Daily Archives: February 19, 2016

The Menil Collection

DSCF5005The architectural high point of Houston is definitely the Menil Collection.  After seeing so many Renzo Piano museums on this trip, it was instructive to visit his first in this country, from the mid 1980s.  The overwhelming impression is that of simplicity and clarity, which sometimes has gotten obscured in his more recent buildings by all the fancy parts.

I still remember being fascinated by this building when it was first published.  In a decade when major public works were either the last gasps of expressive late modernism, or the equally histrionic statements of Postmodernism in the ascendant, Piano designed a simple grey and white box.  The architect who, along with his then-partner Richard Rogers, had provoked the whole architectural world with the Pompidou, was now working in an almost classical mode, reminiscent of Mies and Kahn.  Museums want to be simple boxes with carefully-designed lighting, and Piano did this literally –  a grey box with white colonnades all around.

What most impressed me then and now is how this large building fits into a residential neighborhood of small bungalows.  The museum had been buying up those bungalows for a while, and then plunked this museum down in the middle of them, on a full-block site. They still own all the houses across the streets surrounding the museum, and they have been remodelled to house functions such as offices, the bookstore and a new cafe.  DSCF5040They are all painted the same shade of grey, and the landscaping of lawn and trees reinforces the residential scale.  I always go back to Howard Davis’s response when a student asked him how much a building had to resemble its surroundings in order to fit in, and Howard said “about 30%”.  A funny answer, which I think may be true (Howard now swears he said 50%).  The Menil resembles its context in color, material (wood siding), simple flat walls, individual windows instead of curtain walls, steel channel detailing which refers to wood trim,DSCF5012 porches, and a lawn.  Somehow this keeps the building from overwhelming everything around it.  I like it that he made a building that feels monumental yet accessible, a temple with a colonnade that also reads as a big wood-framed house.

The colonnades surrounding the building show Piano’s first design for complex shading / daylighting devices.  They are beautiful as objects, and they work very well at bouncing and modulating the light.  DSCF5014

One could argue that this refined design isn’t necessary on the exterior – you just need a sunshade.  But this roof is carried into the interior, where it daylights the circulation spaces and many of the galleries.  The use of them on the exterior is a way to tie the building together, and state the key move of the building where all can see it.  (And without them, it would just be big box.)  They also create a gracious walkway around the building, a very pleasant place to stroll. The scale is intentionally deceptive – using wood cladding and a white porch makes one think the building is residential in scale, but the bays are actually very wide, and the columns are over two stories tall.  Piano reinvents the colossal order.  DSCF5075

People were using the grounds as a park – reading in the grass, letting little kids play – another way in which the building is an amenity in the neighborhood.DSCF5048

So the big problem with this post is that you can’t take pictures inside the museum.  Too bad, as it is worth looking at.  The plan is absurdly simple – a cross axis for entry in the middle of the two long sides, and a longitudinal hallway down the center which ends in a big window in a recess at each end.  DSCF5011

The galleries are to either side of the hallway, and are emphatically separated from it – no open plan here.  it succeeds because of the light – the indirect light from the monitors above, and the big windows at the ends.  The galleries themselves can be rearranged within this modular system, and the daylighting tuned to meet the needs of the current exhibit.  The most interesting spaces architecturally were the galleries around an internal courtyard, which was very similar to Kahn’s Kimbell.  A few bays of the grid are simply left open, the light comes down from above into a planted court, and the galleries around it have glazed walls.  (These galleries house sculpture and other works which can tolerate these light levels.)  Amusingly, this courtyard isn’t in the middle of the building, but is directly behind one of the exterior walls – you have to look hard on the exterior to see any indication of it.

As at the Kimbell, the quality of the collection is a distraction from the architecture.  It is a wide-ranging and excellent museum in many ways, but the Surrealist collection is astonishing.  After walking through it all, I was having a hard time remembering any Surrealist masterpieces that weren’t here.  Our favorite part was the room where they showed objects of tribal and folk art with had influenced the Surrealists.  In any other museum, this work would be displayed in a scholarly manner, arranged according to place and time of origin and annotated with long, detailed labels.  But the Surrealists didn’t really care about all that, they just thought these were really cool things that they found visually and conceptually appealing.  So they are all mixed up in the gallery, with wildly varied objects juxtaposed and crammed together.  It is fun, and it helps you understand their artistic processes.

The Menil has a few other buildings – a lovely, small Piano building housing a permanent installation of Cy Twombly paintings, and one with a Dan Flavin installation.  It has also spun off two other buildings in the district – one that used to house Byzantine frescoes (long story), and the Rothko Chapel (a building which I found to be as uninteresting as the Rothkos;  I’m a philistine).    I think this little bit of Houston is better than all the rest of Houston put together.

DSCF5050The other great thing about visiting the Menil Collection was seeing my old friend and classmate Sheryl Kolasinski, who is the deputy director and COO.  Sheryl majored in art history at Brown, and then we attended grad school at Columbia together, where we formed the Ivy League art history cabal.  She worked as an architect for a while, then joined the NYC government, where she eventually ended up as head of design and construction for all the city’s cultural institutions.  She moved on to the Smithsonian for about 20 years, where she was deputy director for operations, and oversaw $1.5 billion in construction.  She didn’t come out and say it, but I have to guess she got a little burnt out by the size of the operation (overseeing 1900 employees) and the range of issues she had to deal with, which was getting pretty far away from architecture.  So she moved to a much smaller institution, where she can have a really direct effect upon its future,  Sheryl is in charge of implementing the Menil’s masterplan, the next phase of which is a 30,000 sf drawing center for works on paper.

