When Menil Collection director Josef Helfenstein first placed a phone call to Los Angeles-based architecture firm Johnston Marklee's founders Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee, he posed two questions: "Are you sitting down?" "Are you ready for the project of your dreams?"
Over a period of seven years, that dream grew from concept to a ground breaking ceremony Friday morning for the first free-standing structure dedicated to the exhibition and study of contemporary drawing. Now, the Menil Drawing Institute (MDI) is 18 months from becoming a tangible new addition to the storied Menil campus.
How to deal with such light became one of the most challenging factors in the design of the 30,000 square-foot, one-story building.
With the sun shinning bright, a tent shielded a coterie of arts cognoscenti, city stakeholders and patrons from the intense Houston light as the architects, Menil board president Janet Hobby, generous donor Louisa Stude Sarofim, Mayor Annise Parker, MDI chief curator David Breslin and Helfenstein sunk their shovels into pile of soil as a symbolic gesture that, in essence, awakened those who've sketched this visionary reverie into its reality.
How to deal with such light became one of the most challenging factors in the design of the 30,000 square-foot, one-story building adjacent to the Cy Twombly Gallery on land which formerly housed apartments. The $40 million price tag — which includes the MDI, parks, streets and a new energy house — is part of a $110 million Menil capital and endowment campaign that to date has raised $78 million.
While most museums, including the Menil Collection's Renzo Piano buildings, are lit from above, the architects for the new MDI devised an arrangement of public courtyards and interior spaces to welcome light from the side. The fragility and intimacy of the genre of drawing demands a certain sensibility to light levels to safeguard the delicacy of the artwork.
"In taking into account the pre-war bungalows that surround the campus, the ceiling pitch reflects the very simple geometry of the surrounding houses."
But how to do so without engendering a matinee effect?
"That was the biggest challenge," Lee says. "How do you walk into a dark room and not feel dark? We took advantage of the oak trees and architecture to slowly bring the level of the light down in a very gradual way so visitors don't feel the change."
The exterior building will consist of two elements: Natural stained gray cypress wood in 24-inch-wide engineered boards and half-inch steel plates that are painted white and glazed. The juxtaposition of materials, one tactile and one abstract — also a nod how drawings are created — meld to offer components that modulate light alongside a shadowy color that prevents light from coming in as one enters the building.
The MDI will accommodate a living room, 2,850 square feet of galleries (roughly the space occupied by the exhibition Becoming Modern: 19th-Century French Drawings from The Morgan Library and Museum and The Menil Collection, on view through July 26), a drawing study room, a conservation lab, administrative offices and a scholar's cloister.
"We started by understanding the context," Johnston says about the striking angled interior ceilings. "In taking into account the pre-war bungalows that surround the campus, the ceiling pitch reflects the very simple geometry of the surrounding houses."
A courageous decision
Programmatically, the building has grown and refined since the initial 2012 rendering. Although the architects experimented with different organizations between interior and exterior spaces, ultimately they returned to the original design that received unanimous approval from Menil officials.
"The institute can help in examining different elements of the practice of drawing then build upon those legacies to learn how they translate to what's happening in modern contemporary practice."
"The design is a beautiful way to integrate a new building into an existing complex of distinguish buildings and parks," Helfenstein explains. "It has the kind of intimacy we were looking for, in addition to a non-institutional, residential feel. Museums can be anonymous and intimidating, and this was the complete opposite."
"The decision was courageous because the firm wasn't well known at the time," he adds. "That made me even more passionate about it as I knew they would put all their lifeblood into this project. It was our intuition."
Helfenstein admits that while the significance of the MDI is today only understood by very few people — not dissimilar from when the Cy Twombly Gallery opened in 1995 and even the Rothko Chapel opened in 1971 — the new endeavor will magnify the beauty and integrity of the Menil Collection and Houston in the eyes of the national and international communities, beyond important collectors and seminal artists.
Significance for Houston
Chief curator David Breslin already has a clear idea of the vision that was began with MDI founding curator Bernice Berend Rose and continued by Michelle White, curator of the exhibition Lee Bontecou: Drawn Worlds. While Breslin isn't revealing any details for the inaugural exhibition yet, he plans to recognize pioneering artists who have used drawing as primary medium to communicate — among them Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly and Ellsworth Kelly — that are included in the Menil's collection of 1,900 drawings. He predicts that the museum is primed to receive many more drawings as gifts as the building nears completion.
"I feel a lot of responsibility when thinking about the possibilities," Breslin says. "The institute can help in examining different elements of the practice of drawing then build upon those legacies to learn how they translate to what's happening in modern contemporary practice."
It's important for Breslin that the MDI explores its full potential, particularly for an institution that classifies and believes itself to be an institute. That includes lectures and artist talks that address why drawing is a language with which many people can identify. In addition, a large wall of the energy house that will be erected next to the MDI will be able to accommodate projections and staged performances.
"Choreographers, dancers and musicians think about drawing all the time," he says. "To bring them here to see how a score influences them, and how a piece of paper with markings interacts with the body is one of the great things we can do."
As for his love of drawing, Breslin explains, "It stems from my passion for artists. I think artists think drawing is important to their work — so I have to love drawing."
Watch a fly through of the Menil Drawing Institute, courtesy of Johnston Marklee / Nephew: