The Texas A&M AgriLife Center in North Dallas projects the school’s mission by putting science on display.
Architect Flad Architects
Architect of Record VAI Architects
General Contractor SEDALCO Construction Services
Structural Engineer JQ Engineering
Civil Engineer Pacheco Koch
Landscape Architect Coleman & Associates
MEP Engineer WSP USA
AV/Data/Security Datacom Design Group
The point where northern Dallas County meets its suburban edge, once an agricultural landscape, is now a sea of buildings, each striving for importance. Through lack of context, each built form endeavors to draw attention to and distinguish itself to those who pass by, whether to convey an image or make an impact visually. Flyover roofs, enhanced corner facade treatments, even a storage facility whose entry is in the form of a cardboard box — this collection of architectural statements, seen holistically, attempts to, and in some cases manages to, create a new context. However, as urbanization continues to push further north, the opportunity to link communities meaningfully through public and pedestrian interaction has yet to manifest fully, though catalyst projects are aiming to change that.
Amid this collection of show architecture is the new Texas A&M AgriLife Center, designed by Flad Architects, which seeks to project its specialness through its assemblage of distinct parts. The result is an honest, though somewhat jumbled, architectural statement. The concept behind the design — “Science in Sight” — explains how the architects came to this solution. The building is a machine that showcases how it works through as close to an architectural X-ray of the facade as you can possibly achieve with this type of program. Thankfully, the building pushes the traditional Texas A&M aesthetic outside of its beige-brick comfort zone.
This adventurousness can be explained by the uniqueness of the AgriLife Center’s program in the university’s vast agricultural domain. “The AgriLife Dallas program is very advanced, with a focus on urban agriculture,” says Flad Architects Principal Chuck Mummert. “They were spread across multiple buildings on their Dallas campus, none of which were suited for state-of-the-art research. They were also using unconditioned greenhouses, which hampered their ability to do research in under-glass growing environments. AgriLife does collaborative research with industry partners, and their original facilities were not conducive to hosting their partners. One goal was to provide research and collaborative space that is commensurate with corporate ag science.”
The AgriLife Center forms one edge of the small campus, which is roughly one-third built out with the lab itself. It includes an adjacent water and land resources building and conference spaces. The remaining two-thirds is a small vestige of agricultural land that supports the Center’s focus on urban agriculture and forestry, water and land resources management, and healthy living. Together, the 58,000-sf project is touted as the first center of its kind in a major metropolitan area.
The main architectural move lies in the curve of the plan, which traces the path of the sun. The form controls daylight exposure on large expanses of glazing that provide a clear view of the program within. The building’s concave side faces south, where demonstration gardens form a welcoming public entry. In elevation, the massing rises to a crescendo at its western end, which faces the campus entry, where a perched, triple-gable greenhouse sits atop a corrugated metal water cistern encased in striated glass. “A big goal of AgriLife was to amplify and broadcast their message to the community about their mission and focus on urban agricultural issues,” says Mummert. “Lots of transparency is a key part of the design. The building is fairly narrow, so there are views into and through the floor plate. Visitors to campus, and even those driving by, have views into scientific spaces.” At the eastern end, above the main entry on the second floor, is a large social space that overlooks the heart of the campus — currently a landscaped parking lot — and the agricultural land beyond.
The project brief states that a “Millennial perspective helped to inform the model of collaboration, focused on cross-disciplinary training.” The interior is open, energetic, and flexible, with often little distinction between circulation and lab. The shallow depth affords every space ample access to daylight and views. The biophilic color palette, paired with regionally derived environmental graphics, charges the space with a sense of purpose and energy. Transparency throughout the interior links the layers of activity together and affords a clear view for tours that come through the space.
The most heroic element, of course, is the greenhouse, where urban agricultural research feels connected to the city by way of its expansive views. It is a striking visual statement; however, the greenhouse is indicative in many ways of how the architecture falls short of the concept of “Science in Sight.” Parts of the design indicate an architecture with true purpose, full of educational and work spaces that are connected and compelling, but overall, the AgriLife complex creates more divisions than connections. As you experience the building, you want its connection to the outside to be just as intentional and seamless as the flow of spaces in the interior. Yes, there are demonstration gardens outside and opportunities to tour the space, but the architecture paints a picture that is too much about display. Missing the chance for further connection to its context, it falls short of being a truly meaningful catalyst project.
Michael Friebele, Assoc. AIA, is an associate at CallisonRTKL in Dallas.