Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

February 7, 2017

Houston’s Museum Boom

Can projects by Steven Holl, Michael Maltzan, and Johnston Marklee bring a progressive urbanism to a city that loves the automobile?


Architecture, Articles, Johnston Marklee, Steven Holl, Urbanism

In early January, I visited the Moody Center for the Arts at Rice University in Houston, designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture (MMA), on the first day the new building opened for classes. Students searched for their assigned rooms as the final stages of construction unfolded around them. An orange traffic cone in front of a pair of glass doors signaled the entry to the 52,000-square-foot building.

It was a quiet afternoon for this self-proclaimed “transdisciplinary lab for creativity,” which will be far less subdued when it opens to the public on Feb. 24. The Moody Center is a hybrid, both in its mission and its architecture. An education space (with 4,000 square feet of classrooms) and maker spaces (including wood and rapid prototyping shops), the building will also be a cultural arts hub, with a theater and galleries. “Academia has gotten quite siloed,” Alison Weaver, the center’s executive director, told me. “How can we cross-pollinate again? Our goal is to be less a cabinet of curiosities and more a conversation.”

Consider these selections from the spring lineup: an academic course that brings together musical composition and neuroscience, and a workshop with Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson that focuses on the refugee crisis and economic migration. Houston residents will be invited to take part in the program along with asylum seekers, students, and artists.

Located on College Way, a southern entry point to the Rice campus, the center was sited to help build ties between town and gown. The design reflects Weaver’s desire for the building to be an “open source platform”: a large terrace on the west façade flanks the road into campus, and three expressive “lanterns”—large circular openings cut into the metallic brick façade—serve as beacons for the center. There’s a long arcade across the north side of the building and a central studio that, although an enclosed volume, evokes the courtyards that are characteristic of the university’s academic buildings.

The Moody is one of three arts projects now under construction in Houston. Steven Holl Architects (SHA) is attempting to foster a relationship between visitors and the landscape with its expansion project at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), and Johnston Marklee is bringing a refined atmosphere to its design of the Menil Drawing Institute (MDI). All three projects share a progressive approach to urbanism, embracing the idea that residents are keen for a stronger relationship between art, city life, and pedestrianism. But can that approach work in Houston, long known for its laissez-faire approach to zoning and reliance on the automobile?

Designing a Coherent Campus
The MFAH is just over a mile from the Moody, at the intersection of Main Street and Montrose Boulevard, where cars zip around Mecom Fountain, a classical roundabout at the north edge of Hermann Park. The 14-acre campus is located in the center of the Museum District, where some 20 museums—art, science, and Texas history—are scattered within a 1.5-mile radius of the fountain. “We are the 800-pound gorilla in the Museum District. We see ourselves as part of the district, but by virtue of our scale … ” says Willard Holmes, chief operating officer of the MFAH, as he trails off with a chuckle. “The approach to this expansion is to make it a coherent campus in itself.”

Construction has started on the foundations and parking garages for the first of two buildings that SHA is designing: the new Glassell School of Art, which opens in 2018. Food trucks are parked on the site of the second building, the 164,000-square-foot Nancy and Rich Kinder Building, which will be completed in 2019. When I visited, there were large crowds inside the museum’s existing buildings—both the original 1924 Neoclassical structure and the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe additions (the 1958 Cullinan Hall and 1974 Brown Pavilion), as well as across the street at Rafael Moneo’s 2000 Audrey Jones Beck Building. Tunnels shuttle visitors between the buildings and the parking garage, with James Turrell’s installation “The Light Inside” serving as a mid-walk destination for visitors, who usually pose for selfies.

During my visit, a few people emerged from the Mies additions and darted through traffic to the food trucks. And some people made their way to the museum’s Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden (completed by Isamu Noguchi in 1986) for lunch. But aside from that, I saw little foot traffic.

Can SHA create a more pedestrian-friendly campus? The Glassell School’s three-story design features a sloped planted roof that will serve as a stepped amphitheater and garden. And the design for the Kinder Building, which will house 20th-century collections, is tied to a series of seven gardens, the largest of which is the entry garden court at the corner of Bissonnet and Main Street. All the green space around the perimeter enhances SHA’s intent to create a “porous” museum, one in which the art and the urban experience interweave. “Our aim was to have a building that was open—an inspirational experience of the art spills out into all sides,” says SHA senior partner Chris McVoy, AIA.

