Herculean Perot

The enormous Perot Museum in Dallas, Texas, US, is a stunning new destination. Sue Holaday finds out the thinking behind it, and how the foodservice offer plays its part

When a museum building becomes one of the exhibits in its own right, you know you’re in uncharted territory. And that is precisely the case with Dallas’s new Perot Museum of Nature and Science.

Described as “a living science lesson” and “museum as sculpture,” the $185m project tells its own story. The mechanics of the building were left transparent, a 54ft continuous flow escalator in a 150ft glass-enclosed tube-like structure sits on the outside of the building. It’s designed to stimulate curiosity.

The Café, located on the ground level in the plinth to the right of the main entrance, has a dual mission – to feed the stomachs and minds of its visitors. Like the museum in which it is housed, it is green, focusing on local Texas ingredients and sustainable practices.

Designed by 2005 Prizker Architecture Prize Laureate Thom Mayne of Morphosis Architects, the building was conceived as a large cube floating over a landscaped plinth. It registered and worked on three green building accreditations – LEED Gold, Green Globe and The Sustainable Sites Initiative.

Foodservice consultants Manask & Associates from Burbank, California, brought 20 years’ experience of work with cultural institutions on 
their earned income areas to the task.

“The museum called us four years ago,” says founder and CEO Arthur M Manask FCSI. “They were looking to move from a downtown location in an older building and wanted help programming and planning the café and catering support, facility rentals for corporate and social events, and the gift shop. We became part of the project team and our role was acting as the operator. We were all operators first, so were able to act that role until the actual operators came on board. We were on the project team the first two or three years and then managed the RFP [request for proposal] process to help the museum select an operator for foodservice and the gift shop.

“We looked at local and national operators and signed contracts (with Wolfgang Puck and Restaurant Associates) nine months before the museum opening. They provided the final OK on the space and Manask offered on-call support for the pre-opening and post-opening.” The challenge, he says, was the way cultural nonprofits operate. “They move very slowly. We had to be incredibly good in managing the schedule because they relied on us to do that.”

Perot Cafe
The cafe is simple and elegant

The self-service café is relatively small, a factor mitigated by its location adjacent to an outdoor patio. The kitchen is small and supports only the café, with catering supported from an outside venue.
Museum directors and CEOs have moved from viewing foodservice outlets as a basic, often mundane necessity to a rewarding part of the total guest experience, says Manask. The café’s designer, Rod Worrell, principal-in-charge of Worrell Design in Houston, Texas, views it as a “boutique operation in a somewhat confined space”. In what he sees as a unique twist, the firm was brought in before an operator was chosen to run the café.

“We invented what we felt would be good for that space and size for the customers – a walk-up service counter for limited staffing, an open kitchen concept. It became the basis for Art Manask to use in the RFP,” says Worrell. “When Wolfgang Puck was selected to operate it, they chose a different configuration of equipment in the same footprint.”

Cashier stations were moved out to the open servery and it was decided that foods would be prepped on a wall alongside the back of the servery wall, so customers could see the preparation.

“The biggest challenge was to successfully articulate a foodservice concept in a uniquely-shaped, awkward space,” says Worrell. “We achieved an elegantly clean café environment with a very neutral finish. The food is well lit and becomes the element of colour in the room.” All the serviceware in the café is disposable. “The food took the presence – it’s colourful. Customers, as they enter, see the panorama of the whole area. It’s very sensory.”

The museum, in Dallas’s Victory Park, is designed to evoke curiosity and wonder in its visitors, creating an experience that immerses them in the exhibits, the architecture and the city itself.
“The visitor becomes part of the architecture, as the eastern facing corner of the building opens up towards downtown Dallas to reveal the activity within,” according to Morphosis. “The museum is a fundamentally public building – a building that opens up, belongs to and activates the city. The public is as integral to the museum as the museum is to the city.”

Aleksander (Zander) Tamm-Seitz, onsite project architect, calls the building “unique. It’s three separate institutions coming together to create a natural history museum, children’s component and a science centre. We were always interested in having the building and what it’s about ingrained in the project.”

The 4.7-acre site was developed around the native ecologies of the state, from the East Texas forests to the West Texas rocks, grasses and cactus. Tamm-Seitz says “The skin of the building is an abstract of geological stratification. These things connect the building and its programme and become a way you view the exhibits. The public spaces are connected to the city and the plants outside. In the galleries, there are no windows – it’s a different environment. The whole project is the idea of the building as an exhibit. We’re interested in the layering of information and transparency. The structure inside is not covered up. The floors are concrete, the ceilings are open or partially open so you can see what’s above them. The exhaust sprinklers and air ducts are painted in colours.” The public galleries are designed to have lots of light, so there are skylights, large and small. At the top, visitors get a 180˚ view of downtown.

On the roof, he points out, are solar hot water collectors that generate hot water for the café. Water on the rooftop falls off one side and goes through pipes – again visible to visitors – into a large cistern for use in irrigation and toilet flushing uses. “This cuts the use of city water and, most of the year, we can just use the water collected this way.”

Buro-Happold’s Culver City, California, office, the mechanical, electrical, plumbing engineer on the project, was eager to take advantage of the city’s high humidity in the summer, says Sam Kashanian, PE, associate principal.

“Rainwater on the roof,“ he says, “comes down, drains and is diverted to two cisterns. Condensation from air conditioning in the summer cools down, becomes almost clean drinking water, and is diverted to cisterns. Some water used for toilet flushing is pumped into the building and dyed blue so people won’t drink it. Some is used for irrigation. There’s a cooling tower on the roof and cooling of the building is done partially using recycled water. Potable water is filtered twice to meet Dallas standards.”

The project, says Kashanian, presented “tons of challenges”. One was learning local requirements for recycled water. Two cisterns were designed for the space and there were challenges in making equipment fit the spaces for them. Throughout the project, “we kept the end user in mind,” he points out. “You don’t often have a project where the owner understands that the story was important to tell and forks over the money to accomplish that. We meter everything and know how much water we are using and saving. The water,” he says, “was part of the architecture.”

Sue Holaday