We had a great, short visit, catching up on the past 30 years or so, and talking about all the different directions in which an architectural career can veer.  I’ve always thought that architects tend to have a breadth of vision and a skill set that’s often way out of proportion to the scale of projects they are called upon to administer, and it was wonderful to see how Sheryl’s talents have been recognized and appreciated, allowing her to accomplish a lot in an important context.  And from now on, when someone says something snide about what you can do with an art history degree, I’ll just say that you could do something like manage the Smithsonian.


DSCF5096Every incorrect preconception I had about Dallas turned out to be true about Houston.  It sprawls further than Phoenix.  It has the most inhumanly-scaled and corporatized downtown I’ve ever seen.  If it had a decent, older part of downtown, either I couldn’t find it, or it was knocked down to build the current crop of hellish corporate headquarters.  I think it is my second least favorite American city, after Phoenix.

Houston is the largest city in the country without zoning, and I was curious to see how this affects the form of the city.  I think it actually isn’t that important.  One of my suspicions about zoning is that it merely codifies current practices.  We have perfected how to build placeless sprawl, and Houston follows these precepts – the conventions are so strong it doesn’t need explicit rules.  I couldn’t tell the difference between the sprawly parts of Houston, Dallas, Washington DC, or Atlanta.  It’s just that Houston has more of it – about 50 miles across in each direction.

The one noticeable difference is that the Edge City centers out there in the sprawl are bigger, and the buildings at their centers are much bigger than anywhere else in the country.  DSCF5086Whereas much commercial development in Edge City is subject to height restrictions, in Houston it is not, and so skyscrapers that would be considered large in downtowns happen out there on the edge.  This is probably a good thing.  Many large metro areas are developing secondary centers now – the Puget Sound region has about eight, Portland has consciously designated Regional Centers.  So if Houston ever begins to redevelop a sense of urbanity in these places, it will have some serious density at those centers, versus the midrise buildings in most of Edge City elsewhere. DSCF5202

This is the Building-Formerly-Known-as-Transco, the biggest.  (I don’t even want to guess what “Senior Living Solutions” entail.)  DSCF5197

There are certainly some nice parts of Houston – we saw some pleasant residential areas, the Menil Collection is a wonderful complex (to be blogged separately), and Rice University is beautiful.  DSCF5079Unfortunately, this is all I can post about Rice.  Houston is a city where you have to drive, and it is really not possible to park anywhere near Rice unless you have a permit or are willing to take out a second mortgage.  So we just drove through it a few times.  I don’t blame them for restricting cars, but I regret not being able to see more of the campus.

Near Rice is another amazing center, the Texas Medical Center, which reportedly has 54 different institutions.  DSCF5081I have seen some pretty big medical districts in other cities, but nothing like this.  It is the hospital as city.  Not being a patient, I don’t know whether having a medical complex organized on city streets in separate buildings increase or decreases the dysfunctionality of wayfinding here – it’s like the O’Hare vs. JFK paradigms.  Maybe it’s better being able to drive from building to building, rather than having to walk down endless hallways.

We took a good look at the downtown, and were appalled.  Granted, we were seeing it on a weekend, when it didn’t have surging crowds of urbanites on the sidewalks, but I get the feeling that still doesn’t happen.  Why would you walk here?  The streets are the most car-oriented, overscaled and boring I have ever seen, and that pattern goes on and on.  Many blocks are given over to corporate headquarters, with desolate plazas and parking garage ramps occupying the periphery.  DSCF5113



There are almost no stores, there is no smaller scale, there is nothing for the pedestrian to do but hurry to the end of the block.  The one exception seems to be Main Street, which has stores, a median with a light rail track (running in the middle of a lagoon) and some attempts at design of the public realm.  DSCF5182

It ain’t great, but it’s as good as it gets.  Unfortunately, we came across this monument there: DSCF5186We can only hope that no one took this seriously, and that this too will someday pass.

We came across what must be the biggest parking garage in the world, blocks-long, ironically juxtaposed with iconic elements from real cities.  DSCF5107

The shiny street of parking garage entries:DSCF5101

And then, in our post-911, corporate paranoia, the car-bomb bollards everywhere.  DSCF5114


These epitomize the Corporate Private City. We came across one park downtown, and it was full of homeless people hanging around.  It is probably the one place in the downtown where they can sit down without being shooed away by guards.

(While not directly related to the terrible downtown, the state of the streets in Houston might be another indicator of the general lack of civic- or commonwealth-mindedness.  Without a doubt, they are the worst maintained streets in America. You really can not ride a bicycle in Houston as the streets are so potholed and rutted as to be impassable;  we didn’t see a worse road until we took the 20-mile dirt road into Chaco Canyon.  Just another way that this is the ultimate city for elevating private, individual interests above common ones.)

Eventually, contemplating the streetscape became just too depressing, so I started looking at the building skins.  I’ve been shooting these curtain wall juxtaposition photos in every city, and Houston abounds in them.  When all else fails, fall back on abstraction.DSCF4989




They also have a cluster of deeply awful cultural institutions.  Why are they so bad here and so good in Dallas?  DSCF5140


Houston’s entry in the Ugliest Postmodern Building in the World Contest.  I think this may win.DSCF4986

And of course, there is the requite Philip Johnson excrescence.  This one may be a little better than the PPG building in Pittsburgh in building design, DSCF5152but it loses a lot of points for how it interacts with the street.  The corporate headquarters as fortress has never been better expressed.  DSCF5155

When they try to address the pedestrian realm, it ends up looking like this.  (The irony of the name must be unintentional.)  DSCF5188I can’t quite place what movie this is from.  When the Earth Stood Still?  Pacific Rim?  Independence Day?  Transformers?

I did find one building which seems to indicate that human beings inhabited this area before 1960.  DSCF5192

Overall, a truly terrible place.  And we were there in February – I can’t imagine what kind of special hell this must be in the summer.