Museum's Next Blockbuster

New York is "boring" while Houston art scene thrives, architect tells crowd at MFAH groundbreaking

Architect of MFAH complex favors Houston art scene over "boring" NY

Gary Tinterow and Lynn Wyatt at groundbreaking for the  Fayez S. Sarofim Campus and the new Glassell School of Art
Gary Tinterow and Lynn Wyatt at the groundbreaking for the new Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Glassell School of Art. Photo by dabfoto creative
Donors participate in groundbreaking for Museum of Fine Arts Fayez S. Sarofim Campus and the new Glassell School of Art
Major donors to the new Glassell School of Art play in the sandbox at the groundbreaking for the building. Photo by dabfoto creative
Model of the Museum of Fine Arts Glassell School of Art
Model of the new Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Glassell School of Art. Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects
Architect Steven Holl at Museum of Fine Arts Fayez S. Sarofim Campus and the new Glassell School of Art
Steven Holl, center, flanked by Rich Kinder, left, and Gary Tinterow, right, addresses the crowd at the groundbreaking for the new Glassell School of Art. Photo by dabfoto creative
Chris McVoy of Steven Holl Architects at Museum of Fine Arts  Fayez S. Sarofim Campus and the new Glassell School of Art
Chris McVoy of Steven Holl Architects with a model of the new Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Glassell School of Art on the Fayez S. Sarofim Campus. Photo by dabfoto creative
Gary Tinterow and Lynn Wyatt at groundbreaking for the  Fayez S. Sarofim Campus and the new Glassell School of Art
Donors participate in groundbreaking for Museum of Fine Arts Fayez S. Sarofim Campus and the new Glassell School of Art
Model of the Museum of Fine Arts Glassell School of Art
Architect Steven Holl at Museum of Fine Arts Fayez S. Sarofim Campus and the new Glassell School of Art
Chris McVoy of Steven Holl Architects at Museum of Fine Arts  Fayez S. Sarofim Campus and the new Glassell School of Art

Just as one Houston landmark — the international concourse at Hobby Airport — opened on Thursday, another grand project with blockbuster potential got underway with a groundbreaking for the new Glassell School of Art as part of a massive makeover of the 14-acre Museum of Fine Arts, Houston campus.

And the nationally renown architect for the project — Steven Holl — found it all very exciting.

"I got here at 4:45 (the day before) and they let me into the museum to see this fabulous Mark Rothko show, which I have to say is amazing and absolutely spiritually moving," Holl said. "It reminds me that Houston is so important in America because New York is a little boring."

The Glassell School, slated to open in 2017, will feature an 80,000-square-foot L-shape building with a sloped walkway and amphitheater leading to the BBVA Roof Garden, providing an expansive view of the newly-named Fayez S. Sarofim Campus, with Hermann Park beyond.

The new school will double the size of the old building, which was demolished to make way for the expansion, with fully digital studios and classrooms, exhibition space, an auditorium and street-level cafe. 

"The way this building is made, you have an incline plane and you have the theater that leads to the roof terrace, which really is about the whole campus," Holl said.

Big gamble

Holl and architect Chris McVoy took a gamble when bidding for the overall project that also includes a new museum building named for Nancy and Rich Kinder. It will begin construction in two years. The entire project, which includes three significant new buildings, extensive underground parking, public plazas, reflecting pools and landscaped gardens, is expected to be completed by late 2019.

The museum asked for a garage to be included in the overall plan, but Holl presented a proposal to put parking underground to allow for space for the Glassell sculpture terrace and expansive views of the campus.

"It was frightening for us to be disobedient and not do the parking garage, but Nancy (Kinder) got it right away. And I felt that somehow we would prevail and win the competition," Holl said.

"So today, after four years, this is a very exciting moment for an architect. This is a project I think that is probably the most important one we will do, possibly because Mies van der Rohe is watching. He's right over there," Holl added, referring to the iconic MFAH building designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1958, now called Cullinan Hall, across the way on Bissonnet.

Big donors

Sarofim gave $70 million to the overall museum project and the Kinders donated $50 million. 

Other donors singled out by MFAH chairman Rich Kinder at the groundbreaking for giving $10 million or more are Cornelia and Meredith Long, Clare Glassell, Ann and Charles Duncan, The Brown Foundation, the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, The Cullen Foundation, the Wortham Foundation, and Lynn and Oscar Wyatt.

As the largest corporate donor, BBVA Compass gave $8 million to the project. "We recognize the life-changing power of art and strive to make it accessible to everyone in our community, from the young to the young at heart," said BBVA Compass chairman and CEO Manolo Sánchez, an MFAH trustee.

"And we help to support the city as being a more attractive place to live, which we already know, but it's one of the best-kept secrets in other parts of the world and the nation. They don't realize the phenomenal cultural infrastructure we are building and we already have here in Houston.

"The expansion of the campus is providing an opportunity for the Latin American collection to be exhibited. The museum has the strongest Latin American collection in the world. That's also a great opportunity to connect with Latinos and the Hispanic community in town, when they see their heritage being part of this serious art space."

At the groundbreaking, MFAH director Gary Tinterow also announced that New York landscape architect Deborah Nevins has been retained to "create an urban pedestrian experience like no other in Houston" on the museum campus.

Holl recalled he was recently asked by a reporter what his architecture will give to the Houston community. "I remembered a Winston Churchill sentence — 'first we shape our buildings and then they shape us.' I really believe that architecture changes the way we live. It is going to be a great project."