Nasher Sculpture Center –  Urban Oasis (2003)

You sense the birds. You hear the bubbling water. You can almost feel the dew still on the grass. And as you pass down each path, you inhabit the space of the sculpture. One by one you peer at them, around them, through them. Then they start to blend and morph as they interact with their neighbor. Up until the moment a small boy almost fell into the fountain, it was quite possibly the most peaceful break I have ever experienced in a bustling city. And even the fact that this kind of oasis could be in the middle of a city blows my mind a little bit.

Texas has its fair share of urban oasi (and yes I’m just going to treat that as a plural oasis- whether or not it is). We’ve seen them before. Remember, Johnson’s Fort Worth Water gardens? That one is an oasis of water and cement. This is an oasis of sculpture and trees.

Nowadays the city area around the Center is thriving, but it wasn’t always. When built in 2003, the twenty year old arts district only held the Dallas Museum of Art and Meyerson Symphony Hall. The grand scheme that is now becoming more realized with the addition of other museums, performance spaces and Klyde Warren Park was just a flight of fancy in someone’s head.

See that one in the back there? That’s the best one of all. Every way you look the head looks different.

By 2003, the Nasher collection held worldwide renown. Museums were vying for it and the Nashers were hunting for a permanent location for their extraordinary 20th century sculptures. Luckily for Dallas residents, the Nashers decided to stick close to home. They had lived in the area, raised their children, and made their millions there. They were loyal to the city. So loyal that Raymond Nasher decided to self-finance the 70 million dollar museum project. It’s hard to say whether this single building brought about the renaissance that is taking place in the district now, but it couldn’t of hurt.

It all started in the 1950s, when Raymond and Patsy Nasher decided to start collecting art. They bought whatever gave them butterflies. Raymond credits Patsy for the excellence of the collection, believing that she had the inherent genius to distinguish the extraordinary. And extraordinary it is. The collection numbers over 300 different pieces among which Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Joan Miro, Alberto Giacometti and Henry Moore are featured. The pieces feature rotate, even these huge ones out in the garden.

Works like these can be appreciated amongst nature.

But, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I’m not the world’s greatest appreciator of modern art. You can’t be shocked at this at this point, can you? Maybe you can.

Most of the time I find it hard to make a connection with modern art, sometimes it makes me just plain dizzy. But for some reason, this museum was different. I don’t know if it was the fact that the majority was sculpture, or because the bulk is outside. I’m not sure if it was the mix of trees interlaced with rough metal that created a beautiful contrast. I’m definitely convinced that the Kimbell references swayed me a little bit (did you miss that post? Check it out here).

Do you see it?


The building felt familiar. Or at least it did to me, despite that even heavy research couldn’t find mentions of it’s broad similarities to the Kimbell Museum. I got to believe that the famous Pritzker Prize winning architect Renzo Piano, who completed his own pavilion on the Kimbell site before artfully creating the Nasher museum saw the similarities I do. But maybe not. I couldn’t reach him for comment.

What about now?

And just for kicks, let’s list some of these similarities. The Nasher Museum is built on modules of barrel vaulted spaces (and really it’s that vault that makes it so strikingly similar). Parallel stone walls of Italian travertine (with that similar color) form five bays. They are both museums within an hour of each other.  But there are some differences too. Here, each end wall of glass opens up towards the outside. Each wall punctures the form as you can see from the exterior views, where the walls rise above the roof.  The three bays in the center form museum space, while the two furthest ones hold museum functions.

Oh shadows. You are your own kind of art.

Both museums use innovative sun-shading devices to manipulate light. Unlike the barrel vault of stone with the reflector at the Kimball, here the barrel vault is made of glass. An elaborate system of cast aluminum admits only Northern light into the space. This new method, although different in application, is very similar in theory. If you want to learn more about the sun shading device, check this link out.

But in it’s own way, the Nasher museum’s device is a more modern take of the Kimbell. Instead of relying on careful cuts and a trough bouncing sunshade, Piano opens up the entire ceiling of each bay and utilizes the cast metal to screen all of it. Both bring light into the museum space and create a certain quality of space with that light. Both men were working with similar problems, but advancements have just changed the form of the answer.

But more than all those similarities, the effect is the biggest thing the two have in common. They both create a perfect backdrop.

In many ways, this museum shines because of its simplicity. Five parallel bays made of simple barrel arches covered in the same pale stone fades to a quiet background. The form feels easy and overt. It doesn’t require puzzling or thinking, but shines in its honesty. What is left is brilliant modern works, most of them in steel and iron that wrap around and twist into their own figures.

A museum in nature.

Piano’s concept was a “museum without a roof.” Although this occurs obviously on the outside, it happens inside too. As you stare up at what could have been an actual ceiling but is instead just glass (supposedly a suggestion by one of Nasher’s daughters, so bravo to her), you also think of the lack of roof.

But that fading, happens with the walls too.  The end walls are glass and invite the indoors in. The interior walls fade in their simplicity. He is able to accomplish this through transparency and simplicity. Your eye is always being driven towards the outdoors. Driven to the rising sculptures of trees intermixed with huge works that defy common thoughts of gravity. So although Piano might have been working towards a museum without a roof, he, like the sculpture inside the building, works in the round.

Just leave me here please.

At first imagining, the garden was hilly and pocketed. Piano suggested the drawing of lines or the creating of allees that you see featured today. If anything, these path help reinforce the idea of the building. They guide but are not overt. They too are a backdrop.

The city noise and the frenetic rush of people and traffic is removed. The garden lazes behind some thick walls with some strategically placed fountains and windows. More than 90 trees are placed amidst 25 huge pieces of sculpture that rotate throughout the year. The word oasis was made for a space like this.

Unfortunately, in this case, it’s central location has caused problems too. An adjacent 42 story tower has been reflecting some serious glare into the museum’s windows since 2012, potentially damaging the art. Although a long dispute has continued to try to fix the problem, no solution was ever reached. This has required the museum to utilize extra shading devices at times, deeply damaging the concept of Piano’s whole idea. Although some hope that the tower will take measures to reduce the glare, that hasn’t seemed to occur yet.

This might be that glare issue. And that building you see there is the one causing it.

You might be wondering why this is even a problem. Doesn’t the sunshade block all the direct light? But the problem is in the direction.  The glare comes from the North. Loved because it is essentially always reflected, North light  doesn’t have the same intensity. Museums love it because it is also even and not as colored throughout the day.  The sunshade allowed this North light and now allows the glare. All kinds of suggestions were made from reflectance films on the windows to a free standing sun shade (which is nuts, look at this thing!). Let’s just keep our fingers crossed they come up with some solution.


Because the Nasher Museum is worth it.

Don’t you think? Don’t you kind of want an oasis like this to retreat to right now?

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