Athenaeum: via Latin from the Greek Athenaion, denoting the temple of the goddess Athene in ancient Athens, which was used for teaching.
On May 11, 2022, The University of Texas at Dallas broke ground on the Edith and Peter O’Donnell Jr. Athenaeum, a new cultural arts district located on approximately 12 acres at the southeastern edge of the campus, which will comprise three buildings dedicated to the arts, a 1,100-car parking garage, and a two-acre plaza. The new Crow Museum of Asian Art will serve as the cornerstone of the project, anchoring the northwest corner and greeting students, faculty, and visitors when they first arrive at UTD.
The term “athenaeum” was first used during early conversations about the vision of the project, by Rick Brettell, the former director of the Dallas Museum of Art and the first director of UTD’s O’Donnell Institute of Art History. That the term has become permanently attached to the project’s official name is evidence of UTD’s campus evolution over the last decade and emblematic of its high aspirations going into the future.
The Crow Museum is the first of the athenaeum’s buildings to be constructed. The district will also include a performing arts center and a museum for traditional arts of the Americas. When completed, the Crow Museum will be yet another piece of the larger campus puzzle now underway. The fact that the Crow collection of Asian art is well regarded among the public and art connoisseurs alike plays well into UTD’s goal of expanding beyond its original STEM core while seeking recognition as a well-rounded institution.
Established in the 1960s as a commuter school by Texas Instruments founders, UTD is on a growth path with plans for recognition as one of the country’s premier institutions. With four Nobel Prize winners associated with the university, UTD has been investing in its campus with a crop of new buildings that reflects its forward-thinking mindset. The transformation of the UTD physical campus started with Peter Walker’s 2013 master plan, which effectively put into play the idea of a campus organized around a network of pedestrian paths rather than the former system of independent buildings supported by parking lots. Since the master plan’s inception, thousands of new trees have been planted, walkways have been created or improved, and shade — in the form of trees, canopies, trellises, or loggias — has been a common theme throughout. This is Texas, after all — the summer sun can be brutal, but if one is in the shade, the heat is still manageable.
The planning of the new Crow Museum is born of this very particular social and physical context. For starters, the athenaeum needed to recognize and respond to the vehicular and pedestrian duality of the UTD campus. It will be located just south of the Naveen Jindal School of Management, and its western facade will be seen primarily from University Parkway, the formal and main vehicular access road into campus. The western side is defined by daring folding planes and cutaways. However, things change as we move to the eastern side at the plaza: Here, everything is about pedestrian access, pedestrian scale, connections to the campus, shade, and porosity. The grain of the composition comes down in scale, moving from bold to intricate, making the building inviting to pedestrians.
A common theme to all three planned cultural buildings is a second floor that is larger than the ground floor, which creates a series of exterior covered areas flanking the linear plaza to the east. It’s a clever move, as the generous loggia provides much-welcomed shade and can be used for events, gatherings, performances, and study areas. The loggia mediates between the buildings and plaza, extending the footprints of both and blurring the indoors and outdoors.
The promise of the athenaeum’s master plan is that its grand linear plaza will be a continuation of the main campus’s central spine, bringing energy and vitality in the form of students strolling up and down, hanging out, and meeting each other in unscripted ways. However, the spine works because it is activated by buildings that open onto it from both sides, stitching them together. With a parking garage establishing its eastern edge, the athenaeum’s plaza has only one side that is truly active, so it remains to be seen how well the space will work on regular days, absent of programmed performances or events.
Still, the plan for the Crow Museum has all the seeds of a great building. Conspicuous in image by design, its program is nonetheless skillfully organized across two floors where every space has a practical purpose. The building envelope is made primarily of glass and light-colored architectural precast panels with a logical and repetitive (but seemingly random) pattern, a strategy that Morphosis has been refining over different projects in the last few years. It works well, as precast panels can be cost-effective, require virtually no maintenance, and can be assembled quickly.
Ironically, and probably unintentionally, the precast panels also reference the material of choice for some of the earlier buildings on the UTD campus dating back to the 1970s and ’80s, when concrete was prevalent. History hasn’t been kind to some of the buildings of that era, as they can be perceived now as cold and impersonal, but precast concrete today is not what it used to be decades ago. Arne Emerson, Morphosis’ design partner on the Crow, works with suppliers and invites input from subcontractors during the design phase. From a constructability standpoint, says Emerson, the firm embraces the production process, and they quickly understand what works and what doesn’t. “By embracing our construction and fabrication partners early in the design process, we’re able to receive real-time feedback on constructability and cost, which optimizes the design and construction process,” he says. And Morphosis is better off for understanding both the potential and the limitations of the production process rather than fighting it. In fact, Morphosis prides itself in extracting the unexpected from typical materials like metal meshes, curtain walls, and, yes, precast panels by incorporating research and development, testing prototypes, and building mock-ups during the design phase: “That’s where we excel,” says Emerson. “We’re constantly testing the design and constructability of materials with our in-house shop and equipment.”
Indeed, the deft use of precast coupled with efficient planning is on full display in the lobby of the Crow. Small in footprint, the space is still dramatic, with exterior skin becoming interior cladding and rising up to the second floor. Light from a glass roof highlights the positive/negative filigree on the cladding, casting morning and afternoon shadows as the sun makes its way across the sky.
Differences of scale aside, the design of the Crow lobby resembles Morphosis’ conceptual approach in one of the firm’s most celebrated buildings, Cooper Union’s 41 Cooper Square in New York City. There, too, a lobby with a small footprint becomes memorable as its double-height ceiling and swooping grand stair leads the eye to the upper floors. “Some people look at our buildings and say that they are ‘performance’ pieces,” explains Emerson. “But the reality is that our plans are quite logical and efficient.” Another tried-and-true element from the Cooper Union building that makes an appearance at the Crow is the “V” columns on the periphery of the building that reach from the ground to the second floor, adding a sense of movement, drama, and visual interest reminiscent of Oscar Niemeyer’s expressive structural solutions of the 1950s and ’60s.
On the second floor, the Crow offers art curators and visitors two fundamentally different spaces to display and view art. The first, along its north side, is a small-scale, semi-traditional gallery with controlled and diffuse light. Not quite an enfilade model, it is sensitive to light and features self-contained rooms that flow into each other. The second, much grander space, takes the full length of the building’s eastern bar, which floats above the plaza below. This gallery is intended for larger objects that are better seen in natural light but also has the flexibility to be fully blacked out. Floor-to-ceiling windows at its north and south ends not only bring in light but also open the space to passersby below, suggesting transparency in support of teaching and learning.
All eyes are on the Crow Museum, with several early construction packages already released to contractors even though the design team is still at work on the final construction documents. There is a lot at stake for the Crow — and for UTD — with this latest addition to the campus. The Crow’s role is not only to house and display art, but also to send a clear sign that UTD continues to evolve beyond its original footprint and its original charter. No longer a commuter school, UTD aims high and invests in the infrastructure that supports its vision. Ultimately, UTD is on mission to change its image, and the Crow plays a key role in that story. The Crow is well on its way to taking center stage.
Eurico R. Francisco, AIA, is a contributing editor of Texas Architect and a principal with CRTKL in Dallas.