Is it an insult to say my favorite part of the museum is the trees?
Not in the case of the Menil Collection campus in Houston. The opening of the institution’s latest building—the Menil Drawing Institute, on November 3—was also the occasion for replacing a diseased tree with a 25-year-old live oak, which arrived wrapped like a sculpture and necessitated closing a street.
This particular tree was on an open lawn opposite the Menil Collection building, the two-story Renzo Piano-designed pavilion that opened in 1987 and launched Piano’s career as architect of silvery rectangles with complicated roofs, as later seen in Basel and Chicago and Dallas and New York and Los Angeles. The first is the best—and was for many, including me, a revelation of how a museum could be.
No giant steps. No marble. No getting lost.
Yes to free admission. Yes to natural light. Yes to windows.
The Menil sits right on the ground, with painted-wood siding and white trim extending for 402 feet. Its roof—wave-like concrete blades, engineered in collaboration with Peter Rice of Ove Arup & Partners—rides a white steel structure below a set of gently gabled skylights. Floating visually above the opaque walls, the roof creates a deep porch from which to look out on the lawn surrounding the building.
“You’re seeing somebody walking their dog, but you’re also seeing a work of art,” says senior curator Michelle White of the vantage point.
Should you take a bench, you’ll take in, along with that lawn, the residential streets of Montrose—nicknamed “Doville” after founders John and Dominique de Menil began to assemble a 30-acre neighborhood real estate portfolio in advance of their museum. The existing, mostly one-story bungalows, whose peaked rooflines have proven a recurring source of inspiration for the Menils’ architects, are painted a uniform shade of what I now think of as Menil gray.
That shade of gray—pinkish, mousy—was selected by architect Howard Barnstone after Dominique co-curated the 1973 exhibition “Gray is the Color” at Rice University’s late, lamented Art Barn. A bistro is in one house, the excellent bookstore in another, staff offices in a third. If you are lucky, you can rent as your home one of the 42 bungalows the Menil Foundation isn’t using. The Menil Collection appears in the neighborhood not as an institution but as an oversized house, a mother hen with gray chicks.
In front of many of those houses: a live oak. Growing through the roof at the entrance to the Menil Collection entrance: a water oak. Planted in the museum’s interior courtyards: magnolias and bays, lushly surrounded by subtropical plants. The most beautiful gallery is one currently occupied by figural sculpture from Central and West Africa. You stand among these gods, gazing at leaves, not white walls.
Trees are in the DNA of the institution. When the Menils commissioned Philip Johnson to design their house on a three-acre site in River Oaks in 1948, it included, behind the 162-foot-long brick front façade, a glass courtyard built around an existing oak tree. The oak would soon be surrounded with subtropical plants (here you see the theme) making a terrarium just off the foyer flagged with black Mexican tile. Through the fronds, guests glimpse the living room, where the Menils ignored Johnson’s wishes and hired fashion designer Charles James to provide the furniture—plumage of a different sort.
“Philip felt we should have a Mies van der Rohe settee, a Mies van der Rohe square glass table, and two Mies van der Rohe chairs on a little, square, musty-colored rug,” Dominique later said, as reported in William Middleton’s recent biography of the couple, Double Vision. “All of the houses furnished by Philip Johnson had been like that; we could see right away how we would get bored.”
Even with Johnson’s restricted style, it is hard to see how they would have been bored. The collections now housed in the main Menil Building, as well as the foundation’s Cy Twombly Gallery (also Piano, 1995), the Byzantine Fresco Chapel (Francois de Menil, 1997), and Richmond Hall (renovation by Flavin, 1997) had their first airings at the house, where they could be arranged in front of Johnson’s windows or brick walls or James’s Surrealist decor: felt walls, taffeta curtains, the Lips sofa inspired by Man Ray’s painting of Lee Miller’s mouth.
The Menils (who had five children) stuffed the house with art and research and files, invited students over, and held dinner parties in the kitchen, the foyer, the yard. “Today, the furniture and objects were delivered from the New York storage, and I waltzed it all around until everything found its proper place,” Dominique wrote to John in 1957.
Eventually, it all waltzed into Piano’s building, and then another, and then another, transforming slowly from a highly personal collection that spanned Oceania, Surrealism, Byzantium, child’s play, and the image of the African in Western Art, into a slightly less personal museum with a board and donors and real estate that showed the same works (and eventually many, many more). Every article likes to quote what Dominique told The New York Times in 1987: “No boutiques and no blockbusters.” She was against the Bilbao Effect before the Guggenheim Bilbao was even built.
All of which is a long way to say that when Los Angeles-based practice Johnston Marklee won the 2012 competition to design the $40 million-dollar, 30,000-square-foot Menil Drawing Institute, they had a lot of architecture to live up to.
They have succeeded brilliantly, taking Piano’s long lines, the bungalows’ peaked roofs, Johnson’s palm court, and creating a building that is simultaneously secretive and spectacular.
“The domestic nature of the Drawing Institute made us think about the Philip Johnson house,” says architect and co-founder Sharon Johnston, “and the presence of the garden in almost every room.”
The glory moment is the Drawing Institute’s westernmost corner: white-painted plate steel, folded on a knife crease and seemingly suspended in air. (Guy Nordenson and Associates were the engineers; ambitious partnerships of architecture and engineering are also part of the Menil DNA.) It provides a preview of the whole, which looks simple and laid-back from afar, but wows you with crispness of the detail up close.
I’ve always associated Johnston Marklee with concrete and vaults and curves (more Louis Kahn than Piano) but with Nordenson they have conceived of a structural system as visually uplifting as— but in no way derivative of—the Menil’s previous two roofs. I can well imagine some museum board phoning them to ask them for the same, but bigger. I hope they will resist the temptation to xerox this move at 200 percent, since as Johnston says herself, this building’s dramatic moves work best when the rest of it is modest in size.
