Serene scheme for Menil Drawing Institute

Tuesday 25 Feb 2014

The Menil Collection unveils design for new drawing institute in Houston, Texas

The Houston-based Menil Collection has unveiled a design by Los Angeles based architect Johnston Marklee for the Menil Drawing Institute (MDI). The 30,150 sq ft MDI will be the first freestanding facility in the United States created specifically for the exhibition, study and conservation of modern and contemporary drawings and as such it marks the growing importance of works on paper as an independent medium on par with painting and sculpture. 

The building is the first of many future improvements planned for the Menil’s 30-acre campus under a long range plan that envisions a more expansive, coherent and sustainable landscape (designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates) and the construction of an Energy House (also designed by Johnston Marklee) that will serve as an efficient central utilities plant for the museum and all of its buildings.  

The site for the MDI lies south of the main museum building, designed by Renzo Piano in 1987, and the Cy Twombly Gallery, a 1995 addition to the Menil’s campus also designed by Piano. The location positions the MDI as a 'hub' among the Menil’s other art buildings, surrounded by new green spaces and placed at the center of new pedestrian paths designed to unify the campus. 

Johnston Marklee’s design begins from these circulation routes and from a stand of magnificent live oak tress, a prominent natural feature of the Menil campus. The design calls for these trees to be surrounded by three square, open-roofed courtyards: two of them serving as entrances on the west and east sides of the building, and the third providing a 'scholar’s cloister' on the north. 

Enclosed volumes set between these courtyards will house the MDI’s programs. A 'living room', conceived as both a circulation spine and gathering place, runs between the west and east entrance courtyards. On the south side of the living room the space opens into exhibition galleries. On the north, the living room gives access to administrative offices, study rooms and a conservation lab. 

The principal structural element that unifies the indoor and outdoor spaces is a thin, flat roof made of painted steel plate. When viewed from the one side, the roof appears to float in the landscape, pierced here and there by the treetops. As designed, the roof and tree canopies will mediate the harsh Texas sun and deliver soft, controlled natural light to the interior spaces.

Ground breaking for the building is scheduled for early 2015. 

Sharon McHugh
US Correspondent

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