“Starchitect” finalists for MFAH addition offer hope for Houston's best new building in years

“Starchitect” finalists for MFAH addition offer hope for Houston's best new building in years

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has announced that three internationally renowned architectural firms — Steven Holl Architects of New York City, Morphosis Architects of Culver City, Calif., and Snøhetta of Oslo and New York—will prepare conceptual design proposals for a new museum building to contain its permanent collection of 20th- and 21st- century art, galleries for traveling exhibitions, a library and study-resources center, a theater, a restaurant, and other program spaces.

The site for the new building will be the former First Presbyterian Church parking lot at Bissonnet and Main Street, facing the Brown Pavilion of the museum’s Caroline Wiess Law Building and bordering the east flank of the museum’s Cullen Sculpture Garden. In 2007 the museum bought this 2.2-acre site, used since the 1960s as a surface parking lot, from the church.

Shortly after completion of the museum’s Audrey Jones Beck Building at Main and Binz in 2000, museum director Peter C. Marzio let it be known that the museum needed to build yet another building, the same size as the Beck, to contain its 20th-century and contemporary collections. In 2005 he was quoted as saying that he hoped to have this new building in operation by 2010.

Marzio’s sickness, his death in 2010, and the end-of-the-decade financial crisis slowed this effort but did not stop it. Last year, the museum’s long range planning committee interviewed architects (including Alejandro Aravena of Santiago, Chile, and Derek Dellekamp of México DF) before narrowing its choices to Steven Holl, Morphosis, and Snøhetta.

The Contenders

Steven Holl is in his mid-60s and teaches at Columbia University. Holl was considered for the design of the Beck Building when the museum began its architect search process in the early 1990s, just as he completed one of his early constructed projects, a house for an art collector in Dallas that Holl calls the “Stretto House.” In the mid-1990s Holl’s professional practice took off because Asian and European clients were willing to entrust him with larger building projects than were conservative U.S. clients.

Since winning an international competition to design the Helsinki Museum of Contemporary Art (completed in 1998), Holl has designed numerous museums in Austria, China, Norway, Denmark, and most recently France. In the U.S. he produced the acclaimed Bloch Building, an addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City (2007).

Thom Mayne of Morphosis is also in his mid-60s. Mayne and his former partner Michael Rotondi (Rotondi designed the Kennedy Architecture and Art Building at Prairie View A&M University of 2005) first came to attention in the mid-1980s with small scale residential and restaurant interior designs in and near Santa Monica. Under Mayne’s direction, Morphosis has designed public schools, federal government buildings, and university buildings for institutional clients that are rarely patrons of ambitious and unconventional architecture.

Presently under construction is Mayne’s first Texas building, the Perot Museum of Nature & Science in downtown Dallas. In 2005, Mayne was awarded the Pritzker Prize in Architecture, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

Snøhetta (which takes its name from a Norwegian mountain) was started by Kjetil T. Thorsen and Craig Dykers (now both in their early 50s) in 1989 as an ad-hoc collaboration to produce what turned out to be the winning design in an open architectural competition for the Bibliotecha Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt, completed in 2002. Thorsen is Norwegian; Dykers is American and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. Houston restaurateur Dan Fergus (Café Brasil) was instrumental in getting the two together in 1989 to work on the Alexandria competition.

Like Holl, Snøhetta has produced an impressive number of museum buildings during its comparatively short life span. Their design of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum is due to be completed in New York City this fall.

What they share

What the three architectural firms share is a propensity for bold scale and sculpturally dynamic buildings that, with dizzying geometry, gravity-defying projections, and novel material choices, stand out from their surroundings. The enormous critical success of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, of 1997 by Los Angeles architect Frank O. Gehry set the stage for the architecture of globalization during the 2000s, creating in the process the phenomenon of the “starchitect,” the celebrity form-giver whose extravagantly gestural buildings become instant media and civic icons wherever they are built.

The museum selection committee’s choice of Holl, Morphosis, and Snøhetta implies an emphatic repudiation of the self-effacing discretion and restraint of Rafael Moneo’s Beck Building. Holl, Morphosis, and Snøhetta can be relied on to produce spectacular, unconventional, provocative design proposals for the Museum of Fine Arts. Their buildings won’t blend into the background. 

Architectural historian Stephen Fox is a Fellow of the Anchorage Foundation of Texas.

News_Snohetta_National Sept. 11 Museum_July 2011
National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum was designed by the Norwegian-based architecture firm, Snøhetta
News_Steven Holl_Bloch Building_June 2011
Steven Holl Architects designed the Bloch Building, an addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City
News_Morphosis_Perot Museum of Nature & Science_ July 2011
Morphosis Architects designed the Perot Museum of Nature & Science, currently under construction in Dallas