Renzo Piano’s Nasher Sculpture Center gets a rude new neighbor

The Nasher Sculpture Center designed by Renzo Piano

What’s innovative about the Nasher Sculpture Center and Gardens is the roof. The innovation stems from a common problem that architects confront when designing art galleries: how to best combine natural and artificial lighting. Renzo Piano’s solution at the Nasher was to come up with a roof made of thousands of small, north-facing oculi that have filtered soft daylight into the galleries since the museum opened in 2003. The tiny cones were engineered by Arup, a giant and well-respected engineering firm. The roof has worked for almost a decade, but now the Nasher has a new neighbor messing things up.

reflected light through the roof of the Nasher Sculpture Center designed by Renzo Piano

The tall, gleaning tower was designed by Johnson Fain, an LA-based firm that describes the project on their website saying that it “is surrounded by distinguished architecture and exterior public space.” The tower the firm designed just so happens to be scorching the distinguished architecture and exterior public space around it with the sunlight reflected off of its convex glazing. And not an insignificant amount, enough to dammage paintings and kill vegetation. So instead of even and soft daylight filtering through the roof of the Nasher, the museum is being bombarded by focused and damaging sunlight through those thousands of north-facing occuli. When the museum first realized that the tower was going to cause this problem, the two sides sat down in a series of civil meetings to address what might be done. These meetings devolved into tense presentations of conflicting sunlight studies, lawyers showed up, relatives of Ray Nasher showed up, and finally the developers rejected responsibility for the sunlight bouncing off of their building, suggesting that something is wrong with the Nasher roof.

The difficulty for Nasher is that the developers are doing nothing illegal. It’s absolutely rude and dumb, but it’s also legal. It’s dumb because the tower is sabotaging itself. By refusing to do anything about a huge, glaring problem the tower has created, developers are creating discord their new neighbors, the same neighbors that the tower’s developers are touting to sell their fancy condos and the same neighbors that give the tower its name: Museum Tower.

So what should the Nasher do? I think it’s time for the respected museum to stoop to the level of the developers scorching their institution and commission a new sculpture for their garden– a large parabolic mirror that focuses sunlight into Museum Tower. When developers complain, the museum could suggest that there’s something wrong with the tower’s exterior curtain wall and ask “What are you gonna do about it?”

You can read a much longer article about Museum Tower, it’s surprising financiers and the ongoing controversy  here. One tid-bit the article doesn’t mention is that the Nasher has already closed a James Turrell Skyspace because of views interrupted by the tower.

April 25, 2012 / By