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Protecting Paper from the Light

Exterior rendering of the new 30,000 sq ft Menil Drawing Institute building
The new 30,000 sq ft Menil Drawing Institute is meant to serve as the center of the campus of arts buildings that make up the Menil Collection, in Houston. Courtesy of Johnston Marklee/The Menil Collection

A thin steel roof helps modulate light at new museum in Houston that celebrates drawings as art forms.

March 25, 2014—The new $40-million Menil Drawing Institute (MDI), in Houston, Texas, is meant to highlight drawings as complete art forms unto themselves—and to dispel the notion that drawings should best be thought of as rough drafts or sketches to finished work in other media. The legitimacy of drawings as art forms has long standing in the contemporary art world, but perhaps not always in the day-to-day experiences people have when they visit art museums.

“It’s not just a red chalk sketch on rag paper anymore,” says Sheryl Kolasinski, the deputy director and chief operating officer for the Menil Collection, which is planning the new institute. “It’s mylar and ink and collage. Stretching the boundaries of what a drawing is will be a fundamental question that the drawing institute will wrestle with.”

Founded in 1987, the Menil houses the superb modern art collection of Houston philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil. The couple helped put cultural Houston on the map. They commissioned Phillip Johnson to design the city’s first unabashedly modernist home in 1949, and founded a chapel inspired by and named for American painter Mark Rothko. The Menil is not just a museum building; it’s a campus of small buildings spread across 30 acres nestled within a leafy neighborhood near the city’s center. “There’s hardly a museum on the planet that has that,” says Kolasinski. 

Another exterior rendering of the new Menil Drawing Institute building that faces a park that will be planned nearby

Architects sought a building that was low enough to respect the
scale of the surrounding residential neighborhood but that was
also imbued with a “quiet presence” to face a park planned nearby.
Courtesy of Johnston Marklee/The Menil Collection

Kolasinski describes the Menil as a series of pavilions in the landscape connected by a meandering path that takes in a main museum building, as well as a small stand-alone gallery for artist Cy Twombly, an installation from sculptor Dan Flavin, and the nearby Rothko Chapel (which, though built by the de Menil family, is a separate institution). All create the experience of a series of episodic walks through a landscape. Additionallyr, the museum owns several of the bungalows at the edge of the campus, some of which house administrative offices while others are leased to local nonprofit arts groups.

The new 30,000 sq ft Drawing Institute will be situated between the Cy Twombly Gallery and eventually, new park space. Architects envision it as both a center of the Menil campus and a gateway to the pavilions to the north. “Although our building is quite low to respect the scale of the neighboring houses, at the same time we feel it needs a certain quiet presence to face the park,” says Mark Lee, a principal of Johnston Marklee, the Los Angeles-based firm that won the competition to design the building.

According to Sharon Johnston, AIA, a principal of Johnston Marklee, the institute has functions other than those associated with a museum, including scholar study spaces and a technical conservation laboratory. “The building is quite a bit smaller than the main museum, at a scale between an institutional building and the domestic bungalows around it,” says Johnston. “So it takes cues from its context in a very different way than the museum did. The tapestry of the art buildings, the bungalows, the gardens and greens, the trees, are part of the fabric and the context of each one of these buildings. But each building engages them in a very different way.”

“One thing we find particularly beguiling are these in-between spaces between houses and how people approach the Menil,” Lee adds. There’s something magical, he says, about visitors approaching through the houses, “always meandering as opposed to something that is very axial.”

The real story of the Menil is simple: light. As Kolasinski puts it, “Drawings spend their lives in the dark; they spend their lives asleep in the drawer. So the light is the most important thing about the project. The light and the path—the journey to see them—is really what all of the architects were grappling with.”

Exterior rendering of the Menil Drawing Institute that displays the roof structure that will be fabricated of steel and bolted together in modules

The roof structure will be fabricated of steel and bolted together in
modules, not unlike a ship’s hull. Courtesy of Johnston Marklee/
The Menil Collection

Before entering the large gallery and salon spaces, where art will be exhibited, visitors will pass through one of three courtyards that belong to the surrounding park, with its abundance of oak trees, as well as to the building.

The challenge was how to modulate light from the outdoors—10,000-15,000 foot candles on an average day of Texas sun—to the indoors, where the light levels are much lower. Architects wanted to make the transition seamless, gradual, subtle. Naturally, given the small space, they began thinking about how to “stretch the line of the building as thin and taut and delicately over the landscape so that we could start that procession of bringing down the light levels out in the gardens and then draw this transition through into the building,” Johnston says. “A compact building wouldn’t afford us that same subtly of gradation.”

