Art museums have become patrons of architecture. More than most building types, they encourage innovation; they may take more risks; and they frequently look to make a mark. Though the project for the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston was primarily an interior renovation with only a small addition, the design is ambitious and less predictable than many university buildings. Recent museum architecture around the world has often provided a new sign, an iconic image for its institution. This is likewise the case with the new Blaffer, as transformed by the New York firm WORKac, with its bright and playful glass lantern grafted onto the austere, opaque facade of the Fine Arts Building.
Since its founding in 1973, the Blaffer has been housed in the Fine Arts Building, designed by Caudill Rowlett Scott, which was completed only the year before. The handsome brick structure is focused around a courtyard that is encircled by outdoor walkways. It is aligned alongside Campus Drive 16 near the northern edge of the university along with the College of Architecture and the School of Music buildings. A large open green space known as “the grove” also abuts the campus drive and sits between Fine Arts to the east and Music to the west. The grove serves as a sort of forecourt for the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts located a little farther into the campus to the south. Together, Art, Architecture, Music, Theater, Dance, and Communications make up a campus Arts District. The district faces a vast surface parking lot on the other side of the campus drive, and the downtown skyline looms a few miles beyond.
Though the Fine Arts courtyard provides a pleasant, more cloistered atmosphere for the School of Art, the Blaffer Museum, located on the first and second floors of the north side of the building, suffered from a lack of visibility and a single, hard-to-find entry from the court. While large pedestrian openings on three sides connect the outdoor space to the university, a smaller opening faces the campus drive. In the early 2000s, there was already discussion of creating a second, north museum entry more directly oriented toward visitor parking to facilitate the Blaffer’s mission of engaging the greater community as well as the university. That project did not include a full renovation, however, and was somewhat of a stopgap, since at the time, an entirely new Blaffer (two and a half times bigger than the current 14,000-sf museum) was envisioned on the north side of the campus drive as part of an enlarged university Arts District. That project was shelved.
In the context of a largely brick-clad campus, the angled, metal and channel glass Blaffer addition appears provocative, but at the same time, almost inevitable. In a single, synthesized gesture, it provides covered entry at ground level, vertical circulation inside, and a high-impact street image. With its combination of transparency and translucency, it is a welcome window into the museum at pedestrian level in contrast to many surrounding buildings that are opaque, generally impenetrable, and give little indication of the life inside. At night, however, the Blaffer’s lantern becomes part of a family of more animated (though elevated) lit windows that include the sloped clerestories of the top-floor art studios above it, the fully glazed, second-floor Mitchell Center rehearsal rooms that face the grove, the Moores Opera House lobby with its ceiling work by Frank Stella, and the arched openings of the round-the-clock studios in the architecture building. By night, more so than by day, the area might be understood as a “district.”
The old Blaffer’s weaknesses were obvious. Major vertical circulation — a stair — was smack-dab in the middle of the galleries, making for a less than ideal flow of visitors. Because of the layout, it was difficult to isolate galleries from one another to have more than one show at a time. On the other hand, another second-floor gallery space at the east end of the museum was overly isolated from the rest, with access via what could easily be mistaken for a private corridor lined with office doors. In general, the interior was also isolated from the exterior, and after moving through a glazed entry space, there was no other contact with the campus outside, or with natural light. While the walls
were a neutral gypsum board, the floors were finished in brick and visually strong — even distracting. All of this has been changed.
The circulation space that now links the new north entrance with the existing courtyard entry serves as a public passage through the museum — a shortcut from parking into the campus. (The atrium of the neighboring Architecture Building functions in a similar way.) The Blaffer is free, so students may drop in to see exhibitions as they please. Since it is a non-collecting institution, there are often new and stimulating contemporary works to be viewed. Along the passage, there is the stair up, as well as a wood-clad reception area where exhibition catalogues are sold. There is also a lounge adjacent to the courtyard that may someday be a cafe. The haphazardly placed fluorescent tubes that light the circulation spaces and stair, like the glass stair element itself, are clearly part of the new intervention.
If WORKac’s stair and fluorescent tubes tend toward the light-hearted, the interior planning and reorganization is highly rational and efficient. The stair piece is effectively the only newly created space, but it seems that every square inch of the existing museum has been rendered usable. The ground-floor gallery is composed of two volumes: one, a double-story height, and the other, single. Access is from the main pedestrian passage into the taller volume, and a logical path would not require a visitor to backtrack, but to proceed into the lower volume and then exit through a second opening that arrives just at the bottom of the stair. From within the light-filled stair, there are glimpses of the Houston skyline, and at the top, a small lecture room is immediately visible. A generous circulation area leads to the “studio,” another exhibition space tucked away in the southeast corner.
Within the circulation space, a large, glazed opening provides a link to the double-story gallery below. A bridge parallels the stair and leads to the main upper level exhibition space, which is stacked above the single-volume gallery below. This upstairs gallery is normally used for its own, independent shows, often featuring up-and-coming artists. All exhibition spaces are distinct rooms and generally have white gypsum-board walls, concrete floors, and track lighting. Their dimensions should allow them to be used without the addition of costly temporary walls. They are calmer than before, but not precious spaces. They appear more like an artist’s studio — a working space — and any remaining shortcomings related to the existing structure are confronted in an un-self-conscious manner. The newfound openness to the outside is particularly pleasant and diminishes the effect of hermetic “white cube” galleries. Views out are controlled and filtered, however, by the channel glass of the stair to the north and the enclosed space of the courtyard to the south.
The Blaffer staff is still discovering and experimenting with the potential and flexibility of their new spaces, and when needed, everything may be commandeered as gallery, including lounges, circulation areas, and lecture rooms. The Fine Arts courtyard has not yet been taken over, but a landscape project by SWA Group for the grove should also include that area. A stage and a projection screen are foreseen as part of the design for use by the Blaffer and the Arts District in general. As is often the case in Houston, a coherent landscape plan and vegetation should provide more urban continuity than the buildings themselves.
Universities should be vibrant places. WORKac’s new Blaffer, done in collaboration with Gensler, Houston, leaves the impression of a working, productive environment — a laboratory with an eye to its setting and educational obligations. Though modest in scope, the project is resourceful. While the design had to solve very specific and intricate problems that come along with renovations, it succeeds in creating a new image for the Blaffer, in establishing a lively setting for art, and in enabling links and communication between the museum, the campus, and the city beyond. For that, it sets an example to follow.
Ronnie Self is an associate professor at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture at the University of Houston and a Houston-based architect. He is author of the forthcoming book "The Architecture of Art Museums: A Decade of Design: 2000-2010," which will be available in early 2014.
Published in Texas Architect November/December 2013.