Johnston Marklee’s design for the Menil Drawing Institute reflects the best of the Menil Collection. So does the choice of a young L.A. firm to play off Renzo Piano’s masterpiece.
After botching a controversial addition to Le Corbusier's chapel complex at Ronchamp, and replacing the integral landscape at Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Museum with a smarmy new building that echoes its antecedent without hearing it, Renzo Piano may no longer be the go-to designer when revered modern masterpieces require new neighbors. One such modern masterpiece is, of course, Piano's own 1986 home for the Menil Collection in Houston. That cypress-clad, white-painted steel-framed gallery anchors a 30-acre arts campus that offers a landscaped oasis of Rauschenbergs and Flavins and Rothkos in that famously un-zoned city of strip malls. Piano’s original building—with its resolution of apparent modesty and actual grandeur, its balance of intimacy and publicity, and its candidly understated expression of building technology—is easily America’s greatest art museum building since the Kimbell itself. It may be our best building of the last quarter-century—and, therefore, not so easy to build next to.
That task now falls to the youngish Los Angeles–based firm Johnston Marklee. Last week, the firm unveiled its design for a new Menil Drawing Institute (MDI), due in 2017 alongside new campus-wide landscaping by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. Johnston Marklee was selected from a 2012 shortlist that included safer options: London’s David Chipperfield Architects (author of a 2009 master plan for the Menil campus and of many museums of exceptional competence) and Tokyo’s SANAA (Pritzker-certified!) as well as along with Mexico City’s Tatiana Bilbao. Although the firm has recently completed an Italian winery and a Chilean arts center, Johnston Marklee built its practice with a series of well-received and much-published residential projects—most notably the 2004 Hill House in Pacific Palisades, Calif., a brilliant white barnacle that eschews Case Study–style lightness and planarity in favor of a tessellated extrusion from a steep hillside site that captures horizon-deep Los Angeles views with strategic folds and excisions.
That proficiency at a domestic scale, and that feeling for visual weight and structural lightness, serve Johnston Marklee very successfully in Houston. In their preliminary design, some 3,000-square-feet of ground-floor galleries (and almost 10 times that of support and archival space), are punctuated by dainty courtyards encircled, cloister-like, with covered walkways. A study area is daylit (as is Piano’s 1995 Twombly Gallery) by a sailcloth-screened skylight. Thanks to a substantial basement level, this all fits into a tight footprint of some 17,000 square feet—and below a 16-foot-high profile consistent with the ridgelines of nearby cottages (and far below the canopies of nearby trees). The result mediates between the residential neighborhood and the monumental manner of the Twombly Gallery. As in Piano’s 1986 original Menil Collection, outdoor space extends deeply within the footprint of the building, although whereas Piano used an almost-freestanding installation of his daylighting apparatus as a kind of arbor, Johnston Marklee here deploy sheltered outdoor walkways accessing courtyards whose deep overhangs modulate daylight in a way that both illuminates and protects delicate works on paper.
In renderings of the building’s primary South-facing elevation, the inverted hip-roof profile suggested by those folded white-painted metal canopies on their slender perimeter columns is not dissimilar from that of Toshiko Mori’s 2009 visitor’s center for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House in Buffalo, N.Y. That project flips the low obliques of a Wrightian roofscape into a bright canopy that floats with uncanny visual weight above glass walls and skinny supports. Johnston Marklee’s version appears to be at its least polite and most original around the outdoor circulation area connecting the (rather strenuously-named) Living Room atrium and Scholar’s Cloister courtyard, where the adjacency between three inverted hip-roofed geometries suggests more of the robust tessellated charisma of the Hill House.
The great virtue of Houston’s otherwise lamentably unregulated cityscape is that in a single wander or detour one can cut or fade between the conventionally beautiful and the unconventionally sublime. It’s worth remembering that the architectural theorist Reyner Banham—that avatar of architecture-as-technology whose visions anticipated all the high-tech architectures of Piano and his British contemporaries—was drawn to Los Angeles not only for its infrastructural marvels but for its sprawling neon obscenity. Hopefully Johnston Marklee will find a way to bring some of this particular Los Angeles onto the Menil campus.
As Dominique de Menil did with yesterday’s Renzo Piano, the MDI has taken the admirable risk of investing in the extraordinary promise of an emerging practice, and not in the diverted attentions of an established name. The preliminary design by Johnston Marklee appears, so far, to be whip-smart but a little well-behaved. It’s all the L.A. swagger of Edward Ruscha and Frank Gehry at their 1980s peak, folded up too neatly into a few odd corners of the canopy.