According to Josef Helfenstein, director of the Menil Collection, Los Angeles-based architecture firm Johnston Marklee’s proposed design for the Menil Drawing Institute (MDI) is both serene and revolutionary. Helfenstein likened the achievement, which displays fragile works on paper in the modulated presence of natural light, to “squaring a circle.”
The 30,150-sf, $40 million MDI will be the first free-standing facility in the country dedicated to the exhibition, study, storage, and conservation of modern contemporary drawings. It is also the first installment in a planned reinvigoration of the Menil Collection’s campus in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood. The 30-acre enclave includes the main museum building and the Cy Twombly Gallery, both designed by Renzo Piano (in 1987 and 1995, respectively), as well as a 1930 masonry structure that houses a permanent Dan Flavin light installation. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates plans to transform the site with the development of an expansive, coherent, and sustainable landscape. Houston’s Stern and Bucek Architects are working on the transformation of a bungalow into a cafe for the campus, and the new Energy House, also to be designed by Johnston Marklee, will serve as the central utilities resource for the museum and its annex buildings.
Johnston Marklee’s design for the MDI takes its cue from the site’s prominent live oak trees. The design calls for trees to be surrounded by three square, open-roofed courtyards. Principals Sharon Johnston, AIA, and Mark Lee described the new building as self-evident and direct. “The site itself showed us the way forward,” they commented. “The garden-like character of the campus with its tree-shaded streets of bungalows gave us the clues we needed to find the right scale, resolve the relationship between interior and exterior spaces and, above all, to modulate the light.”
Additional images in this article are expanded content for the July/August 2014 issue of Texas Architect.