The plan features seven entrances into the main lobby, with no single ticket desk (a trend in museum design also seen at The Broad in Los Angeles). Flexible galleries will ring the central, three-story space, which will be topped with a meringue-like roof—an array of convex curves meant to resemble clouds in the big Texas sky. “The museum as a work of architecture is in complementary contrast to the Moneo building, which is opaque and stone, and the Mies building, which is steel and glass. Ours is thick translucency,” he says, explaining that the façade of the expansion will be clad in large vertical glass tubes that will glow at night.

According to Holmes, SHA won the competition for the project in 2012 by defying the brief, which called for a new museum building and an above-ground parking garage. Instead, the firm boldy proposed demolishing the existing 1979 Glassell School building, designed by S.I. Morris and Associates, and putting all parking underground. “Holl said it was wrong to put a parking garage here,” says Holmes.

Instead, SHA sketched an L-shaped design for the school, which wraps around a new public plaza along Montrose Boulevard. At ground level, Noguchi’s sculpture garden will act as a hinge between the school and the Kinder Building, while new tunnels underground will link two robust parking areas (some 190,000 square feet) to each other and to the galleries above. The MFAH is counting on the new buildings to get people out of the air conditioning and into the open air. “You’re going to have an urban experience: films, gardens, cuisine,” says Holmes. “We are broadening the definition of what going to the museum means.”

Expanding the Menil Collection
Located less than two miles away, in the Montrose neighborhood, the Menil Collection has always been an open-air campus. Visitors and neighbors alike can stroll under the live oak trees on grounds dotted with bungalows, the Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA–designed galleries, and the Rothko Chapel. I met Sheryl Kolasinski, the Menil’s deputy director and chief operating officer, for a hard hat tour of the MDI. She led me down a new street, built during the current project, which will provide a new connection across the site and better link the Menil to the neighborhood.

When it opens in October, the 30,000-square-foot building will be devoted to modern and contemporary drawings, with ground-floor spaces dedicated to exhibitions and study and below-grade rooms for storage and conservation. The MDI displays Johnston Marklee’s attention to refined proportion through a sequence of courtyards and galleries modulated to accommodate works of all sizes and exposures. “All rooms are calibrated—from natural light to no natural light,” says firm principal Sharon Johnston, FAIA. “Light from above wasn’t something we could introduce given the fragility of the drawings. And light from the sides—well, that’s more of a traditional domestic approach.”

The relationship to light governed the overall massing, resulting in a building, lined by porch-like canopies, that seems to reference the forms and scale of the surrounding residential architecture. “Our building has a more in-between relationship with the existing context; it’s not so much bigger than the nearby bungalows,” Johnston says.

A large green space that will be shaded by oak trees on the building’s west side, new landscaping by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, and a large wooden deck will make the MDI more of an outdoor destination. And, as with the MFAH but to a lesser degree, the museum will host gatherings and performances. Take, for instance, the utilitarian Energy House that Johnston Marklee has designed across from the MDI, which will contain the Menil’s power equipment. The whole structure is made of rough concrete block, but the side facing the MDI is smooth—a makeshift screen for playing films.

The MDI sits at the heart of a larger vision for the 30-acre campus, based on a 2009 master plan by British architect David Chipperfield. His scheme suggests new galleries and the development of housing and even mixed-use structures on museum-owned land. To the south, for instance, demolition is underway on an ugly housing complex—the 1970s-era Richmond Apartments—that will eventually be redeveloped.

As with the MFAH, the Menil walks a fine line between expansion and coherence, between a desire to engage its urban context while ensuring a contemplative space for art. And, as with the Moody, an emphasis on an expanded public program will help bridge the campus and the city. Johnston is confident they’ve struck a balance. “One of magical things about the legacy of the Menil is that they are non-didactic,” she says. “Our goal is to create an atmosphere of discovery so you can have your own experience.”

Will this renewed attention to public space and walkability in Houston actually entice visitors? That remains to be seen.