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Menil picks Los Angeles architects Johnston Marklee to design new Drawing Institute

Menil picks Los Angeles architects Johnston Marklee to design new Drawing Institute

Johnston Marklee Architects, Mark Lee, Sharon Johnston
Founded in Los Angeles by Mark Lee and Sharon Johnston in 1998, Johnston Marklee has made a name for itself with a deep dedication to architectural history and theory. Courtesy of Johnston Marklee Architects
Johnston Marklee Architects, View House
View House, Rosario, Argentina, 2009. TopBoxDesign.com
Johnston Marklee Architects, Hill House
Hill House, Pacific Palisades, CA, 2004. ArchiCentral.com
The Menil, exterior, entrance
After several years of searching for an architecture firm to take on its new Menil Drawing Insitute, Menil officials announced this week that Johnston Marklee will lead the design project. Courtesy of Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau
Johnston Marklee Architects, Mark Lee, Sharon Johnston
Johnston Marklee Architects, View House
Johnston Marklee Architects, Hill House
The Menil, exterior, entrance

Marking the 25th anniversary of the Menil Collection's public debut, museum trustees have announced their unanimous decision to select Los Angeles architecture firm Johnston Marklee as the designers of the new Menil Drawing Institute (MDI).

Board members and museum officials packed into the lobby of the Menil library in late May for two days of presentations from the four finalists announced in April: Pritzker Prize-winners Sanaa, Menil master plan designers David Chipperfield Architects, the quickly-emerging Mexican firm of Tatiana Bilbao and, finally, Johnston Marklee, a relatively lesser-known architecture team with a deep commitment to architectural history and theory. 

"It may have been two of the greatest days of my professional career," Menil director Josef Helfenstein told CultureMap in a phone interview. "All four firms showed an impressive understanding of the subtle balance between public and private life on the campus, not to mention a deep respect for the museum's history."

"This is a huge institutional moment for us," said Menil director Josef Helfenstein. " We were unbelievably thrilled when they arrived with this completely innovative proposal to create an intimate new facility."

During final deliberations with the board of trustees, Johnston Marklee distinguished itself with a refined approach to the scale and landscape of the museum campus as well as a forward-thinking consideration of how delicate works on paper can be displayed with regard to the bright Houston sun.

"This is a huge institutional moment for us," said Helfenstein. "There has never been a building designed specifically for modern and contemporary drawings. We were unbelievably thrilled when they arrived with this completely innovative proposal to create an intimate new facility."

On the horizon

After founding their semi-eponymous firm in 1998, architects Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee and have established themselves as a leaders in technical innovation with projects like the Hill House — a residential design placed along a 47-degree slope in Pacific Palisades — and a fully up-cycled "green" gas station in the heart of car-centric Los Angeles. Other works like the View House in Argentina stand as a testament to the firm's penchant for modernist reinvention.

The firm presented a single-story structure built around a trio of open courtyards, two of which would serve as entry points at either end of the building. A dedicated research area wraps around the third courtyard. A "living room" space would be situated at the center of the MDI to provide a casual and intimate zone of interaction for staff, scholars and the public.

Just off this central common area, the drawing institute's exhibition gallery — like the Renzo Piano buildings that house the Menil's main collection and Cy Twombly holdings — is proposed to be lit from above by a highly-controlled system of reflected natural daylight.

"One of the major challenges of this project is the sensitivity of the materials to light," Mark Lee told CultureMap from the firm's LA headquarters. "On the other hand, you have to take into account the gradations of light as one moves from the outdoors to the indoor. The proposal calls for a gradual progression so you don't feel like your suddenly in the dark, producing a so-called 'matinee effect.'"

"There's a relation between architecture and open space that's tremendously important to the campus' rich tapestry of residential and institutional buildings,"  said Johnston Marklee co-founder Sharon Johnston.

"There's a relation between architecture and open space that's tremendously important to the campus' rich tapestry of residential and institutional buildings," explained Sharon Johnston.

"Philip Johnson's original house for Dominique de Menil (on San Felipe in River Oaks) was essential to us in that it provides a kind of DNA found in Renzo Piano's designs and throughout the campus, particularly in the way domestic scale and courtyards factor into the overall visitor experience."

Details of the project, such as building materials and a site selection, are expected to emerge this summer as Lee and Johnston begin their collaborative meetings with the museum's architecture committee. Helfenstein stressed that the selection of Johnston Marklee has never been about choosing a specific design, but rather about establishing an architectural working relationship.

"Sharon and Mark take this very holistic approach to the project," he said. "Buildings need to come from their surroundings and this idea couldn't be more true for the Menil campus. The MDI has to be philosophically part of this family of buildings here. Johnston Marklee completely got it. Their point of departure into something new is just right."