Four finalists have emerged from the Menil Collection's extensive international search to select an architect to design its Menil Drawing Institute (MDI), the first major project to be built as a part of the museum's long-range master plan.
After several years of site visits, careful research and thoughtful interviews, the Menil's architecture selection committee has announced a short list of long-established and newly-emerging architectural firms:
- Tatiana Bilbao — up-and-coming Mexico City architect with a number of high-profile projects under her belt, including a building co-designed with artist Gabriel Orozco
- David Chipperfield Architects — renowned London-based firm behind the Menil's 2009 master plan as well as the stunning Figge Art Museum in Iowa
- Johnston Marklee — design duo from Los Angeles known for its ultramodern nods to architectural history
- SANAA — Tokyo-based designers behind the Toledo Museum of Art's Glass Pavilion and winners of the 2010 Pritzker Prize
Founded in 2008, the MDI holds more than 1,200 works on paper by some of the most pivotal figures in 20th century art — from Pablo Picasso and Max Ernst to Lee Krasner and Jasper Johns to Richard Serra's recent paintstick works on paper. The collection reaches as far back as Rembrandt and Delacroix, but concentrates mainly on modern and contemporary artists. Most are in storage because there is no current space to display them.
"The new building will be slightly larger than the Cy Twombly Gallery at approximately 18,000 square feet," Menil director Josef Helfenstein tells CultureMap, adding that the Twombly is about 13,000 square feet. "The Drawing Institute has a far more complex program with a need for offices, storage and conservation space in addition to the exhibition area."
The complex nature of displaying and preserving such delicate artworks ultimately will determine much of architecture for MDI's future home.
"As crucial as light is to display artwork, it is the main enemy of drawings," Menil dire ctor Josef Helfenstein said. "The new Drawing Institute poses many interesting and critical challenges for the architects."
"Works on paper are very light-sensitive and usually spend most of their lives in storage," Helfenstein explained. "Leonardo da Vinci drawings, for example, have to be stored away almost all the time or you wouldn't be able to look at them."
This notion of light, of course, is one of the defining features of the leafy Menil campus, particularly when it comes to Renzo Piano's clever use of daylight throughout the central museum building.
"As crucial as light is to display artwork, it is the main enemy of drawings. The new Drawing Institute poses many interesting and critical challenges for the architects," Helfenstein said.
When the building is completed sometime in the next three to five years, the MDI will be the first freestanding facility in America dedicated to modern and contemporary drawing, and one of the most advanced in the world.
The final site for the MDI is yet to be determined, although given the city's plans for a light rail line along Richmond, the Menil director suggests an interest in spaces on the southern portion of the campus. The Chipperfield-designed plan offers numerous possibilities, each with ample green space for all the new building room to breathe.
"There's a complexity and subtlety to the neighborhood here . . . an understated quality of privacy," Helfenstein said about the manner in which the Menil's quiet public galleries fit comfortably within the largely residential community. "An understanding of this unique balance was important to us as we searched for architect."
Headed by Houston architect Leslie Elkins Sasser, the selection committee has laid down few guidelines for the finalists as they enter the next phase of the process to allow the finalists to concentrate on larger architectural concepts rather than specific designs.
"The parameters are quite broad so as not to impede the possibilities of these four firms' projected visions," wrote committee member and dean of Rice University's architecture school Sarah Whiting in a recent email, adding that only a program, dimensions and a budget have been given to the teams. "We look forward to seeing how they each interpret this project."