Museum Tower Architect Responds to Mark Lamster’s Review of His Building

Earlier this month, the Morning News’ architecture critic, Mark Lamster, said some less than flattering things about Museum Tower. (“It’s hard to imagine a less-urban urban building. Pushed back from the street grid, Museum Tower stands at a remove behind stone walls, generic landscaping and a barren, circular driveway. Think of it as an outpost of the suburban bubble dropped into the heart of the city, where it does not belong.”) The design architect for Museum Tower, Scott Johnson, wrote a letter to Lamster in response. Johnson’s PR firm sent the letter to me, too. So I’m sharing it with you.

For now, I offer it with only two bits of commentary. 1) Johnson (or his PR firm) uses a double space after each period. This drives me insane. And 2) he says, “In the almost two years of public conversation on this topic, very few writers who have commented publicly have asked me, firsthand, to speak to the very important issue of the effects of Museum Tower’s glass skin and its interaction with the Nasher Sculpture Center.” I’m not sure what asking someone “firsthand” means. But when I wrote our cover story about the Museum Tower glare, I tried to talk to Johnson. If memory serves, I emailed him and left him a voicemail.

Anyway, here’s what Johnson has to say for himself:

I would like to add information to the discussions regarding Museum Tower which have been widespread and impassioned.  I am the design architect.  In the almost two years of public conversation on this topic, very few writers who have commented publicly have asked me, firsthand,  to speak to the very important issue of the effects of Museum Tower’s glass skin and its interaction with the Nasher Sculpture Center.   I have found this surprising since so much has been said and written without inquiring of the building designer.  While, on the one hand, I don’t relish entering a conversation in which sides have long been drawn, a dominant narrative seems fixed, facts are frequently misstated and public relations blunders have clouded genuine conversation, on the other hand, I have a high regard for the importance of architectural criticism in the mainstream media.  I consider it a vital contribution to civic life as I do this fervent, if difficult, conversation among Dallasites.

As has been reported, I share the view that the Nasher is an exceptional and exquisitely detailed building.  It is both a one-of-a-kind work of architecture as well as a meditation on another great one, the Kimbell, with its long bays, arcuated ceiling plane and calculated top-down lighting.  It would be a gift to any city.  Dallas is the fortunate recipient.   I was familiar with the sculpture center and had visited it a number of times before I began designing Museum Tower.   I had observed, with the Center’s staff, the clerestory ceiling as well as the fabric screen system below the clerestories which, I was given to understand, could modulate or filter light.  Having visited many of Renzo Piano’s other museums, I was familiar with his many methods of filtering natural light or re-reflecting it as it enters the galleries.  These techniques can be seen in buildings such as  the Menil Collection, the Cy Twombly Pavilion, the Beyeler Foundation and the Art Institute in Chicago, to name only a few.   In the case of the Nasher, the clerestories as designed, aimed and unprotected in the direction of a future building, had to rely on its screen system to protect it from either visibility of a nearby building or any incoming light effects.

As we began the design of Museum Tower, we asked our client for all the relevant materials which might inform or constrain our studies.  This is our normal method and it is written into our contracts.  We were made aware of a master plan for the Arts District done many years earlier, well before the design and construction of the Nasher, which located a tall building on our site not-to-exceed 50 stories.  We saw no evidence that there were any constraints with regard to materials or reflectivity.  Having worked in Texas over many years, this seemed normal to us.  What also seemed normal to us was the choice in a tall residential building of high performance glass with a reflective coating.  Dallas has many examples as does every major city in America.  If you have walked around Manhattan’s Ground Zero Memorial during mid-day to the south of the new Freedom Tower, you have found yourself, on a sunny day, in the reflection of this very tall building.  From the published renderings, it appears that all the other towers there will also use glass with reflective coatings.  Whatever its future may be, coated glass is and has been an omnipresent material on skylines worldwide.  With the continuing focus on minimizing energy consumption in buildings, this material will, in my view, remain popular unless regulations are put in place to moderate it.

