From the Archives: In the Neighborhood of Art

"In the Neighborhood of Art," in Art in America's June 1987 issue, pp. 124-25


A.i.A.‘s May 2015 issue focuses on the Whitney Museum of American Art as it inaugurates its new building, designed by Renzo Piano, in New York’s Meatpacking District. As reviews roll in about Piano’s latest structure, we’ve delved into our archives to revisit an article by architectural historian Reyner Banham on Piano’s first U.S. museum commission—the Menil Collection in Houston, Tex. Opened in 1987, the Menil Collection houses a growing treasure trove of art initiated by the museum’s founders, John and Dominique de Menil. The holdings are renowned for their breadth, spanning antiquities, early Christian and Byzantine art, non-Western art, and an extensive array of modern art.

In this article, Banham highlights the Menil’s integration with its bungalow-dotted neighborhood, its high-tech architectural features and its “ethereal” light, deeming it a building that “has put the magic back into functionalism.” —Eds.


A tactful addition to its residential Houston setting, the new home of the well-known Menil collection opens this month. Herewith a discussion of the building’s virtues—inside and out.


As current art museums go, the Menil doesn’t. Strikingly at variance with prevalent trends like the postmodernism of Stirling’s Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, the gentlemanly Contextualism of Harry Cobb’s Portland Museum or even the Academic Modernist-Revivalism of Richard Meier’s High Museum in Atlanta, it is headed in some totally other direction, for which we will ultimately learn to be grateful, but the immediate effect, for both public and pundits, is liable to be bewilderment and (alas!) hostility.

The collection it houses will present no such problems; it is of such pervasive quality that everyone will agree that the only decent human response to it is honest envy . . . all those Magrittes, those Ernsts, those Mattas and Victor Brauners, the filing cabinets full of Joseph Cornell boxes—and the twice-hallowed tribal objects, whose original numinousness has been doubled by their historic provenance in our own culture (“This one came from Captain Cook’s first voyage”).


Professionals’ Paradise

Envy also for the staff, curatorial, scientific, craftsmanly and administrative who have been provided for as in no other museum to date. Not for nothing is the Menil known as “the revenge of the professionals,” for professional workspace accounts for almost 60 percent of the total space, and on prime floor levels at that—no more workshops in dripping basements, photo-archives on makeshift mezzanines, offices crammed under roof-timbers, or loading docks like abandoned mineshafts. Not everyone is going to be grateful—high-flying museum staff are men and women of pronounced and idiosyncratic opinion—but the whole conception of the building appears to hold the proper housing of expert staff to be at least as important as the proper housing of the works of art. Not even Isozaki’s MOCA in Los Angeles, with its staff in the air and its art underground, makes such an issue of housing the Werkleute as if they were as precious as the Kunstwerken. 

But all this happens within a structure that doesn’t even try to look like a museum. “Like an upmarket UPS depot” was—I think—intended as a kindly characterization of the design, but it is a fair sample of the bewilderment the exterior has stirred, even before its completion. The project had barely been published as drawings when Stephen Fox, in the 1983 issue of the Houston architectural magazine Cite, supposed that “the Menil Museum could easily turn out to be overwhelmingly non-Monumental.” Such critical self-contradiction is not surprising; recent well-regarded museum designs, and even redesigns like the Isozaki/Polshek project for the rear of the Brooklyn, tend to make—and to be valued for making—major monumental gestures of civic and cultural intention. Standing in conspicuous and history-loaded city-center locations, they tend to come forward with important messages for the citizenry as a whole. Renzo Piano’s Menil, (strictly, Piano and Fitzgerald’s Menil), on the other hand, relates visually to its own neighborhood and very little else. This may be a properly “user-friendly” gesture in Houston, which tends to pride itself on being a “city of great neighborhoods,” but there are clearly those who feel that this is an inadequate mode of address for the home of such a world-class collection.


