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Drawing and Dappled Light
The Menil Collection unveils Johnston Marklee-designed Drawing Institute.
Courtesy Johnston Marklee

Today in Houston, Menil Collection director Josef Helfenstein revealed Johnston Marklee’s design for the Menil Drawing Institute (MDI). The $40 million project will be the first freestanding facility in the United States created specifically for the exhibition, study, storage, and conservation of modern and contemporary drawings.

“Artists, curators, and scholars have long recognized the heightened importance of drawing in the modern era as an independent medium on the level of painting and sculpture,” said Helfenstein in a statement. “Until now, however, institutions have struggled to accord a proper place to this relatively fragile and inherently experimental practice. With a design that is at once serene and revolutionary, Johnston Marklee has enabled the Menil to make its drawings a more active and public part of the collection than ever before.”


The MDI has existed as a program at the Menil since 2008. In that time, it has developed a national reputation for its local and traveling exhibitions and scholarly projects. In designing a bespoke facility for the program, Los Angeles–based architecture firm Johnston Marklee had to take into account a complex program including multiple groups of users—visitors, scholars, conservationists—and multiple functions and spaces, as well as thousands of delicate works of art.

“Because of the MDI’s public-oriented mission, though, and the famously understated architecture of the Menil’s other buildings, we knew this complexity had to be accommodated in a design that would seem direct and self-evident,” said Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee in a statement. “The site itself showed us the way forward. The gardenlike character of the campus with its tree-shaded streets of bungalows gave us the clues we needed to find the right scale, resolve the relationship between interior and exterior spaces, and, above all, modulate the light.”


The MDI site is located at the wooded heart of the Menil’s 30-acre Montrose neighborhood campus of sleepy streets and quaint bungalows. It sits just south of the museum’s Renzo Piano–designed main building (1987) and Cy Twombly Gallery (1995), and just north of Richmond Hall, a 1930 masonry structure housing a permanent Dan Flavin light installation. The location is also at the center of a new master plan of pedestrian paths and green spaces designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, singling out the MDI as a hub among the Menil’s other art buildings.


Johnston Marklee’s design takes its cues from the master plan’s circulation paths and the campus’ many venerable live oaks. In plan, the building is oriented around three square, open-roofed courtyards inhabited by the gnarled, waxy-leafed, evergreen trees. Two of the courtyards form the building’s east and west entrances while the third is set aside as a “scholars’ cloister” on the north edge of the building. Enclosed volumes between the courtyards make up the MDI program space. A circulation spine and gathering space runs between the east and west entrances. To the south of this corridor are the exhibition galleries. To the north are the administrative offices, study rooms, and conservation lab.

A thin, flat roof of painted steel plate ties together all of the 17,000-square-foot, one-story building’s spaces. The roof works in concert with the surrounding landscape and the live oaks to modulate the levels of natural light on the interior. Johnston Marklee worked in collaboration with New York City–based lighting design firm George Sexton Associates to develop strategies for carefully admitting daylight and blending it with electric light. As visitors enter, the powerful Texas sunlight is reduced in stages, first by the canopy of trees, then by the roof canopy. Throughout the interior, gradients of modulated daylight and controlled chambers of artificial light define the functions of the various spaces, from circulation to study to exhibition and storage.

The MDI is one component of an on-going $110 million capital and endowment campaign for the Menil Collection, which also includes the Van Valkenburgh master plan and a new “Energy House” containing all of the campus’ mechanical systems, which is also being designed by Johnston Marklee. Groundbreaking for the MDI is tentatively scheduled for early 2015.

Aaron Seward