Why UTD's plan for a $158 million arts center is off track right now

Why UTD’s plan for a $158 million arts center is off track right now

When art historian, museum director, critic, fundraiser and versatile cultural impresario Rick Brettell died in 2020, he left behind plans for two institutions. The first was to be a Texas art museum, a project that sadly fell apart after his death. The second was for what he called an “Athenaeum”, a center for cultural scholarship that would be on the Richardson campus of the University of Texas at Dallas, where he was director of the Edith O’Donnell Institute for Art History. , another institution which he founded.

On May 11, the Athenaeum project was inaugurated, but in a form that departs so radically from Brettell’s original design that it is almost unrecognizable. Billed as a “new arts district” for North Dallas, the $158 million project will be anchored by a satellite house of the Crow Museum of Asian Art, and will also include a performance hall, a second museum building (for the Latin American art and American folk art) and a parking lot, all designed by Morphosis, the Los Angeles-based architects responsible for the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in downtown Dallas.

In our conversations about the project in the months before his death (we had become close in his later years, after he became the art critic of The news), Brettell often recounted how the project had gradually slipped away from him, taken over by university administrators with their own prerogatives. It’s entirely possible that he came to accept this different direction (which we’ll never know), but in virtually every way – location, scale, orientation, architectural character and its essential nature – the result doesn’t match to his vision.

Rendering of the Crow Museum of Asian Art project at UTD. The view is from the northwest. (Courtesy of Morphosis Architects)

“I’m just amazed at how far from his intentions this is,” says architect Gary “Corky” Cunningham, who helped Brettell visualize the project in its early days, and who might have been his closest friend. . “His intentions are untraceable.”

These intentions were both wildly ambitious and decidedly modest. The Athenaeum imagined by Brettell was to be a unique institution, although based on historical precedents. It would combine a library, art galleries, studios and performance halls, dining halls and a garden that would encourage chance encounters and the exchange of ideas between scholars, students and the general public. One of his main models was the Boston Athenaeum, founded in 1807 and housed in an original grand neoclassical building with separate floors devoted to a library, galleries for painting and sculpture, and other functions.

Brettell’s Athenaeum would take this stacked program and spread it out, assigning each function to a separate building arranged around a central garden. The buildings would be unobtrusive and open to each other, emphasizing human connection rather than the buildings themselves, and would be designed by separate architects, to model the dialogue that was the goal of the project. He had also chosen a location in the center of campus, in an open space near the school library. “He wanted it to be a shortcut through campus,” Cunningham says. “He wanted people to walk through the building to get to something else.”

Rendering of the Athenaeum planned at UTD, looking south.  The Crow Museum of Asian Art is...
Rendering of the Athenaeum planned at UTD, looking south. The Crow Museum of Asian Art is at the bottom right, with the parking lot on the left. (Courtesy of Morphosis Architects)

In Brettell’s absence, this location has moved from center to periphery, to a prominent space along the school’s entrance, where it will be poised as an eye-catching symbol of the school’s aspirations. ‘university.

The desire to create a centerpiece explains the choice of Morphosis as architect not of one but of all the buildings of the project. The company’s signature is an eye-catching building, resolutely focused on form, as evidenced by the Perot Museum, a smoothing box that turns its back on the arts district. It was selected from a group of five blue chip companies, the others being Allied Works, Foster + Partners, Ennead and David Adjaye. Of these, Brettell preferred Adjaye (notably the only one of the five not founded by a white man) and Foster. In its original design, all buildings would have been designed by Texan architects.

The project, to be built in phases, will begin with the 68,000 square foot, $58 million Crow Museum. It will undoubtedly be an eye-catcher, two stories of slender white precast concrete on V-shaped pillars (a Morphosis staple). It’s a statement construct, and the statement it makes is “look at me”. In the words of Morphosis partner Arne Emerson, the idea of ​​raising the building to two levels was explicitly intended to “make the building have a bigger impact”.

Visual theater was clearly one of the main goals of the university. “UT Dallas Athenaeum is part of the university’s vision of a thriving international city,” the school wrote in a statement. “The Athenaeum would open the UT Dallas campus to thousands of visitors each year from North Texas and around the world.”

The defining gesture of the design is a floating bar-like structure, glazed at its ends, which is supported on these pillars and extends across the front end of the building. This is the main gallery space, and it is connected to the main body of the building behind it by a pair of glazed walkways that float through a sky-lit, double-height atrium. (Dramatic circulation spaces, like these connectors and the protruding escalator at Le Perot, are another Morphosis signature.)

Rendering of the project lobby atrium of the Crow Museum of Asian Art at UTD.  (Courtesy...
Rendering of the project lobby atrium of the Crow Museum of Asian Art at UTD. (Courtesy of Morphosis Architects)

If that sounds too complicated, that’s because it is. I had to laugh when Emerson said to me, “We tried to be entirely rational while designing this.” But there’s not really a good reason to place window walls at the ends of gallery spaces: it just creates reflections and silhouettes, and is poor for viewing objects. There is also no reasonable explanation for a V-shaped window that cuts through the main body of the building on its north side. The streaks that would give some definition to the building’s concrete exterior were taken from Asian art but, in Emerson’s words, “very loosely”.

It’s form for form’s sake, and right now in 2022, when architecture has pivoted towards more contextual and eco-friendly restraint, the self-referential nature of the design feels dated and out of tune.

The essential core of an Athenaeum is a library, and here that function has been condensed into the Rick Brettell Reading Room, which is on the ground floor of the Crow Building, with a wall of glass facing north, toward the main campus. It’s, frankly, more of a glorified conference room than a library, with minimal shelving awkwardly and awkwardly interspersed for visual effect along one high wall. It’s a cold, stark box in white and gray that left me wondering why the architects didn’t choose wood as the building material. For those familiar with Brettell’s personal library – a warm, cozy room filled with books – it’s basically an affront.

The Brettell Reading Room at the Crow Museum of Asian Art proposed to UTD.  (Courtesy...
The Brettell Reading Room at the Crow Museum of Asian Art proposed to UTD. (Courtesy of Morphosis Architects)

“It’s flashy but not very user-friendly,” says Yve-Alain Bois, professor of art history at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study and another of Brettell’s closest friends. . “It’s not conducive to scholarship.”

What is most objectionable is the layout of the buildings in the master plan. The central garden that was to be the intellectual heart of the Athenaeum was replaced by a cobbled and landscaped plaza, with the museum and performance buildings located to one side, facing a $35 million parking lot with spaces for more than 1,000 cars.

The $65 million, 52,000 square foot performance space (Phase 2 of the project) will be located directly south of the Crow Museum. South of that would be the second museum, for Latin American and folk art, which would also be in the 50,000 square foot range, price yet to be determined. (This would be completed in a fourth phase, after the parking lot.)

The arrangement makes the place more of a north-south spine than a gathering place, and it gives primacy to the car. There is no reason why the three university buildings could not have been placed facing each other, with the garage being moved to a less prominent space at the southern end of the site.

That UTD’s plans don’t align with Brettell’s vision is disappointing, but if the school has different prerogatives, that’s surely within its rights. God knows I’ve had my own disagreements with Rick. And yet, even on its own terms, this version of the Athenaeum isn’t good enough.

“I just want this thing to happen,” says Caroline Brettell, his widow, a distinguished professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University.

I sympathize and share his desire to see Brettell’s legacy secured in brick and mortar (or concrete and glass).

But this is not the right way.

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