The Menil Strip

It is, however, a uniquely interesting neighborhood, this long strip—much of it Menil property—running west from Montrose Avenue between Richmond to the south and Alabama to the north. It is interesting not only because it contains the University of St. Thomas campus by Philip Johnson (1957) and Howard Barnstone’s Rothko Chapel, but because, as it continues westward, it reveals its earlier incarnation as an unassuming residential neighborhood which would be pleasant in any North American city. In the present state of Houston, however, it is like an oasis of humanity, or a time-warp return to the suburban innocence of some Andy Hardy Golden Age. The decision to sustain this almost idyllic character—people walk dogs and hold conversations on street corners, and I still haven’t seen a single jogger there—seems to come from the de Menils themselves, though it clearly has the informed support of everyone else around the organization.

But how does one fit a major art gallery—we are talking here about a proposition almost comparable in size to the Frick in New York or the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven—into a suburbia which is on the average only one-and-a-half stories high, without crushing the neighborhood flat? Partly, the gallery itself has slipped into its surroundings at their own scale—auxiliary activities like the auditorium, bookstore and restaurant are to be housed in single-story garage-scaled structures across the street between Sul Ross and Alabama.

The main building, however, is a whole block long and 165 feet deep, and three-and-a-half stories high; to make that look at home requires resolute bloody-mindedness as well as surreptitious tact, and that difficult synthesis is written all over the face of the building. Tact proposed a boarded exterior painted the same gray as the neighborhood houses, following the color scheme already decreed for properties along Branard and Sul Ross streets by Howard Barnstone, the Menils’ long-term architectural adviser. Bloody-mindedness decreed a skinny but highly visible and purposeful steel frame with emphatic verticals picked out conspicuously in white paint.


Subtlety in Steel 

It all looks very simple, and indeed that is what it is, but simpleminded it is not. Behind its neat boxy forms and almost diagrammatic structure, this is a very subtle and complex building indeed. Even the detailing of the steelwork is rich in allusion and modern-movement history, local and remote. Locally the echoes are of Mies van der Rohe, which may sound strange, but one should remember that, next to Chicago itself, Houston must be the most Miesian city in North America. Quite apart from Johnson’s works for the de Menil/St. Thomas connection, and Mies’s own extensions to the Museum of Fine Art, there is also the work of the “Rice connection”: Howard Barnstone himself, Anderson Todd and a small host of their pupils, partners and followers. Almost anywhere, it seems, in the rambling, unzoned dystopia that makes Houston an urbanist’s nightmare, one may stumble with relief on neat steel-framed structures with “made-at-IIT” written all over them, and as often as not the exposed I beams of their exteriors are painted white against their gray walls.

But the design also pays tribute to an unlikely and exotic source of inspiration—the steel-framed “Case-Study” houses done in Los Angeles in the ‘50s and early ‘60s by Craig Ellwood, which were admired quite separately and for different reasons by both Renzo Piano and Walter Hopps, the Menil’s director, even before they met. After they had been introduced by Dominique de Menil (at the suggestion of Pontus Hulten), architect and director decided to admire Ellwood together, and update his nifty steelwork details. So the Menil looks doubly at home—Miesian and suburban—and faintly Angeleno-exotic at the same time; and anyone who still thinks that architectural steel is reductionist or value-free should speak carefully when on Branard Street.

Most of what has been spoken so far about the building has been on quite another matter, however: the sunshade “platform” that runs right through the building from end to end and front to back. Insofar as the Menil may be called a High-Tech design, the sunshades are the reason for doing so, but although they constitute a separate architectural element that could stand on its own—almost literally so, if I read the structure correctly—without the rest of the building, they are the very heart of the whole conception, and the basic section of the museum is largely generated by them.

That section is a sort of double-decker sandwich. The first layer, at grade level, consists of galleries on the north side, the grand corridor that runs the full 500-foot length of the block, and some equally high-ceilinged workspaces on the side toward Branard Street. The second layer, which forms the lighted ceilings of the galleries and the shaded “piazzas” (an appropriate Old-South term) around the perimeter, is the sunshade platform. Above that comes a shallow, and mostly open, floor of mechanical and other services (virtually invisible from ground level), and above that again the range of rooms that runs the full length of the Branard side and includes the secure-storage “treasure chambers” where the bulk of the work will reside when not sent downstairs for public display in the galleries. (It will still be possible to view the works in these fastnesses by special arrangement.)


