If Franco-American art collectors John and Dominique de Menil have acquired a mythic status as all-star patrons of postwar America, then their casually magical arts district a few miles west of downtown Houston is a suburban Olympia — a sacred precinct dedicated to the contemplation of the arts, with rows of gray bungalows standing in for stone treasuries surrounding their scattered museum-cum-temples. More so now that its creators have passed away, the Menil Foundation continues to evolve and expand, and in November 2018, the Menil Drawing Institute (MDI) was inaugurated as the foundation’s fifth arts-related building. Although the MDI is a thoughtful project completed after much deliberation, as it turned out, one misses the meticulous elegance and spiritual power that made its predecessors such compelling works of architecture.
The MDI was officially created in October 2008. Its main sponsors were Menil trustees Louisa Sarofim and Janie C. Lee, both of whom, having collected drawings since the 1970s, had discussed such a program with Dominique near the end of her life. Bernice Rose, a New York City curator, was named its inaugural chief curator, a position she held for the next several years despite the absence of a building for the Institute.
In 2009, the Menil Foundation commissioned British architect David Chipperfield to produce a master plan to guide the future development of the campus. Its most significant move was to formalize a meandering north-south pedestrian axis linking the main parking lot on West Alabama Street to planned new buildings in the southern half of the campus near Richmond Avenue, including the site for the MDI. Work toward its realization began a few years later. In April 2012, four finalist architects were publicly announced: David Chipperfield, Mexico City architect Tatiana Bilbao, Japanese architects SANAA, and Los Angeles architects Johnston Marklee; in June 2012, Johnston Marklee was unanimously selected by the trustees. In February 2014, their schematic design was publicly released and construction started in March 2015.
Johnston Marklee’s design integrates formal cues from the other museum buildings and bungalows in the precinct. First, there is the scale. The MDI is small, a one-story building only 16 ft tall, approximately the height of the one-story pier-and-beam bungalows. Interior space is about 30,000 sf, a significant portion of which is dedicated drawing storage space in an extensive basement equipped with a multitude of anti-flood features.
Second, there is its plan. MDI is composed of two relatively long and narrow rectangles that appear to be sliding past each other. Fitted into the rectangles are three square courtyards, pushed to the perimeter and similar in configuration to the Menil Collection building. A porch fronts a future park along the south side of the building and connects the east and west courtyards. The architects intended these elements to modulate the light levels, from bright outside to very dim in the room where the fragile drawings are displayed.
Third, there are its sections. Here, the architects were most creative. They used gabled, dropped ceilings to suggest kinship in an abstract but unambiguous way with the gable-roofed bungalows that surround the new building. The sections with skylights in the semi-public study areas are particularly satisfying.
Finally, there are the materials. Many of the exterior walls of the Institute are clad in vertical Port Orford cedar siding from Oregon, stained a dark brown that recalls the pine floors of the Menil Collection building. The floors in the public areas are covered with wide white oak planks, the same species used on the floors of the adjacent Cy Twombly Gallery. The hybrid design succeeds in the dialectical fusion of context and original thought.
Unfortunately, the MDI fails to meet the exacting level of construction detail that Dominique de Menil sought and fought for in the earlier buildings: The detailing is subpar in comparison with the pristine Menil Collection. It seems that lately the Menil Foundation has not maintained the exacting standards of its founders. Another recent example is in the bland, compromised design of the Bistro Menil (2014). As for the Institute, its smooth planes are quite noticeably pockmarked by security cameras, sensors, light fixtures, fire sprinklers, and other support devices. The exterior wood walls are similarly encumbered by a confusion of signage, LED keypads, and downspouts. While the same devices are present in the other Menil buildings, they are integrated in more unobtrusive ways into the architecture. The sheets of large-scale steel that make up the exterior walls and porch roofs around the courtyards sag slightly, destroying the impression of flat planes so attractive in the renderings. The upper edges of the shear, exterior walls and the eaves of the porches are already stained from rainwater, a fate shared by other white buildings without gutters in Houston, like the Brochstein Pavilion (2009) and the James Turrell Twilight Epiphany Skyspace (2012), both at Rice University.
The plan, though pleasing on paper, is inelegant in person. The architects refer to the main entry corridor as the “living room,” but if we continue this residential analogy, being confronted with the double steel doors that lead to the loading bay from the main entrance is kind of like staring at the refrigerator from the front door. Finally, considering the effort to activate the spaces around the buildings, there is the curious decision to reinstall two earthworks by Michael Heizer, which were formerly on the front lawn of the Menil Collection, to a red gravel paved court on the far side of the loading bay and service driveway. The artworks look like afterthoughts in their new, isolated location.
John and Dominique de Menil understood the buildings they commissioned to house their art to be sacred places where clarity of design and purity of execution provide places for contemplation. It is disappointing that the MDI falls short on these counts, and the fact that it does may be due to the absence of a champion to see the project through. The Institute came about during a time of transition, across four different chief curators, two permanent and one interim museum directors, and a chief operating officer who came and went. It belongs to that class of extremely photogenic buildings meant to be experienced through (and premiated for) the images they produce rather than the spaces they create. Nearly all of the visual noise, so troublesome in person, is quieted through the camera’s lens and careful photo-editing. Nonetheless, the MDI should be commended for its ability to integrate itself sensitively and cleverly into an existing master plan. It will no doubt earn awards. It, however, stands as an example of how essential an exacting patron is to the creation to architecture of the highest quality.
Ben Koush, AIA, is an architect in Houston.