In Houston, Johnston Marklee’s New Drawing Institute Expands the Dream of the Menil
The new gallery, devoted to works on paper, is a sensitive addition to the Houston art campus's diverse architectural heritage.
On November 3, the Menil Drawing Institute opened the doors of its new home in Houston—the Louisa Stude Sarofim Building. According to the Menil, it is the first stand-alone public museum building in the U.S. to be dedicated solely to the display, conservation, and study of artworks on paper, and the first new visitor building to rise from the ground-up on the Menil Campus in 20 years.
Designed by Los Angeles–based architects Johnston Marklee with a landscape by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the building is a crisp and studious addition to one of Texas’ premier venues for art. Sited near the center of the David Chipperfield Architects master plan, it responds respectfully to the Renzo Piano–designed foundation building and Cy Twombly Gallery to the north, while staking out its own identity and serving as a transition to the southern portion of the campus, which is currently two empty blocks (formerly occupied by an apartment complex) punctuated at the southern extent by an old commercial structure, Richmond Hall, which contains a large Dan Flavin installation.
The Menil Collection has long been a pleasing oddity among American art museums. Established by legendary art collectors and philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil in 1987, it occupies a former working-class district of modest early 20th century bungalows in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood. It was the Menils’ intention to preserve the scale and feel of the single-family residential fabric as a physical representation of their mission to bring art and culture to all people (the museum has always been free to the public).
Though the Piano-designed foundation building (1988) is institutional in size, its obsessively detailed baffled skylight roof is brought down to earth by folksy references, such as a covered porch and wood siding. The rest of the campus’ structures—the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, Cy Twombly Gallery, Richmond Hall, the independent Rothko Chapel, and the many bungalows that house administrative functions, a bookstore, a bistro, as well as scholars and artists in residence—all maintain the approachable grain and texture of the existing suburban context, with its mature tree canopy that includes many breathtaking live oaks. The new Drawing Institute, at 30,150 square feet on two levels (one on-grade, the other below) splits the difference between the institutional and residential scales.
In designing a building specifically for drawings, Johnston Marklee was in large part striking out into uncharted territory. “We traveled to see precedents,” firm co-founder Sharon Johnston says. “The research was intense, but we didn’t find one building that set the precedent.”
The architecture was instead guided by the context, the demands of the three programmatic components it sought to bring together (a gallery, a study center and offices, and a conservation laboratory and archive),and the careful modulation of light. Drawings are particularly sensitive to the deleterious effects of light. On a typical sunny day in Houston there are 10,000 foot-candles raining down outside. Light conditions in the gallery space had to be kept at 5 foot-candles. Negotiating this transition became a chief driver of the design.
To accomplish this, the architects arranged the program elements around three courtyards whose overhanging eaves and plantings filter the daylight that reaches the interior. Courtyards at the east and west of the building front the two public entrances, while the third, centered on the northern edge, is called the “Scholars Cloister” and admits daylight to the curators’ offices through steel-framed glass walls. The courtyards are planted with trees, oaks, and magnolias that rise out of beds of gravel interspersed with large chunks of white marble.
The building is structured in white-painted plate steel walls stiffened with steel ribs and an aluminum roof that slants down into the courtyards and across a long, southern porch. A site-specific Ellsworth Kelly sculpture, “Menil Curve,” fronts the western entrance. Also made of plate steel, but painted a different white than the Institute’s walls, the shark fin-like form materializes from the background, an effect emblematic of some of the artist’s work. Dark-stained, bead-blasted, thick cedar planks clad the shaded portions of the exterior, referencing the Piano building’s wood siding and creating a sharp contrast to the crisply defined metal canopy. The inward-angled roofs sheet rain directly into the courtyards, and the pitched form of the courtyards’ ceilings, which continues through the glazed entrance forming a gable on the interior, carries daylight deep into the building’s central “Living Room.”
The Living Room forms an axial central circulation spine (another reference to the Piano building) that separates the public gallery to the south from the private program functions to the north. It is a spacious, but intimate hall, large enough for receptions but not too big to seem out of place in the surrounds. The floors are wide-plank European white oak, the walls and ceiling white plaster. Cove lights separate the junction between walls and sloping ceilings. Johnston Marklee designed a custom set of furniture for the project, including benches, tables, ottomans, and desk accessories, which were fabricated by Jeff Jamieson of Wood and Plywood Furniture in California.
Two rectangular openings on the south wall, registered in the ceiling by dormers, provide admittance to the primary gallery, which is 31 feet deep and 91 feet long, with a 12.5-foot ceiling. “We wanted two entrances to break down the hierarchy of the space,” Johnston explains .
The space is flexible. Embeds in the floor give curators a variety of ways to arrange walls. There are windows at the east and west ends of the gallery for shows that can handle the light, but they were plastered over for the inaugural exhibition, The Condition of Being Here: Drawings by Jasper Johns.
Another driving force for the design team was their observation that most facilities for the study, conservation, and storage of drawings are rather dismal, afterthoughts fitted within the margins of larger museums. The goal here was to make these spaces pleasant, and indeed they are the highlight of the interior. The curators’ offices face the aforementioned Scholars’ Cloister, with its grove of magnolia trees, through pristine sheets of glass that transmit a fantastically dappled daylight. Deeper within the northern wing are the study center and conservation lab. Both feature their own “Drawing Rooms” specifically designed for scrutinizing drawings under natural light conditions. Anchored by large wooden tables, these rooms have gabled ceilings with skylights whose light transmittance can be modulated with an array of sailcloth scrims. Smaller, black-box study rooms, and the conservation lab, which features a ribbon window outfitted with shades, are to the north of these rooms.
The drawing archive is in the basement. This may seem an odd choice, considering Houston’s tendency to flood, but the architects were dedicated to giving the building a low profile. They felt confident in this choice because the site is at a high point in Houston’s topography and has not flooded in the past, including during Hurricane Harvey. As a precaution, the archive is set within double concrete walls, the outer forming a bathtub with a drainage bed at its base. If water does get in, flood doors will rise to four feet to protect the artwork, at very least providing time to evacuate the collection.
“This quietly innovative architecture of the Menil Drawing Institute allows us to make drawing, the most personal of all artistic practices, accessible as never before, to artists, to scholars, and to the public,” said Menil Collection director Rebecca Rabinow in a prepared statement. But Johnston Marklee’s building also gives the Menil something that it desperately needed: more of itself. Wandering through the idyllic neighborhood, walking in and out of discrete buildings that are at once unassuming and timeless, seeing one world-class work of art after another, has always been a meditative experience one could extend ad infinitum, as though in a dream. The Drawing Institute expands this dream state. Sitting on its southern porch, looking out across the campus’ two empty lots, one can easily get lost in visions of what might come next.
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