Coy Talley on the Landscape Architecture of the Perot Museum

Can you talk a little bit about Talley’s collaboration with Morphosis?

Talley Associates was one of twelve firms across the country invited to submit their qualifications. After a short list and interview process, we were selected by the design team and museum.

In the early months of the project, we travelled to Santa Monica about 10 or 12 times to establish a dialogue with Thom and the rest of the Morphosis team. Initial visits included introductions and general conversations about Texas: its people, climate, and cities, as well as the character of the state and its landscape quality. We would draw diagrammatically and somewhat collectively.

After a few visits, we drilled down to the idea of Texas ecology. The building had grown out of the idea of Texas ecology, and that became our bonding point. Our thoughts assisted in the development of an expressive vocabulary and language, and Thom related best to these conversations.

It was easy to work with Morphosis. We started with the same language of integrated building and landscape  —  it wasn’t about the building or the landscape but rather the expression of the whole design. 

Where did your inspiration for the “cross section of Texas landscapes” come from?

The “cross section of Texas landscapes” idea came from an understanding of what the museum is  —  a science museum, a nature museum, and a children’s museum well as what its mission is, and how we could teach ideas of Texas ecology in simplified terms.

Our goal was to reinforce the project’s spirit of learning about the natural world through the design of the planting and hardscape by making a visible, sustainable representation of the plant life and minerals found in ecological regions across the state.

The result is an abstract expression of the conditions found within a cross section of Texas. This urban site represents the following five major Texas ecologies: West Texas Rock Cap, Upper Grassland, Blackland Prairie Grassland, East Texas Forest, and Wetland.

How does the landscape integrate with the museum on a program level? Is it an “exhibit”?

Yes. From the very beginning, the idea was to develop a building that was explicitly about a new architectural prototype, one that is part landscape, part building. It developed into a dialogue between the lower part of the building  —  the landscape portion of the cube, which is Cartesian — and this new idea of an augmented landscape that expressed the various sections of Texas ecology, from the depths of a cave, to the rock strata, to the surface. The program is an expression of nature in an abstract manner and fosters a learning process and more definitive dialogue.

Additionally, the entire site and exterior experience was designed to be a learning experience for the visitor  —  an outdoor exhibit. The design includes everything from sustainability and materials to the expression of landscape.

What are some of the elements that make the design sustainable, and how are they expressed to the user?

The Perot Museum is one of more than 150 projects participating in the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES™) two-year Pilot Program. Key to this initiative is the philosophy of creating site designs that essentially rehabilitate properties and improve their ecological health over time.

Accordingly, this urban brownfield’s pollution is capped and contained. Although the containment strategy limits the depth of allowable excavation, the landscape architect’s proposal includes an achievable plan for constructing shallow bioswales throughout the parking lot to capture and filter storm water runoff.

Rainwater capturing and recycling are integral components to the building and site design. An underground cistern system collects up to 50,000 gallons of air conditioning condensation in addition to roof and parking surface runoff. This resource is recycled as the sole source of site irrigation and as a supplemental water source for the building’s toilet and cooling tower function.

The movement of rainwater through the site is poetically revealed during storm events through two gravity-fed mechanisms: a dramatic waterfall and an interactive rain pipe water collection feature on the prominent upper plaza area. Site fountains that support wildlife and aquatic plantings are supplied with potable municipal water. However, even with these water features (an abstracted stream emptying to a lowland pond), we aimed to minimize evaporative water loss by keeping a very narrow runnel profile and locating the pond in a more sheltered, naturally humid area of the site.

Site construction and plant materials for the museum are sourced within a 500-mile radius of the project. Plants specified for the one-acre greenroof deck are not only native to the region, but sited in a way that will give them the greatest chance of long-term viability in their urban condition.

Can you talk about the greenroof and some of the challenges of site conditions such as the slopes? 

The plinth roof/greenroof represents the ecology of the West Texas Rock Cap and demonstrates the planting progression from upland prairie to higher elevation desert rock cap plantings. A portion of the plinth roof has a 1-ft vertical : 1.5-ft horizontal grade, which has become a focal point for the project.

The plinth roof landscape is comprised of Hackett stone chards and plant material. The soil depth for the plant material is 18” to support the native grasses, perennials, cactus, and Desert Willow trees. Keeping the soil on the steep slope in place was a major concern. The soil on the steep slope was contained with a proprietary soil confinement system  —  a plastic grid with individual cells for the soil and plant material secured by steel cables. The slope was planted densely with a mature native grass species, then mulched, and secured with jute mesh netting over the top. It has performed quite well so far.

What are the plans for long-term maintenance, and how do you anticipate that the landscape will evolve? 

We will see a big change as the landscape, especially the grassland areas, grows in over the next season. During this establishment period, there will be a fair amount of maintenance. But because the plant palette is comprised mainly of native and naturalized plant materials, once the landscape grows in, it will be fairly low- maintenance, and irrigation requirements will decrease.

The forest area has many large, mature trees. As some of the younger and taller-growing species sprout up over the next few years, we expect to see some diversity in canopy height throughout the forest.

There will likely also be a few “natural invaders,” both flora and fauna, over time, just as we see in nature. Usually the flora comes by way of plant seeds deposited by birds. Plants from other parts of the site and around the city might begin to grow in different areas of the site and plinth roof. It will be interesting to watch it evolve over time.

Attendees of the Texas Society of Architects Second Annual Design Conference will visit the Perot Museum in February 2013.