditorium below ground level.

Long and narrow, the galleries are elegantly proportioned. But their beauty stems from the quality of the light. A series of low vaulted roofs covers each bay. The roofs are conceived as two independent membranes that are meant to take advantage of the fact that sculpture -- unlike painting -- can withstand a high degree of natural light without damage.

A grid of lightweight aluminum panels -- pierced by a series of small oval apertures -- forms each roof's upper layer. The apertures are oriented to the north, protecting the interior from the harsher southern light. A second layer of clear glass is set below this panel system to seal each bay from the outdoors.

The result -- on most days -- is a remarkably soft natural light. What is more, the mood of the rooms changes depending on the weather and time of day, imbuing the artwork with a liveliness that one would otherwise not feel. One is made constantly aware of the natural world outside.

The roof design falls short, however, as a work of technical innovation. In its complexity, the roof echoes earlier Piano designs, such as the Menil and the more recent 1997 Beyeler Foundation Museum in Basel, Switzerland. These structures, in turn, were a response to Louis Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum design -- a landmark of 20th century architecture in nearby Fort Worth. Like the Nasher, the Kimbell is organized as a series of long narrow bays, each covered by a vaulted ceiling. Light filters down through a narrow slot set along the ridge where the two sides of the vault normally meet to support its weight. The design defies structural logic. The effect is pure magic.

Piano seems to be reaching for a similar effect here. Because the Nasher's vaults are too low to support their own weight, Piano has designed a complex cable system that creates additional support from above. The cables -- tied back to the heavy travertine walls -- are visible above the roof line. But the dual structural systems seem unnecessarily complex, and the lightweight cables seem at odds with the massive weight of the travertine walls. As a structural solution, it lacks the clarity -- and drama -- of Kahn's.

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