News and Features

The Perot Museum’s Stairway to Heaven – Or At Least to the Dinosaur Exhibit


The Perot Museum of Nature and Science opens in two and a half weeks. But it’s already sparked talk because of its unusual exterior. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports on what may be the museum’s most striking feature.

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People have been eager to get inside and see the high-tech attractions the Perot Museum has been touting for months. Like the huge, fighting dinosaur fossils or the earthquake simulator. Or the exhibit that lets you race against a cheetah. Or a T-Rex.

But even after the Museum opens December 1st, there’s one thing on the outside of the building we’ve already seen for more than a year that may continue to puzzle: the forty-foot-long¬escalator jutting out of the side of the museum like a giant glass shard.

“What the hell’s going on with that escalator? Why is it outside? And why is it glass?”

That’s Thom Mayne, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect who designed the Perot. Mayne and his firm, Morphosis, are known for their unconventional, even radically destabilized-looking structures. Like the Perot and its distinctive escalator, Mayne’s projects can look like they’re sliding apart. Or like they’re incomplete.

Mayne: “I’m interested in the incomplete. Literally everything we inhabit is ephemeral. And they’re in the process of developing, they’re emerging. They’re evolutionary.”

An apt way of thinking for a museum of nature and science. The Perot’s escalator marks the building as unique, the way the red glass marks the Winspear Opera House.

But it’s not just an eye-catching gimmick. The escalator is akin to a key to the Perot, in the way it opens up the building. It’s part-people mover, part-(mild) carnival ride, part-architectural lesson.

It’s actually the third and last escalator visitors take to get to the top of what’s essentially a  14-story-tall building. On our trip up to the exhibition hall with the dinosaurs in it, we get a tremendous view of Dallas. The escalator faces a crowded, elevated freeway right smack across the street. Many architects would hate the location. Mayne is delighted. He wants to underscore the museum’s big-city, downtown site, not disguise it.

“The orientation of the building was actually crucial,” he says. “We turned it toward the cultural district – to get the proper view of the immediate density. So we’re looking right into the city.”

But also on our trip up, we get views inside the Perot. The museum is full of jagged angles, unexpected turns and what might be called scenic overlooks. Jennifer Houston Scripps has been the Perot’s director of strategic initiatives.

“This building is full of surprises,” she says as we glide upstairs. “There’s sneak peeks as you ride the escalator. Um, you’re looking at the second floor, and that’s our Discovering Life Hall.”

The escalator is attached to the museum’s atrium and its main stairwell. All of them are gathered along one edge of the cube, the edge that’s split open around the escalator. When it comes to lighting in the rest of the building, the exhibition halls are mostly windowless and artfully lit. But here, the atrium and the escalator are like tunnels of daylight pouring into the Perot.

In fact, says Scripps, “One of the most consistent surprises we get, when people come in for the first time is ‘So much daylight!’ because from the highway the building does look like an impenetrable concrete fortress.”

(Yes, that’s Museum Tower shining over there)

Still, all that Texas sunlight and that glass-enclosed escalator can make one think of an ant farm – with the ants getting cooked in the sun. Scripps says they’ve prepared for the heat — with mechanical engineers running tests and solar studies. As a result, we’ve “added a great deal of cooling and heating in this glass box to make sure that we’re comfortable year-round.”

In designing the Perot, two of Mayne’s goals were 1) making the architecture itself an engaging, teachable exhibition and 2) mapping our path through the building like a voyage of discovery. We look outside and there are Texas prairie grasses covering the plaza roof. We can watch the rainwater being recycled or ride the elevator and see through its glass walls how the cables and winches work. We take the escalator to the top — essentially, we take a trip outside the building and back in — and once we get to the top, we can look back through the building, all the way down to the basement and all the way up to the giant skylight on the roof. It’s a dazzling moment, one not lost on Mayne’s sense of the playful and dramatic.

Regardless of what the individual science exhibitions themselves may feature, Mayne say, “Kids’re gonna love it” — meaning the whole unconventional, surprising look and layout of the Perot, the intersecting pathways, the odd-angled glimpses through windows. “Six to eighteen — I’m gonna get good marks, because they’re still open just to possibilities and don’t care if a building looks like a Victorian building or if it looks like a fake Spanish building or a fake anything.

“Kids make great clients.”

Photo of the Perot’s plaza and escalator, top, by Mark Knight Photography