What has been unknown to me, because, of course, Johnson Fain came to this commission after the Nasher was designed and built, is what Ray Nasher and Renzo Piano had in mind with regard to the property of my clients.  Every architect working with glass, and Piano has a prodigious legacy in this, knows that even clear vision glass carries a reflectivity of between eight and twelve per cent at a minimum (the percentage of incoming light which is reflected to the exterior).  Also, that reflectivity increases with the height of the sun in the sky and the greater angle of incidence of the incoming rays.  With regard to reflectivity, there is no glass which does not have some degree of it.  All architects working with glass know this.  In fact, in a mediation between representatives of Museum Tower and the Nasher, the executive architect of the Nasher, who, prior to our involvement, had proposed his own tower with glass for our site, stated that, in addition to the coated glass at Museum Tower which reflected into the Nasher clerestories, the clear glass guardrails at the terraces of our building were also reflecting into the Center.  He was right because, again, every glass reflects light to some degree.

Now, while a redesign of the tower’s glass would not be simple and would create a range of collateral effects (these have been studied in detail), it might, in theory, be done, however, representatives of the Nasher were outspoken that their charge to Museum Tower was to ELIMINATE ALL REFLECTION AND DO IT ALL ON MUSEUM TOWER.  The Nasher, they said, was not to be touched.  Frankly, while I appreciated their ardent defense of a great building, it was clear to me, as it is to other architects, that if there is to be any glass in our as-of-right, code-conforming, LEED Gold tower, there will be reflectivity.

So, knowing this, what plans did Ray Nasher and Renzo Piano have for our site?  The properties of glass are widely known.  I have been told that Mr. Nasher asked at one point for an appraisal on the Museum Tower property; did he intend to buy it and convert it to some other use?  I have seen press reports that, at the Nasher dedication, Renzo Piano declared that our site should become a public park; did he realize that any building to the north of the Nasher with glass in it, would be in the sights of his unprotected clerestories?  Well, we were not working on our project then and perhaps we will never know but, looking back at the chronology of events, it is certain that the early design decisions at the Nasher would ultimately complicate its compatibility with any later tower with any glass.

Looking to the future, and with a sense of profound sadness for any diminution in the Nasher’s ability to function in its intended fashion, I believe that these events plus those stemming from Las Vegas’ Vidara Hotel and London’s new “Walkie Talkie” tower, as examples, call for a broad public and technical review of the suitability of reflective coatings on glass and/or restrictions on land-use adjacencies.  There is no question that this material has been a norm and its use is accelerating in the face of energy concerns.  In the future, following an informed discussion, regulations and zoning ordinances may need to be put in place to attempt to get all urban stakeholders on the same side of this issue.  In the meantime, the Dallas Police & Fire Pension Fund, after exhaustive technical studies, has recommended recalibrating the clerestory cells in the ceiling without touching any other elements of the Nasher’s architecture.  It is my understanding that the fund will turn its engineering research over to the Nasher design team to vet, design and install the recalibration, and will pay for it.  The Nasher, I understand, has declined this solution; however, the original charge to ELIMINATE ALL REFLECTION AND DO IT ON MUSEUM TOWER, given what we know, seems frankly unachievable.  I remain hopeful that new participants in the process will look beyond entrenched positions and a consensual and effective solution will be agreed upon.

With regard to your estimation, as an architectural critic, of banality on the part of the building base and wall, and your suggestion that the top of the building is, in some way, smart, I will defer to history to define the aesthetics which will define the building.  Your urban design comments on the ways in which tall buildings, actually any buildings, can more productively support the street and enhance connectivity are excellent and timely.  As I’m sure you know, when we, as architects, work in other cities, those cultural patterns, ground level retail markets, densities and, in many cases, municipal regulations, help us to achieve this.  I look forward to the day when Dallas embraces those tendencies.  In your article, however, it was not made clear that our property is surrounded on two sides by a freeway offramp and, on the third side, by the Nasher’s “own ramparts” as you call them.  It was our intent to simply connect the fabulous Klyde Warren Park on the remaining fourth side with our entry, community room and more modest garden.

I agree wholeheartedly with your suggestion that a criticism of insularity should not be directed only at tall buildings.   While the Dallas Arts District is a unique collective amenity, like our own cultural district in downtown Los Angeles, it has been occasionally criticized by journalists and architectural critics as a street of big box culture largely shut off from the grain and life of that street.  In consideration of this, the city might undertake a concerted study to further develop Flora Street as a more pedestrian-friendly corridor with service, retail and more arts programming as public infill between the major buildings to support your vision.

Dallas is a beautiful city and I hope that a resolution for this difficult issue between Museum Tower and the Nasher can be found soon.