The Environment of Art

The sunshade platform, and the mechanical floor above, thus provide the most crucial environmental controls for the whole operation—though there is also a minimal service space below grade, and a quite separate “energy building” half a block away to the south, which is the main source of environmental power, but keeps insurance-intensive elements like natural gas fuel out of the gallery building proper.

Conditioned air is distributed to the galleries under the floors, but it also circulates through the walls themselves, so that no moisture-sensitive art work finds itself hung on a damp wall (always an important consideration in a climate like Houston’s). The floors are stained almost black, so that the strips of bronze ventilation-grille are hardly visible; the walls are panted white, and over them spreads a light of—frankly—ethereal beauty. That is not the kind of language that I use very frequently, but the quality of the light that enters the Menil through the sunshades is breathtaking. The only gallery light that I can compare it with is that in Louis Kahn’s Kimbell in Fort Worth, but whereas the light under the vaults there is mysterious and largely a matter of optical illusion—it looks natural but is heavily supplemented with artificial—the daylight in the Menil is honest, pellucid and without additives.

Such quality was not easily got. The original inspiration was a small art gallery in the Israeli kibbutz of Ein Harod, lit by sunlight bounced off its flat roof onto the underside of curved reflectors, and thus into the gallery space below. Though striking, this solution was not adequate to the Menil’s requirements (among other things, it allowed direct sunlight into the gallery at certain times of day), and the development of the double-curved reflectors that were finally devised required an intensive and prolonged collaborative effort by Piano, his engineering partner Peter Rice, the systems engineer Tom Barker, and the computational and experimental resources of Ove Arup and Partners in London (the normal operating base of Rice and Barker). The reflectors are made of ferro-cement, which is very heavy, and are carried on a system of trusses built up from ductile cast-iron elements that are almost Victorian in their elaboration—though reckoned by Rice to be the skinniest reasonably possible, to carry the weight and yet minimize light loss and shadowing.

Compared to other gallery-roofing systems currently in use, it looks almost unbelievably complex—Peter Rice is not exactly famous for simple or obvious engineerings solutions—but on performance it has manifestly been well worth the complication. The quality of light is like nothing else, anywhere—certainly not in any regular vanilla “universal space” type of gallery—and may well set standards to make other architects lie awake at night. And like one or two other triumphs of unaffected functionalism, it is blessed with an unsought bonus.


A Little Light-Magic

You can’t see what it is at first, though you can see that there is something strange about the light on the underside of the reflectors, something other than the inevitable change of color and intensity as the sun crosses the sky. What has happened is this: a late revision in the design of the almost flat glass roof above the reflectors means that alternate runs of glazing are sloped in opposite pitches (originally all the runs of glazing were to be sloped in the same direction), and this in turn means that alternate reflectors receive light that is slightly differently diffracted as it angles through the glass. And that in its turn means that alternate reflectors are slightly cooler or slightly warmer in color. The effect is very, very slight (it barely shows on my color slides) but it is just sufficient to transform perfect illumination into living lighting.

The actual light levels are quite low, to protect the works of art on show. Although the illumination can get as high as 800 lux near a window under strong sunlight when the general illumination peaks at about 500, for most of the days of the average year it stays down near the 150-lux mark, which was the figure they designed for. Now that is really quite dim compared with everyday outdoor light levels, yet the human iris adjusts for the subdued illumination, and the eyes remember the marvelous galleries as being radiantly pearly-bright. Since it is for these galleries, as a setting for the matchless collection they display, that the Menil will be valued, critical opinion about the architecture will in due course skew round to find ways of acclaiming this as a great building. Its “reductionist” steel frame will probably be discovered to have the virtue the architect himself attributes to it—”frugality”; and its “overwhelming non-Monumentality” will turn out to be “contextually sensitive,” or something.

For Dominique de Menil herself, however, it will simply be “a functional building,” though designed by an architect “who combines imagination with classicism in spite of the modern technology,” housing what she insists “has always been a Houston collection.” The rest of us will observe that if this is a Houston neighborhood collection, the world could use a few more such neighborhoods and that Renzo Piano, whatever qualities he may or may not combine as an architect, has here achieved a building that has put the magic back into functionalism.