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Texas Society of Architects 25-Year Award

Making Light: The Menil Collection Receives 25-Year Award


by Ben Koush

This year, the Menil Collection, designed by Renzo Piano with Richard Fitzgerald & Associates and inaugurated in 1987, was selected by the Texas Society of Architects for its 25-Year Award. The annual award recognizes one building completed 25 to 50 years earlier that has stood the test of time by retaining its central form, character, and overall architectural integrity. The museum also received the American Institute of Architects Twenty-Five Year Award earlier this year. Piano, who was commissioned in 1980 by the Franco-American art collector Dominique de Menil to design a building to house her and her late-husband’s art collection, was actually the third architect for the evolving project. In 1973, after purchasing 71 residential lots just west of the University of St. Thomas, John and Dominique de Menil commissioned Louis Kahn to design what was at first to be an “art storage” building. This project came to naught after John died six months later, and Kahn died shortly afterward in March 1974. After this, Dominique de Menil resumed the project on her own, this time working with Howard Barnstone, Houston’s best-known modern architect. Barnstone produced a series of ultimately unsatisfactory schemes throughout the second half of the 1970s. (In 1974, however, Barnstone suggested that all the Menil-owned bungalows should be painted the same shade of dove grey — the proposal that

was accepted and helped set the stage for the museum, which was eventually built a dozen years later.) Pontus Hulten, then-director of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the controversial, high-tech museum designed by Piano and the British architect Richard Rogers that opened in 1977, suggested to Dominique de Menil that she meet with Piano. Despite the aggressive appearance of the Centre Pompidou, the relationship clicked and Piano was awarded the commission with the charge that the galleries be naturally lit and that the building appear small on the outside, but large inside. This last part was an indication of Dominique de Menils’s sensitivity to the intimate scale of the museum’s precinct, by now nicknamed “Do-ville” by her colleagues, surrounded as it was by all the little grey bungalows. is so successful because it appeals on many levels. The first, perhaps, is purely phenomenological. As architectural critic Reyner Banham enthused about the building in 1987, “the quality of the light is like nothing else … and may well set standards to make other architects lie awake at night.” This ethereal lighting — achieved with an elaborate system of organically shaped, precast concrete sunshades hung from steel trusses that are set, somewhat counterintuitively, just below a glass roof — was devised in conjunction with the British engineers Peter Rice and Tom Barker. The second is its cunning ability to cloak its programmatic grandiosity in a completely compelling veil of ascetic modesty. The Menil Collection is a very large

Piano’s built design

building inserted in a sea of very small bungalows that, due to the architect’s near-miraculous ability to gauge scale, seems perfectly at ease in its setting. The third layer of the building’s appeal comprises its specific, multi-coded references to both lowly bungalows and high-tech,

“The quality of the light is like nothing else … and may well set standards to make other architects lie awake at night.” contemporary architecture. Through the use of grey-stained cypress siding, a large front lawn, and the porch-like extensions of the roof plane, the Menil Collection evokes tropes of domestic architecture. Through the use of exposed structural steel members and a complicated glassand-precast-concrete-louvered ceiling-and-roof assembly, it is at the same time an example of the most technically modern architecture. A fourth is the unaffected manner in which it succeeded in architecturalizing the apotheosis of the wealthy private art collector who managed to transcend her slightly déclassé, industrially-produced fortune (courtesy of the Schlumberger Well Services Co.) to become a cultural fountainhead for the entire city. And for all of this, Houston will always be grateful. Ben Koush is a Houston-based architect and writer.

11/12 2013

Texas Architect 27

Texas Architect November/December 2013: Campus Architecture  

This issue explores the value of architectural diversity and creative responses to context. The discussion begins with a series on the three...

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