Architects did not channel in light from above in areas in the building where drawings would be exhibited, because the drawings cannot be exposed to light for any extended period of time. Instead they devised a plan to stretch a roof over the landscape to create a “halo” of space and shadow around the building. The architects are “giving you all these different experiences with the light, shaded courtyard, dappled sunlight, trees that create shadows that are almost like a drawing on the wall,” says Kolasinski. “Every experience as you walk through the building is a different encounter with light.”

The dynamic roof is a long thin plane of steel that is creased and bent like a piece of origami. “The conceptual idea is really drawing a roof over the landscape, and thinking of it almost like a sheet of paper that folds and bends to modulate the light and to create a certain modulation of the scaled space, both in the garden and in the interior of the building,” says Johnston.

The architects wanted a roof that simultaneously had breadth and scale but was also very thin. The structure is planned to be fabricated out of plate steel, bolted together in modules, not unlike a ship’s hull. The plate steel forms the belly, while a lightweight metal deck will form the roof on top. These courtyard plate roof assemblies at the east and west ends of the building will likely be assembled on site by bolted connections that would be hidden behind the plates, with a system of concealed rib stiffeners.

Rendering for one of the courtyards at the Menil Drawing Institute building

Before entering the institute visitors will pass through three
courtyards, which will help with the transition from the bright
Texas sun to the low light levels required for viewing drawings.
Courtesy of Johnston Marklee/The Menil Collection

“Structurally speaking the courtyard roofs are outside the main building structure, like canopies” says Guy Nordenson, P.E., S.E., F.ASCE, a partner with New York City-based Guy Nordenson and Associates, the structural engineering firm working on the project.

“The general structural challenges all have to do with achieving the thinness and refinement in the connections and details, where things come together,” adds Nordenson, who is also a professor of structural engineering at Princeton University. “Where the glass meets the roof, or the glass meets the wall, the canopy over the courtyards meets the building enclosure.”

The main entry space—once you’ve gone through shadowy space courtyards—is called “the living room,” which consolidates circulation space and serves as a lobby, gathering space and prelude to the gallery. “We envisioned the MDI as a really lively place, not so intimate and so inwardly focused that you would not even notice it was there,” says Johnston.

Johnsston Marklee was drawn to smaller, intimate museums—former homes like the Frick Gallery, in New York City, or the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in Boston. In those spaces, Lee explains, almost all of the light enters from the side, whereas in larger, institutional museums, almost all of the light comes in through the top.

Light from the side, Johnston explains, can be “more immediate and dynamic. It’s changing more dramatically during the day.” While light is tightly controlled in the areas were the art is, other spaces take advantage of this chameleon lateral light.

To Johnston Marklee this is about reacting against “elegant museum architecture where light is made too flat, too controlled,” says Johnston. “The culture of Menil is that you should feel the presence of changing sky. We wanted that to be present wherever we could.”

Although the Menil is not located within a floodplain, engineers have been conscientious about anticipating the possibility of flooding. The bottom of the walls surrounding the building are upturned concrete curbs, Nordenson explains, to help keep water out. In the basement pumps are planned, along with passive barriers and double walls to protect artifacts below grade.

The “living room” of the Menil Drawing Institute will function as a lobby, gathering space, and prelude to art exhibition spaces.

The “living room” of the Menil Drawing Institute will function as a
lobby, gathering space, and prelude to art exhibition spaces.
Courtesy of Johnston Marklee/The Menil Collection

Light is not the only threat to drawings. There’s the challenge of designing a museum with “very tight internal conditions with a very fluctuating relative humidity outside,” says Alan Locke, P.E., a senior principal of Stantec, the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing consulting engineers. The firm is developing a strategy for ensuring good airflow through the building by using a displacement air system that’s being carefully designed into the walls of each of the exhibit spaces. Displacement systems allow for the natural movement of air, which ‘wash’ the spaces rather than flood them as with air supplied from high level.

The drawing institute is but one element of a far-reaching master plan. A new power plant will be built, as well as new arts buildings. A third of a large apartment block to the south that Menil owns will be demolished; the museum will retain the rest as income property.

The MDI should break ground early next year. While the museum has always been at the heart of the city’s cultural life, the new projects represent a leap forward. “We’re 25 years old now as a public museum,” says Kolasinski. “I think the drawing institute project in the context of the master plan is really shaking off adolescence and taking the next level of development for us as a campus and a neighborhood.”



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