When art historian, museum director, critic, fundraiser and all-round cultural impresario Rick Brettell passed away in 2020, he left behind plans for two institutions. The first was a museum of Texas art, a project that sadly collapsed after his death. The second was for what he called an “Athenaeum,” a center of cultural science to be located on the Richardson campus of the University of Texas at Dallas, where he was director of the Edith O’Donnell Institute for Art History, a other institution he founded.
On May 11, the Athenaeum project was struck, albeit in a form so drastically different from Brettell’s original concept that it is almost unrecognizable. The $158 million project, billed as a “new arts district” for North Dallas, will be anchored by a satellite home of the Crow Museum of Asian Art, and will also include a performance hall, a second museum building (for Latin American art and American art). art). folk art) and a parking garage, all designed by Morphosis, the Los Angeles-based architects responsible for the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in downtown Dallas.
In our conversations about the project in the months before his death (we had become close in his last years, after he became the art critic of The news), Brettell often spoke of how the project had gradually slipped out of its grasp, taken over by university administrators with their own prerogatives. It is quite possible that he would have accepted this other direction (which we will never know), but in almost every way – location, scale, orientation, architectural character and its essential nature – the result does not correspond to his vision.
“I’m amazed at how far this is from his intentions,” says architect Gary “Corky” Cunningham, who helped Brettell visualize the project early on and may have been his best friend. “His intentions are nowhere to be seen.”
Those intentions were at once insanely ambitious and decidedly modest. Brettell’s imagined Athenaeum would be a unique setting, though based on historical precedents. It would combine a library, galleries for the arts, studio and performance spaces, dining options and a garden that would promote chance encounters and the exchange of ideas between scientists, students and the general public. One of his most important models was the Boston Athenaeum, founded in 1807 and housed in a grand, yet quirky neoclassical building with separate floors devoted to a library, painting and sculpture galleries, and other functions.
Brettell’s Athenaeum would take that stacked program and spread it out, assigning each function to a separate building arranged around a central garden. The buildings would be discrete and open to each other, emphasizing human connection rather than the buildings themselves, and would be designed by separate architects to model the dialogue that was the aim of the project. He had also chosen a location, in the middle of campus, in the open space near the school library. “He wanted it to be a shortcut through campus,” Cunningham says. “He wanted people to go through the building on their way to something else.”
Brettell’s absence has shifted that location, from the center to the periphery, to a prominent space along the school’s driveway, where it will be set up as a striking symbol of the university’s ambitions.
The impulse to create a showpiece explains the choice of Morphosis as the architect for not one but all the buildings of the project. The company’s signature is a striking, decidedly form-driven building, as evidenced by the Perot Museum, a cleaning box turning its back on the Arts District. It was selected from a group of five leading firms, the others being Allied Works, Foster + Partners, Ennead and David Adjaye. Of these, Brettell had preferred Adjaye (particularly the only one of the five not founded by a white man) and Foster. In its original concept, all buildings would have been designed by Texas architects.
The project, which will be built in phases, will begin with the $58 million 68,000-square-foot Crow Museum. It will no doubt be an attention grabber, two stories of swoopy white precast concrete jacked up on V-shaped piers (a Morphosis staple). This is building a statement, and the statement it makes is “look at me”. In the words of Morphosis partner Arne Emerson, the idea of raising the building to two levels was explicitly intended to “make the building more impactful.”
Visual drama was clearly one of the university’s main goals. “The UT Dallas Athenaeum fits the university’s vision of a thriving international city,” the school wrote in a statement. “The Athenaeum would open the UT Dallas campus to thousands of visitors each year from North Texas and around the world.”
The defining gesture of the design is a floating rod-shaped structure, glazed at the ends, propped up on those piers and stretching across the front of the building. This is the main gallery space and is connected to the main body of the building beyond by a pair of glass walkways that soar through a double-height, sky-lit atrium space. (Dramatic circulation spaces, like these connectors and the protruding escalator at the Perot, are another Morphosis feature.)
If this sounds too complicated, that’s because it is. I had to chuckle when Emerson told me, “We tried to be completely rational while designing this.” But there’s not really a good reason to put window walls at the ends of the gallery spaces: that only creates glare and silhouettes, and is bad for viewing objects. There is also no reasonable explanation for a V-shaped window that cuts down through the main body of the building on the north side. The stripes that would give some definition to the concrete exterior of the building were borrowed from Asian art but, in Emerson’s words, “very loosely.”
This is form for form’s sake, and right now in 2022, when architecture has morphed into a more contextually driven, environmentally conscious restraint, the self-referential nature of the design feels dated and fake.
The essential core of an Athenaeum is a library, and here that function is condensed into the Rick Brettell Reading Room, which is on the ground floor of the Crow building, with a glass wall facing north, towards the main campus. It’s honestly more of a glorified conference room than a library, with minimal shelves that alternate awkwardly and awkwardly for visual effect along a high wall. It’s a cold hard box in white and gray that made me wonder why the architects hadn’t chosen wood as a building material. For those familiar with Brettell’s personal home library—a warm, cozy room filled with books—it’s actually an insult.
“It’s flashy, but not very user-friendly,” says Yve-Alain Bois, a professor of art history at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, and another of Brettell’s closest friends. “It’s not conducive to science.”
The most objectionable is the placement of the buildings in the master plan. The central garden that would become the intellectual heart of the Athenaeum has been replaced by a paved, landscaped plaza, with the museum and performance buildings on one side, facing a $35 million parking garage with space for more than 1,000 cars.
The $65 million, 52,000-square-foot performance space (Phase 2 of the project) will be directly south of the Crow Museum. South of that would be the second museum, for Latin American art and folk art, which would also be in the 50,000 square foot range, a price to be determined. (This would be realized in a fourth phase, after the parking garage.)
The arrangement makes the square more of a north-south backbone than a meeting place, and it gives primacy to the car. There is no reason why the three academic buildings could not be placed opposite each other, with the garage shifted to a less prominent space on the south side of the site.
That UTD’s plans don’t align with Brettell’s vision is disappointing, but if the school has other prerogatives, it’s certainly within its rights. God knows I’ve had my own disagreements with Rick. And yet, even on its own terms, this version of the Atheneum is not good enough.
“I just want this to be realized,” said Caroline Brettell, his widow, a distinguished professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University.
I sympathize, and I share her desire to secure Brettell’s legacy in brick and mortar (or concrete and glass).
But this is not the way.