There’s been a lot happening at the Menil Collection’s art campus in Houston. The newly renovated main building, designed by Renzo Piano in 1986, which reopened to the public in September, displays recently acquired work by contemporary artist Leslie Hewitt. Her white powder-coated sheet metal sculptures, folded and bent at different angles, are particularly arresting in this setting. Just a few yards away is another new addition to the campus that bears a striking resemblance to those minimalist forms, the Menil Drawing Institute.
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Opening this month, this is the first freestanding building in the U.S. dedicated to modern and contemporary drawing. Designed by Los Angeles–based Johnston Marklee, it is a stunning composition of bent steel that is outwardly subtle but at moments quite dramatic. The long, low structure sits opposite and slightly east of Piano’s building. Johnston Marklee’s design takes cues from Piano’s then revolutionary structure— wood cladding; top-lit spaces; an in-between scale that, at 16 feet tall, is slightly lower than Piano’s and slightly higher than the nearby houses. But it achieves a quiet monumentality through radically different measures from Piano’s elaborate, now instantly recognizable, detailing.
In some respects, the new structure is more akin to sculpture than architecture. In a rare type of construction, vertical walls and sloping canopies that hover over two exterior courtyards are composed of an assembly of welded ½-inch- and 5/8-inch-thick white-painted steel plate, reinforced every 2 feet with internal steel-plate stiffeners that appear like thin ribs, and additional steel box beams, forming a rigid frame. The building’s structural engineer, Guy Nordenson, likens those roofs, inclined 66 degrees from the wall, to “floating Richard Serras.”
This comparison should not be surprising, given that the architects, Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee, have a strong affinity for, and often collaborate with, contemporary artists. As directors of last year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial, they presented work that blurs the line between disciplines. As builders, they’ve completed a series of bold and sculptural—in the more typical sense—houses.
The 30,150-square-foot Drawing Institute, Johnston Marklee's most significant work to date—they recently revamped the interior of Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art—has the scale of a large house. In fact, Lee cites the single-story Houston residence that Philip Johnson configured around a courtyard for art patrons John and Dominique de Menil (1950) as a strong influence on their design.
Like this surprisingly petite brick de Menil house a couple of miles away, the museum buildings Dominique began to commission long after John’s death reflect both her desire for viewers to have an intimate relationship with art, and for the 30-acre Menil Collection campus to respect the overall small scale of the residential neighborhood in which it is located.
Though the streets here are lined with prewar bungalows, the exception was a hulking apartment complex on the site where the new Drawing Institute now sits. (Houston is notorious for its lack of zoning restrictions.) When that building came up for sale, the Menil Collection grabbed it for fear something even bigger would be built there, impeding daylight from entering Piano’s famous light scoops and destroying the rapport with the other structures, which include: the Cy Twombly Gallery (1995, also by Piano); the Rothko Chapel (1971, by Philip Johnson, Howard Barnstone, Eugene Aubry); a concrete pile that originally displayed a Byzantine fresco (1997, designed by John and Dominique’s son François de Menil), and a 1930’s grocery store that now houses a Dan Flavin installation, as well as several large-scale sculptures. There is also a bookstore and a bistro in two of the bungalows, one of which was preexisting, the other newly constructed by Houston-based Stern and Bucek. Razing the apartment building allowed the institution to reorganize its grounds. It hired David Chipperfield to do a master plan, which inserted a new street and more green space. “You can still meander—you just can’t get lost,” says Menil Collection director Rebecca Rabinow.
In 2012, Chipperfield’s firm, along with SANAA and Tatiana Bilbao, competed with Johnston Marklee to design the Drawing Institute, which, like all the other buildings, is free to the public. But, unlike most of the other buildings, this one has a number of spaces for more than just the display of art. Aside from a 2,800-square-foot gallery, it comprises strong research and conservation components. There are spaces that feel domestic, religious, and, yes, even institutional.
The simple plan includes two offset rectangular blocks—the 31-by-91-foot gallery with two outdoor courtyards, one on either end on the south side; and, on the north, a conservation lab, library, offices, a seminar room, a wood-lined salon, and restrooms (clad to striking effect in the same Vermont marble that is arranged in hefty slabs on the ground of the entry courtyard), as well as a third, interior courtyard.
The gallery is dimly lit, to preserve the delicate works on display. Though it contains two windows, they are covered up for the inaugural exhibition of drawings by Jasper Johns. From the exterior, the glass appears like long mirrors facing the entry courtyard on one side and the east courtyard—planted with tropical trees and shrubs, more similar to the gardens in Piano’s main building—on the other.
The 12-inch-wide European white oak floorboards of the gallery are carried through to what Johnston Marklee calls the “living room,” at the center of the two rectangular blocks. Not originally part of the program, it’s a space the architects felt was necessary, both for visitors to gather or just relax in and for the institution to host lectures and display artworks less sensitive to light. (A drawing by Roni Horn is installed on one wall of the living room for the opening.)
Mimicking the folds of the courtyard canopies, triangular cutouts along the ceiling of that long room, one with clerestory glass, anticipate a series of skylights throughout the north side of the building—some more straightforward, like the peak-shaped one at the apex of the gable in the large drawing room, and others that have the enigmatic feel of a James Turrell light well. Johnston says the courtyards “create a shadow prelude” to the various qualities of light within the building, which culminate with the sun-drenched interior courtyard. Referred to as the scholars’ courtyard, it has the feel of a cloister, offering dappled light to the offices and study spaces surrounding it. Because its canopy, inclined like the other two steel-plate ones, encloses interior space, it is composed of thin tube trusses with insulation sandwiched between the roof and its gypsum board underside.
Piano clad his building in narrow bands of gray-stained cypress. Johnston Marklee chose 2-foot-wide laminated boards of dark-stained, bead-blasted Port Orford cedar to face parts of the building not composed of the smooth, white-painted steel plate walls. Beneath the building, a basement stores the over 2,000 drawings in the Menil collection. It is protected by double layers of structure and waterproofing, as well as a passive system that detects water infiltration. Still under construction last year when Hurricane Harvey hit, the basement was unaffected, though that catastrophic storm impeded progress on the already delayed building—especially unfortunate timing since the Piano building was scheduled to be closed for seven months for its refresh. But that’s all in the past.
Of course, Johnston and Lee looked to earlier buildings on campus, to contemporary sculpture, to different building types from houses to monasteries to Shaker meeting rooms. After all, the biennial they curated last year was all about looking at history. But it was also about creating something completely new from that, which they’ve managed to do here with a single-story structure that has more sectional diversity than ones twice or three times its size. More than anything else, though, they created a building based upon the thing that it houses, studies, and displays–overwhelmingly, works on paper. As with origami, in which paper becomes sculptural when it is folded and bent, the design and materials here create a building where architecture and art come together.
Guy Nordenson and Associates, Cardno Haynes Whaley (structural);
Lockwood Andrews Newnam (civil);
Simpson Gumpertz & Heger (building envelope)
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (landscape);
George Sexton Associates (lighting);
Arup (acoustical, AV, and IT)
United Structures of America
Vertical wood siding
G.R. Plume Company
Woodwright Hardwood Floor