As in the new Glassell, light figures prominently in the MFAH’s new Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation Center for Conservation. Completed last fall and designed by Lake|Flato Architects with Kendall/Heaton Associates serving as the architect of record, the facility consolidates the museum’s conservation departments into a single location, comprising one of the biggest spaces dedicated to conservation at any institution in the world. Conservators were previously off-site but now work in the same facility in close proximity to museum galleries and curatorial offices.
The Center was constructed on top of an existing MFAH parking garage at the corner of Binz and Fannin, adjacent to Rafael Moneo’s Audrey Jones Beck Building. The space was organized around maximizing daylight in the studios and ease of access in transporting the art: An existing freight elevator allows direct access to the museum buildings via an underground tunnel. Its 13-ft clear height established a working datum for the rest of the doors. The elevated location also ensures consistent access to good light that won’t be blocked by adjacent buildings or potential new construction. David Lake, FAIA, explained that a diagram of served and servant spaces, based on which spaces required daylight and which spaces didn’t, provided a durable method of organization that didn’t change throughout the design process.
The four conservation studios — painting, sculpture, decorative arts, and photo/paper — are expressed as distinct volumes that cantilever beyond the edge of the garage and pop up in height to accommodate clerestory windows. Functions that don’t require light are distributed along an interior hallway and between the studios. For example, a lead-lined X-ray vault allows for in-house scans of art objects to understand their construction and their maintenance history. A lower support floor provides the infrastructural space for mechanical systems.
Looking up in the studios, the open slatted ceilings are clean, save for thin, suspended light fixtures and curious fume extraction snorkels. The handsome wood structure and ceilings were constructed with Glulam and dowel-laminated timber roof panels supplied by StructureCraft, based in Vancouver; it is the first realization of this technology in North America (Lake|Flato is also using this system in its Hotel Magdalena, underway on South Congress in Austin). The break in the ceiling plane is the result of daylighting studies which revealed that this geometry distributes light more evenly in the workspace below.
Each studio is lit according to the requirements of its dedicated media using glass that eliminates UV radiation and is installed with two types of shades for daylight control. The sculpture studio allows both bounced northern and direct southern light so that conservators can examine works with enough shadow to give definition to the 3-D forms.
The decorative studio is illuminated with northern light for conservators who work on a range of object types. In the painting studio and framing room, the walls are a dark warm gray to reduce light bouncing and ocular distractions for conservators. The northern light is essential for color matching, as its even distribution of energy across the visible spectrum means that colors will blend in any lighting condition. A variety of paintings sit in various states of conservation, in the middle of processes that may take days or years to complete.
The MFAH’s new conservation center provides a functional and beautiful space for this careful work to be done, meaning the collection will look better and better in the decades to come.
Jack Murphy, Assoc. AIA, is a regular contributor to TA and a master of architecture candidate at Rice University.