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Johnston Marklee Designs New Buildings for The Menil Collection

Museum to add a $40-million Drawing Institute and an energy-efficient power plant to its Houston campus.

By Clifford A. Pearson
February 21, 2014
Image Courtesy Johnston Marklee/The Menil Collection
The Menil Drawing Institute, west façade as seen from the Energy House.

At a news conference in New York in mid-February Los Angeles-based architecture firm Johnston Marklee presented its design for the Menil Drawing Institute (MDI), a freestanding addition to the Menil Collection’s 30-acre campus in Houston. The 30,000-square-foot structure will sit south of the Menil’s main museum building from 1987 and its Cy Twombly Gallery from 1995, both designed by Renzo Piano. Johnston Marklee will also design an Energy House, which will serve as the central utilities plant for the group of buildings.

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Embedded in a leafy residential neighborhood, the campus is a mecca for art lovers and scholars and includes a building with a permanent light installation by Dan Flavin and the independent Rothko Chapel. The MDI will be the first freestanding facility in the United States dedicated to the exhibition, study, storage, and conservation of modern and contemporary drawings. And it will be the first new project at the Menil since David Chipperfield developed a master plan for the campus in 2009.

Johnston Marklee—which has done a number of projects for arts organizations such as the Lannan Foundation in Marfa, Texas, and Chile House/META in Penco, Chile—beat out Chipperfield, SANAA, and Tatiana Bilbao for the MDI job. Inspired by the live oak trees on the Menil grounds, the firm’s partners Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee saw their task as “drawing a roof over the landscape,” says Lee. To this end, the architects conceived of the $40-million, one-story building as a set of discrete volumes connected by courtyards and a thin, steel-plate roof.

Landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh is working with Johnston Marklee on the three courtyards and the grounds around the building to “modulate” the strong Texas sunlight before it enters the exhibition galleries, study rooms, conservation areas, and administration offices, says Johnston. “This project is very much about occupying the courtyards that the architects have so carefully created,” explains Van Valkenburgh.

Talking about the strategic position of the MDI on the Menil campus, Johnston says, “We needed to strike the right balance between the institutional scale of the museum and the residential scale of the neighborhood’s bungalows.”

Groundbreaking for the MDI is scheduled to start in early 2015 and the Menil hopes construction will be done sometime in 2017.

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