Philip Johnson, Renzo Piano, Shaker meeting houses, monastic cloisters, and living rooms. The brand-new, Johnston Marklee-designed Menil Drawing Institute—set for a public opening this Saturday, November 3—merges a world of influences to carve out a distinctive foothold among neighbors with striking pedigrees.
The Menil-ness of it all feels inescapable, defined by simplicity and stripped of pretension. Partner Sharon Johnston described the project's inspiration at the Thursday press preview as a digestion of existing Menil tendencies sprinkled among mix-and-match elements drawn from institutions around the world. The guiding principle: "Nothing should draw attention to itself," she explained, gesturing to the unflashy, European white oak floors as an example.
The end result is a $40 million, 30,000-square-foot facility that, in typical Menil fashion, makes you alternately ask What exactly did they spend the money on? and How is this so perfect? It's an understated refinement that remains a throughline across the Collection's evolving 30 acres.
Yet context shapes the entire experience here. In replacing the hulking Richmont Square Apartments that once dominated the Menil's southern half, the MDI and its adjacent park space now function as a center of gravity. Architects described the building, with all its attractive green space and central location, as a "living room for the entire campus," although the bigger coup might be how the MDI finally justifies use of the term "campus" at all. Consider how this new neighbor ensures that Richmond Hall, home of the Dan Flavin Installation, no longer feels like a Menil orphan exiled to the strip-mall boondocks, all thanks to a connective patchwork of new walking paths, sight lines, and Live Oak-centric landscaping.
The building itself—all long lines and gleaming white plate steel and plaster—exists to modulate light in service of the drawings, a notoriously light-sensitive medium. That task dictates the angular, partially cantilevered roof that floats on the horizon, and you'll immediately notice the crumpled geometry of the interior's ceiling, meant to baffle light across its corridors. Three 60 foot by 60 foot, axial, open-roof courtyards shape the floor plan and distribute rays throughout. Even the landscaping pulls its weight; the north courtyard, for example, features magnolias due to how the trees' leaves filter the sun.
Sizable chunks of square footage are devoted to scholarship and conservation activities, and a scholar's-only Janie C. Lee Drawing Room was described explicitly as the "heart" of the facility—the place where researchers will toil away at projects such as the Menil's authoritative Jasper Johns catalogue raisonné, slated for publication next month after more than a decade of work. Adjacent to the drawing room, a state-of-the-art conservation lab packs analytical microscopes, light tables, and surgical-looking preservation tools.
As we ventured on into the basement, Johnston, the architect, remarked that some of the "saddest parts" of her team's research involved visiting the inadequate storage quarters common at other museums. Not so with the MDI's morgue-like bunker where custom-made racks, drawers, and lockers store and protect whichever of the Institute's roughly 2,500 objects happen to be out of rotation. Stashing the treasure below ground in Houston might seem unwise, but the Menil brass remains confident in the array of pumps and drains servicing the basement. Even supposing some apocalyptic deluge that brings catastrophic power failure, a series of passive flood gates automatically rises to four feet. The defenses functioned "perfectly" during even the worst parts of Harvey, Johnston said.
Back upstairs, the roughly 3,000 square feet of exhibition space could feel modest, at least absent its formidable contents. For the inaugural show, titled The Condition of Being Here: Drawings by Jasper Johns, curators amassed 41 works spanning 1954 to 2016. The result is a compendium of works on paper, plastic, and even yearbook pages that demonstrate, as assistant curator Kelly Montana so well put it, "the joy of putting pen to paper." You'll recognize the artist's trademark flags and bright, shouting colors, but you'll be even more struck by Johns' lingering presence in the smudges and creases of his drawings. It's a must-see show on through January.
Even the utilitarian spaces feel special. Outside the restrooms, astute visitors will notice a heptagonal ottoman, which was modeled off the larger version that occupies the Main Building lobby (which was modeled itself after an item from the de Menil's San Felipe home). And that inevitable bathroom break will surprise guests with facilities featuring stunning Vermont marble walls that are perhaps the single exception to the building's "nothing should draw attention to itself" rule.
Leave it to the Menil to make public restrooms feel like an extension of the artwork.
Menil Drawing Institute Public Community Celebration, Saturday, Nov. 3. Free. Menil Drawing Institute, 1412 W Main St. 713-525-9400. More info at menil.org.