Most important Architectural additions to a city are those of spectacle, meant to stand out and grab attention, such as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, or Daniel Libeskind’s extension to the Denver Art Museum. But when Renzo Piano made his American debut with the Menil Collection 25 years ago, the result was far from spectacle, but rather more supplementary to an already established neighborhood scale.
The Menil Collection opened in 1986 in Houston, TX. Dominique de Menil, heiress to the Schlumberger oil company fortune, and her husband, John de Menil, became a power couple in the Houston art scene beginning in the 1970s. Their combined wealth and love for art left them with the inevitable goal of creating a place for Houstonians to come together and enjoy all that art had to given them. Originally, Dominique de Menil approached Louis Kahn about designing a museum space for them, but his untimely death paired with John de Menil’s passing that same year pushed the idea back for some time. It was not until the early 1980s that Dominique de Menil was prepared to tackle such a project again, but this time she called upon France’s latest sung hero, Italian architect Renzo Piano. After his success alongside Richard Rogers with their astonishing 1977 Pompidou Centre, no one could have suspected the understated intimacy of his next great undertaking.
Rather than tearing down and making room for all to see this new accomplishment, the central thesis of the project was to keep the integrity of the community in tact. The scale, orientation, materiality, and programmatic layout all adhere to a neighborhood without disrupting any of the preexisting conditions.
The museum is only one floor of galleries, with storage and services in the basement below, and one floor of offices and art storage above. As opposed to most museums, including the others in Houston, which are very “you can’t miss it” in their placement and design, the Menil Collection remains as a subtle staple in its community. If one did not know where they were headed or what they were looking for, one could easily miss it completely. But upon arriving, The Menil is as approachable as any childhood friend’s home was in the past.
Visitors are first greeted by a large lawn on the North side, and the walk across this space allows for taking in the spatial context of the museum and the surrounding bungalows that populate the rest of the neighborhood. The native Cypress wood paneling around its exterior helps connect the building to its location, while concrete louvers under a glass ceiling are typical of Piano’s highly engineered roof systems. The portico wrapping around the entire building creates a tectonic understanding of the structure, exposing the steel I-beam columns and intricate detail of the custom steel roof assembly.
The fundamental layout consists of two main axes of circulation, with gallery spaces along one side of the long cross axis. The floors are Pine, a soft wood as opposed to more standard hard woods; this was at the request of Mrs. de Menil herself, as she had the foresight to recognize the uneven wear that would accrue and add character to the floor over the years. Dominique de Menil’s passion for design made her integral to the process as well as an ideal client. Each of the louvers has conduit inside for the possibility of lights to be added to the ends for certain gallery spaces, but many of the galleries and the main circulation are solely illuminated by sunlight passing through the louvers.
Instead of an interior courtyard or café, The Menil celebrates its park next door, where any day of the week people from all over Houston come to have picnics, climb the massive oak trees, or just kick a ball around. The Menil Foundation actually owns the three acres of housing and other smaller museums around the main building, and has hired British architect David Chipperfield to create a long-term master plan for the entire campus. Chipperfield has laid out a plan that also appropriately revolves around the idea of keeping the neighborhood unscathed, but will add more artist studios and gallery spaces as well as open park spaces extending south to connect with Houston’s future METRORail plan. This will allow patrons to use public transportation and walk the Menil campus up to the main collection.