When Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art opened its luminous new wing in 2007, the Steven Holl-designed building was immediately hailed by architectural critics as a masterpiece. The New York Times's Nicolai Ouroussoff called it "a work of haunting power," "a perfect synthesis of ideas that [Holl] has been refining for more than a decade." Time named it the finest new building in the world. Yesterday, at a luncheon packed with Houston's power elite, the Museum of Fine Arts unveiled its transformative new $450 million expansion plan. At the heart of the plan are two new buildings by Holl—the translucent Nancy and Rich Kinder Building, which will add 54,000 square feet of gallery space for 20th and 21st century art (expanding the museum's total exhibition space by 30 percent), and a new 80,000-square foot-home for the Glassell School of Art.
Asked how the MFAH project compares to the Nelson-Atkins Museum addition, Holl didn't hesitate. "This is larger and more important than Nelson-Atkins," he told me. "And I want to make it better, so I want to make improvements on everything. You can see that it's much more than a single building, and it's also creating an urban space, so I think that makes it a more important project than any individual building we've completed."
Local architectural historian Stephen Fox, who teaches at Rice and UH, said he was impressed by the renderings of the buildings he's seen. "I'm a little bit ambivalent about Stephen Holl, so I wasn't sure that I was looking forward to the unveiling of this project," he said. "But I found it very interesting. In contrast to some of his works, which are very formally extroverted, the Kinder Building seems to take pains to fit in with the museum's existing buildings. It struck me in some ways as being much more like the Beck Building [the Rafael Moneo–designed addition that opened in 2000] than one would have anticipated. It looks like a block of a building, but it's been carved into in order to erode its blockiness."
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the MFAH's plan, which is scheduled to break ground later this year and be completed by 2019, is the scheduled demolition of the existing Glassell School building, which was built in 1978 by S. I. Morris Associates. The distinctive building, known for its glass-block walls that glow invitingly at night, will make way for Holl's new, larger building. "I'm sorry to see [the old Glassell School building] go, but at the same time I am very interested in the design for the new building," Fox said. "And there have long been complaints from faculty and students who have to work in the current building."
The other major component of the expansion is a new conservation center, designed by San Antonio–based architectural firm Lake | Flato, that will be built atop the MFAH's Binz St. parking garage. As quickly becomes clear when reviewing the plans, however, the significance of the expansion is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Thanks to a new tunnel running under Bissonnet that will connect Mies van der Rohe's Law Building to the new Kinder Building, as well as Holl's expansion of Isamu Noguchi's sculpture garden, the MFAH campus will finally start to feel like, well, a campus.
Of course, we won't know for sure whether it all works for another five years. For his part, Holl sounded a cautionary note. "You can't say it's great until it's finished."