the Menil Collection
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As sharks must move forward to survive, it has become conventional wisdom that the same is true for the contemporary museum; that it can’t stand still but must always be expanding, an enlargement in both mission and architecture.
Growth can be a difficult burden to navigate, however, a fact thrown into harsh relief last week during a panel on museum building at the Dallas Museum of Art. Directors of the Albright-Knox in Buffalo, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Denver Art Museum each presented recent expansion work, and if there was a single common thread among them, it was controversy.
Absent from that group of directors (all male) was Rebecca Rabinow, since 2016 the director of the Menil Collection, in Houston, the exceedingly rare institution that has figured out exactly how to expand while maintaining both its own integrity and that of the community of which it is a part.
The Menil Drawing Institute, its newest addition, opened in October, and it achieves that chimerical balance of fitting in while managing to stand out on its own architectural terms. It is sharp as an X-acto blade, defined by almost impossibly thin planes of folded steel plate painted to a bright white sheen.
East Courtyard Photos of the Louisa Stude Sarofim Building housing the Menil Drawing Institute, at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. Johnston Marklee, Architects; Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Landscape Architects
It is boxy in form — from above, a pair of offset rectangles — but it is cut open at its corners and sides to reveal generous internal courts animated by live oaks and stones of veined white marble from Vermont.
The design is by the Los Angeles-based architectural firm Johnston-Marklee (helmed by the married partners Sheila Johnston and Mark Lee), working in close collaboration with the structural engineer Guy Nordenson. The landscape is by the office of Michael Van Valkenburgh.
The building is something of a coming out party for the architects, their largest commission to date, and much anticipated within the profession. Rising stars, the couple curated the 2017 Chicago Architectural Biennial, and Lee was recently named the new chair of the architecture department at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Despite that growing stature, their long, low building does not make an extravagant show of itself; in the Menil tradition, it is of domestic scale, and follows the 2009 master plan produced by the British architect David Chipperfield, which mandated that the museum expand gradually over time in discreet buildings that respected the scale and character of its Montrose neighborhood, rather than through large-scale building projects.
This was very much in the spirit of its 1987 Main Building, a defining masterwork by Renzo Piano, which keeps a decidedly low profile, with two deferential stories wrapped with gray cypress siding.
Credit Rabinow with the gutsy decision to entirely close the Piano building’s interior for more than six months — it reopened to the public in September — for an extensive renovation and reinstallation. I had worried about some of these transformations, in particular the restoration of the deeply worn pine floors, which gave the museum a lived-in, domestic feeling. But my concerns were unfounded: the renewed floors, dark and shiny, provide a sharp contrast to works that are displayed with renewed vigor.
It is a victory, one that highlights the Menil’s penchant for doing things the right way, despite the costs, financial and otherwise. How many museums would completely shut their main building, rather than restore in stages, so as to retain their traffic numbers? Not many, I suspect.
The Drawing Institute is, likewise, a product of the Menil’s refusal to cut corners. The term Institute is telling. The $40 million, 30,000 square foot facility is not just a dedicated gallery, and indeed that space, a simple box without much natural light (a condition of the drawing medium) may be its least interesting and successful.
More alluring is the main hall, the institute’s so-called Living Room, a long room with a warm wooden floor and an asymmetrically gabled ceiling. It serves as both a multi-purpose gallery and gathering space.
The complex geometry of that ceiling is a credit to both the vision of the architects and the invention of Nordenson, a perfectionist known for his ability to realize the ideas of the world’s preeminent architects. Indeed, recent credits include two other bravura works of structural design in Houston: Steven Holl’s Glassell School and Michael Maltzan’s Moody Arts Center at Rice University.
For all its structural complexity, the Drawing Institute has the inherent modesty befitting a home for scholarship, with generous rooms for study, a library, a conservation center, and extensive storage capacity. All of these spaces are designed with consummate care and attention.
Study rooms have canted walls that are designed so scholars and curators can easily prop-up work. The conservation spaces are ample in size and with broad windows for natural light, but with black-out shades that can be lowered as necessary. "Instead of having a wall, which would have been easy, we have this very human setting," one very happy conservator explained to me.
The institute’s quiet and sometimes necessarily dim spaces are set off by the courts, monastic spaces for thought and contemplation, lined with comfortable benches and blackened wood paneling that sets off the white of the façade and roof plates.
Beyond their appeal, these courts also mark a continuum in the Menil building tradition, as they are key elements in Piano’s gallery, which was itself inspired by similar courts in the elegant-but-modest home Philip Johnson built for John and Dominique de Menil in nearby River Oaks.
The lesson, and it is one that other institutions might do well to observe, is that sometimes the best way to stand out, is to fit in.
Mark Lamster is the architecture critic of The Dallas Morning News, a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington School of Architecture.