Buoyed by some of the largest donations in the city’s history, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston will unveil a $450 million project today that envisions its campus as the cultural heart of the city.
The plan includes two new buildings designed to complement the existing structures in a way that will enhance the experience of looking at art.
The project, by Steven Holl Architects, is the most exciting in the institution’s 90-year history, board chairman Richard Kinder said. The plan, named theFayez S. Sarofim Campus, is so transformational that in five years Houstonians might not recognize the 1000 block of Bissonnet.
It has garnered hefty donations, with lead gifts of $70 million by Sarofim; $50 million by Kinder and his wife, Nancy; and $10 million each from eight other donors.
Holl, who has offices in New York and Beijing, has re-imagined the campus’ north side as a pedestrian-friendly cultural hub with a lively landscape, two distinctive new buildings, ample underground parking and smooth circulation patterns for vehicles and people.
“It’s all about shaping space,” said Holl, who sees himself as a conductor inserting a movement into a symphony. “The collection of buildings there is already outstanding. It’s very delicate, not a site that calls for over-exuberance.”
The most prominent new structure will be the 164,000-square-foot Nancy and Rich Kinder Building, on what’s now the museum’s parking lot. The three-story structure is shaped like a jigsaw-puzzle piece with a “luminous canopy” roof full of concave curves. Holl imagines clouds resting on top.
The building also will glow closer to the earth, with glass walls on the ground floor and a sheath of energy-saving translucent glass tubes, lit from behind, around the rest of the exterior, which is concrete.
Museum director Gary Tinterow calls the design dignified.
“It doesn’t stoop to cheap tricks to attract attention,” he said. “Every detail of the building lends to a heightened experience of the art that will be within.”
A leafy plaza will open views to a new, more prominent Glassell School of Art. Also three stories at its highest point, it’s sturdier-looking – an 80,000-square foot Constructivist building of soft-hued concrete.
The long side of the school’s L-shaped exterior slopes up from the ground, forming a stepped amphitheater and leading to a trellised rooftop garden. The building will bracket a new plaza that extends the existing sculpture garden.
A block farther east, a new state-of-the-art conservation center by Lake|Flato Architects will rise two stories above the existing parking garage.
The museum expects to name a landscape architect soon, a critical piece of Holl’s master plan for bringing “porosity” to the buildings and campus.
“One of the great things about Houston is that it’s green and lush. That feeling is something we want to preserve,” Holl said. “In some ways, it’s a landscape scheme.”
The museum has raised about $330 million of the estimated $350 million it needs for construction, although its capital campaign includes another $100 million for an endowment to support the new facilities. Deflated oil prices will make fundraising tougher in the near-term, Kinder said, “but we have plenty of time to raise that. The project won’t be complete until 2019. We’ll get it done by then.”
The museum’s landscape hasn’t had a visual focus for decades, since William Ward Watkin‘s original neoclassical building embraced Hermann Park and then-young allees of live oaks in 1924. Architecture trumped trees in 1958 and 1974, when Ludwig Mies van der Rohe gave the building iconic modern additions – facing north. Over time, the property grew to 14 acres.
The institution owned 37,000 objects then. Today it has 65,000, with leading collections of photography, Latin American art and contemporary art. Objects will rotate through 54,000 square feet of second- and third-floor galleries around a central rotunda in the Kinder Building, extending the museum’s exhibition space by about 30 percent.
Tinterow has been demanding about the lighting. He wants 20 foot-candles of illumination, at 5’6″ above the floor, washed evenly across all the gallery walls - a feature that will make the new building one of the greatest museums anywhere, Holl said.
“It’s pretty hard to be better than Renzo Piano’s Menil or Louis Kahn‘s Kimbell (in Fort Worth), but that’s what I want,” he added. “The experience of being in this building is going to be very special.”
More art students
The Kinder Building also will have a new theater, a fine restaurant and a café. Tunnels will connect it to the Glassell and the Caroline Wiess Law Building.
Construction begins this summer with the Glassell. It also has a sculptural, light-filled interior, with two wings that meet in an open central area. The Glassell is the only art school in the nation serving students of all ages and levels, from 3-year-olds to graduate students building international reputations. By improving the efficiency of the classrooms, Holl’s design will enable the school to double its capacity.
The board hired San Antonio’s Lake|Flato, well-known for its adaptive reuse projects, to add the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation Conservation Center to the museum’s Binz Street garage.
“Starting with a parking lot sounds difficult and somehow dreary, but it’s a well-built frame that was designed to have something added to it,” architect David Lake said.
His 20,000-square-foot topper will house studios and state-of-the-art labs within a series of angled glass “sheds” that mimic the classic sawtooth roofs of old factories.
“We took abstract cues from the campus buildings and re-interpreted them. We didn’t want to compete with the Moneo building across the street. Since this building is on a tighter budget, we had to be very prudent,” Lake said. “It should embrace what goes on inside, so we let harvesting daylight be the expression of the architecture.”
He’s also adding a café at street level, adjacent to the museum’s Metrorail stop.
Years ago, museum trustees asked Mies van der Rohe to design an enclosed courtyard between his addition and Watkins’ building. “In this climate, you cannot want an outdoor patio,” he responded.
Acting as a bridge
Today, architects find opportunities in the climate, but they still know when the client isn’t right.
The board originally asked for a parking garage with an exhibition space.
“We felt that would be wrong,” Holl said. “A parking lot is kind of a blockage.”
His idea to put 190,000 square feet of parking underground won him the job.
Tinterow, Kinder and Holl all say flooding should not be an issue, and the underground areas will have pumps. Tinterow said the Beck building goes down deeper and hasn’t ever flooded.
“This is the great gift to the neighborhood: To put the cars underground and create all these pedestrian areas so we can truly act as a bridge between Rice, Hermann Park, and Midtown/Downtown,” he said. “We’re going to be ready for the Houston that’s springing up around us. We’re going to be there with open arms, delicious food, great films, wonderful exhibitions and thought-provoking art displays.”