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Take a look inside Dallas' new Perot Museum

The Perot Museum by the numbers

$185 million The project cost includes site acquisition, exhibition planning and design, construction, educational programs, and an endowment.

4.7 acres The site is on the northwest corner of North Field Street and Woodall Rodgers Freeway, adjacent to Victory Park.

180,000 square feet

170 feet high That's the equivalent of a 14-story building.

11 permanent exhibit halls

298-seat multimedia theater

150-foot glass-enclosed escalator shell

Perot Museum of Nature and Science

Opens Saturday, Dec. 1

2201 N. Field St., Dallas

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday

Extended hours opening weekend: 10 a.m.-midnight Dec. 1; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Dec. 2. Closed Christmas Day. Closes 3 p.m. Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve.

Admission $10-$15; parking $3-$6.

Advance tickets for admission and parking available online at no additional charge. Admission will be limited to prevent overcrowding.

214-428-5555; www.perotmuseum.org

Posted 10:47am on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012

A resounding splash will emanate to our east on the first day of December -- the day the Perot Museum of Nature and Science opens in Dallas.

It's also the day Dallas adds a significant museum to its cultural mix, finally challenging Fort Worth as the museum destination of choice for North Texas. And it's the day the most interesting building on the Dallas skyline opens.

Have you heard the noise? You will.

For the past year, the gray cube under construction at the corner of Field Street and Woodall Rodgers Freeway has been casting a come-hither spell that was surprisingly seductive for a box with few windows. But the simple geometry has surface interest -- striations that make the box look like a core sample of the earth, with sedimentary layers that become thinner toward the bottom as if crushed with the weight of time. The surface speaks of millennia, and raking across one side, projecting into space, is a glass rectangle. It's the shell for the escalator but looks like a porthole into time.

The exterior announces the contents of the interior. This is a place that investigates the natural world. It was designed by Los Angeles-based architect Thom Mayne and his firm, Morphosis.

"It's a unique building for a diverse audience from toddlers to the oldest person. It feeds the entire community. You'll never see another building like this," says Mayne, who was in Dallas for a round of previews. "I realize it may be too serious; it's serious architecture. But it has to endure. I want it to be good 100 years from now."

The $185 million project was funded in part by a $50 million gift from the Perot family in honor of parents Margot and Ross Perot. Other significant benefactors are named on galleries and the theater.

From inside the museum, the first floor is situated almost below grade so the landscaping, by Dallas-based Talley Associates, comes right up to and sometimes above the windows, which are capped by half-circles of the exterior skin. The view is similar to that from inside a cave.

It is a very primal feeling on the enormous first floor, expansive yet safe. Chandeliers shaped like large boulders cling to the ceiling like stalactites and water molecule models; a large oxygen ball and two small clinging hydrogen spheres bounce around in midspace as people walk underneath them. Currents of life animate the great hall.

Gallery guides insist that the best way to see the museum is to ride the escalator to the top floor and work your way back to the level below ground, where there is a huge payoff. The escalator ride up four floors in the glass enclosure offers the best panoramic view of Dallas in existence. Expect bottlenecks here, as the view demands documentation via camera or smartphone.

The top floor, Level 4, offers the de rigueur history: museum displays of dinosaurs, including the world's largest Alamosaurus skeleton, and a journey through the solar system narrated by Dallas' own Owen Wilson.

Level 3 has some of those awkward "partnership" galleries that some museums have had to embrace to fund their construction. Here is the most egregious one in the new institution: the Tom Hunt Energy Hall, which extols the benefits of drilling the Barnett Shale.

The Lyda Hill Gems and Minerals Hall, a blessed quiet spot in the midst of interactive cacophony, is a darkened gallery with spotlighted display cases filled with brilliant dazzlers. Women seem to congregate here, finding quartz crystals as mesmerizing as their children find the dinosaurs.

Next door is the Rees-Jones Foundation Dynamic Earth Hall, where you can pretend you live in a cheap Los Angeles apartment and experience different magnitudes of earthquakes without the broken crockery and spewing water pipes.

Vestiges of the old Dallas Museum of Natural History have been relocated to Level 2. The taxidermied animals of the dusty old dioramas have been given more attractive habitats, but they still seem a throwback to a less-enlightened museum experience, especially as the bio lab and robotic galleries are also on this level.

On the lower level are the Children's Museum, the auditorium and the Sports Hall, and this is where the children with parents in tow are going to bottleneck. This already too-small room has the motion lab, where you can stand in front of a large screen and be photographed at 300 frames a second while you throw a football, pass a basketball, or do a cartwheel or a number of athletic motions, then move to the monitors and compare your action in extreme slow motion to that of pros such as former Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach and basketball great Nancy Lieberman.

You can test your vertical jump to see how high you can go -- 4 feet, the height of an ice hockey goal, or over 10 feet to dunk a basketball.

You can test your flee response on the track. Challenge a friend or a Tyrannosaurus rex, or in virtual race mode, a cheetah, NFL running back Felix Jones, a marathon runner, a pro boxer or a collegiate sprinter. Best to choose a friend, as the avatars will wax you -- even the big T. rex.

The museum is stuffed with interactive displays and so is the outdoor area. Just feet from the parking lot is the musical forest, with enormous xylophones and bonging pipes that emit tones from the pentatonic scale for a whole family symphony of sound. The forest is just downstream from the frog pond, where 13 huge green frog sculptures beg to be photographed. At night they light up, and their neon hue radiates across the landscape.

The building might be too severe to become an iconic presence on T-shirts, but the frogs? They will become the signature stars of the museum.

Gaile Robinson is the DFW.com and Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113

Twitter: @GaileRobinson

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