Glimpsed from the edge of the path to the Twombly Gallery, that corner lassos your attention, pulling you south across the yard to the first of the building’s three courtyards. Designed with landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and lighting designers George Sexton Associates, the courtyards are artworks themselves, each one with a different mood. White Vermont marble fragments bounce light up toward the downward slope of the steel canopies, while the stained cedar walls—deep brown, not gray—absorb it, turning the trees into more vertical totems.
“It is worth reinforcing that George Sexton, MVVA, Guy Nordenson—all those areas of expertise were really totally integrated,” says Johnston. “We talked about the light with Michael and tree specification with George. The Scholar’s Courtyard won’t need to have shades, because the trees are evergreen. All of us coming together: it is important; it is how we should be practicing.”
In a 2015 interview in Rice University’s Cite magazine, Johnston Marklee described the roof as “a protective halo. This in-between space, which is shadowy and dry, buffers the interior of the building from the exterior, like a space suit!” The space suit metaphor works when you consider that, unlike galleries for painting and sculpture, a building housing drawings requires dimness. So the entry courtyard, and the foyer beyond, act as padding for the delicate treasures inside.
For the public, the exhibition of those treasures takes up a very small part of the whole. One 3,000-square-foot, shoebox-shaped gallery is currently configured as a windowless tribute to the ongoing work of Jasper Johns. On the outside, one notices two tall windows on the short ends, hinting that they may be uncovered in the future. For now, though, their smoky glass functions as mirrors.
The breathtaking indoor space is instead the so-called Living Room, a foyer equal in size to the gallery, with an intricate, origami-like folded ceiling that is a sculpture unto itself. That origami is a paper-based craft—like drawing, get it?—adds to the fun.
Under the Living Room’s sharp peaks and angles, visitors will be able to rest on a series of wood benches designed by Johnston Marklee and fabricated by Jeff Jamieson of Wood & Plywood Furniture in San Luis Obispo. (Jamieson built all of Donald Judd’s furniture, and still works closely with the Judd Foundation on producing the late artist’s licensed designs.)
Despite my love for the origami ceiling, I question how livable this Living Room will be. Johnston describes the room as “a mixing place”—but the Johnston Marklee furniture is not designed for lounging. The shoebox proportions make it an awkward room for lectures. My own perception of feng shui revolts against the number of doors—that many egress routes can’t be restful. The lobby in the Menil Collection building serves similar, multiple purposes, reportedly inspired by Dominique’s habit of using her home’s foyer for receptions. If one time is homage, two times seems overly cute, especially when you own much of the real estate in the neighborhood.
The best sit-down-and-check-Instagram spot is right by the bathrooms, where Johnston Marklee have installed their reinterpretation of the hexagonal velvet ottoman from the Menil House. From that glass corner, one may regard the rest of the Menil campus in air-conditioned splendor.
Once you pass beyond the glass doors to the right of the entry desk—as only scholars, curators, and collectors will be able do—one is wrapped in a tasteful cashmere shawl of space. First, there is the ‘scholar’s cloister,’ planted with magnolia virginiana and paved with chunks of white Vermont marble. In here it might be winter in St. Petersburg: a delightful, mood-setting chill travels through the glass. I suspect those doors may become smudged with the breath of people wanting to take a closer look.
Circumnavigate the cloister and you’ll find the Drawing Room (a pun!) with a big wood table in the middle, gray ledges around the sides, and two sets of skylights above. The ceiling of this room is peaked, as if they had hollowed out a house to make it into the ideal setting for contemplation of works on paper. Beyond are more rooms: offices for two visiting scholars, a salon wrapped in more display shelves, a seminar room, the conservation lab. A dream graduate school.
Below that lies a full basement, twice wrapped in concrete, for drawings storage. The Institute, then under construction, “was the driest place in the neighborhood after Harvey,” says Menil director Rebecca Rabinow, “though we would never have tested it to that degree.” The original plans included that extra layer of protection, as well as drains and waist-high dams that will deploy should water start running down the stairs.
Before I go, I sit on a rectangular bench outdoors, back resting against the cedar siding and under the overhang of the East Courtyard, and regard its central tree. The wood of the bench smells sweet, and the canopy, angled down toward the center, blocks everything but my view of tree and sky, like a loosened-up James Turrell skyspace. (Houston has a few of those too, most publicly at Rice.)
The siting of the Drawing Institute, and the way the architects and landscape architects have positioned the outdoor spaces will be game-changing for the Menil. (The master plan was set by David Chipperfield in 2009.) The museum leadership’s desire to continue Dominique’s spirit of improvisation within its carefully planned interiors can feel forced, like a costume. But out here the landscape teems with possibility.
Across that two-acre field lies Richmond Hall, the last campus building commissioned by Dominique de Menil, in 1996. It is a circa-1930 Weingarten’s grocery store with a few Art Deco flourishes on the outside, now highlighted with a Dan Flavin green-neon stripe.
The cars and #25 bus on Richmond Avenue rush by and you can hardly believe the leafy streets of Montrose are only a block away. Facing the 21st-century Menil toward this Houston reality, rather than toward the tastefulness of Doville, feels like the right future. As a scholar, I can appreciate the tastefulness and care within the Drawing Institute. Wouldn’t I just love to be able to stare at that winter garden and think deep thoughts?
The excitement of the Menil has always been the contrast between its contemplative interiors and its additive plan. As an urbanist, I can’t wait to wander the mix embodied by the gray bungalows, the Drawing Institute’s power courtyards, the sculpture sturdy enough to be left out in the rain. It’s great. I can’t wait to see what they add next.