Building Blocks

Blaffer blows out its brown box: Airy expansion plans revealed

Blaffer blows out its brown box: Airy expansion plans revealed

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The new Blaffer façade. Courtesy of University of Houston
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The revised Fine Arts Building courtyard. Courtesy of University of Houston
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A café will spill from the Blaffer into the Fine Arts Building courtyard. Courtesy of University of Houston
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The blueprints are in for the renovation of the 38-year-old Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston. Opening up the museum from its 1970s cloistered structure, the redesign makes the Blaffer more conspicuous on campus — and in the local art scene.

"For years, the museum has suffered from a lack of visibility and accessibility from the campus side, but particularly from the city side," Blaffer director Claudia Schmuckli tells CultureMap. "There was just no indication of the museum on the side of the building. One of the main issues we wanted to resolve was precisely that."

Blaffer's makeover has been conceived by the New York-based WORK Architecture Company (WORKac), working in partnership with Gensler. WORKac has successfully tinkered with other museum layouts, including a renovation and expansion of the Clark Institute at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Mass., the Children's Museum of the Arts in New York and a master plan of the BAM Cultural District in Brooklyn. 

Museum visitors may soon enter through a north-facing portico crowned by a diagonal truss that articulates the new second-level staircase. Bands of clear and textured channel glass will make up the Blaffer's new northern façade. Entrance is still available through the interior courtyard, but the reception desk will be centralized and replaced by a café and lounge area.

WORKac's plan provides for an additional 500 square feet to the 11,000 square foot museum while enhancing circulation between the galleries. The primary change in the museum's interior is the relocation of the central staircase (which had previously intervened in the upper level's layout) to the building's northern exterior. A double height central gallery — the museum's centerpiece — will remain largely unchanged. New lighting, furniture and finishes are also on the way.

Apropos for a museum and art school atrium, social interaction and the exchange of ideas are key themes in the new design. The open space of the interior courtyard has been reconceptualized by SCAPE landscape architecture firm to include triangles of grass upon which spectators can enjoy performances and film screenings. Gone are the tangles of tropical plants, replaced by articulated geometric gathering platforms.

"We thought it was necessary to approach the site holistically, taking the courtyard into consideration as a very underused space in its current design and guise," explains Schmuckli. "It's one of the most beautiful courtyards on campus, but until now it didn't allow the opportunity for lingering. Now, with the café spilling out into the courtyard, we can establish the building as a social hub on campus. As the university is gearing up for achieving Tier 1 status, we want to be a part of enhancing the quality of student life."

The museum will break ground this summer, with completion expected in January 2012. Before any walls are rearranged, the galleries will host an exhibition in conjunction with the Museum of Broken Relationships. Starting Tuesday, the museum will accept donations of objects from failed relationships to be displayed at an exhibition that opens on May 21. Learn more about the project here.

Contemporary art aficionados suffering from Blaffer withdrawal can access the museum's Window Into Houston display at 110 Milam St. Come June 3, the Blaffer will present the exhibition At the Back of the North Wind with Flo Art Fund during the 54th Venice Biennale at the Palazzo Bollani.

"It's an amazing opportunity for us to be present in Venice," says Schmuckli. "It's just one more opportunity of widening the reach of our programs and creating additional awareness for what we do beyond the city limits."