After a lengthy build-out, Houston's Menil Drawing Institute will open to the public this fall. As its name suggests, the Institute, a project the Menil Foundation initiated a decade ago, will showcase the drawings of master artists from all over the world. Los Angeles's Johnston Marklee designed the Drawing Institute's home, while the landscape architects at New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts–based Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates will knit the building together with the existing structures that comprise the Menil Collection. When it opens to the public on November 3, the Menil Drawing Institute will showcase the work of Jasper Johns, the American artist best known for his interpretations of the stars and stripes. The retrospective, entitled The Condition of Being Here: Drawings by Jasper Johns, will be the first exhibition hosted in the 30,000-square-foot building. The Menil stewards one of the largest collections of Johns's drawings in existence, so the exhibition is meant to highlight this portion of the Foundation's wide-ranging collection. Johnston Marklee's $40 million structure—the first freestanding space purpose-built to display, study, and conserve modern and contemporary drawings—will joins four others on the Menil's 30-acre home. The main building, designed by Renzo Piano in 1987, is undergoing a concurrent renovation. That space will reopen to the public in early fall. Construction or not, the Menil Collection is open to the public Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is free at all times. More information on the Menil Drawing Institute and other programs can be found here.
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The architecture of Johnston Marklee's recently-unveiled Menil Drawing Institute has wowed most observers and critics, including our own. But an equally significant element of the $40 million project is its lighting, a combination of innovation and subtlety, natural and artificial light. Much of the lighting design will be about transition, since visitors will be transferring from the bright Texas sun, measuring about 18,000 foot candles, into a drawing-friendly environment measuring only about five foot candles. The scope begins outside the building, with slanted exterior plate steel rooflines that extend beyond the building, modulating outdoor light while also shifting the building from an institutional scale to a more intimate one. Aggregate concrete pavers on the ground are rough, less reflective, to create a more muted light. Inside, qualities of light "choreograph and orient you through the buildings," described Johnston Marklee principal Sharon Johnston. Light will react differently with varied surfaces, and in different settings. In the "living room," at the front of the building, light will be "volumetric," said lighting consultant George Sexton, combining vertical and horizontal lighting planes to provide more depth.When necessary, display rooms will have artificial light sources, which will be as inconspicuous as possible. But inside the study room natural light will be introduced via a sail cloth, which will allow for the perception of changing light conditions. "We wanted, in the tradition of The Menil, to use intelligent materials and to use the way light and architecture come together to create a wide range of experience but not through super elaborate means. We want it to have a very natural, elemental feeling about it," said Johnston.
Leaving campus the way it came in—amid a swirl of shifting plans and controversy—seems to be the modus operandi for Rice University’s Martel Center, more colloquially known as “the Art Barn.” After reports last month that the building would be demolished, Rice University changed its mind and announced that it would, instead, relocate the historic structure to the Fourth Ward area of Houston, just west of downtown. The Art Barn has graced Rice University’s campus since 1969. Originally conceived by John and Dominique de Menil as what was meant to be a quick-fix housing solution for their prestigious private art collection, the squatter became father to a generation of its kind, and established itself as a cultural mainstay not just within the university, but the community as a whole. The Art Barn was never meant to be more than a temporary safe haven during a turbulent time. The Menil Collection, which boasts over 15,000 pieces of art—including originals by Picasso, Duchamp, and Matisse—sought a sanctuary for their darlings after facing rising tension from original host, St. Thomas University. The resulting structure, which was dubbed the Menil Museum, and its “twin brother,” the Rice Media Center, were built out of a corrugated metal known as galvalume, a metal siding that was affixed to a wooden frame. This design spurred Houston’s West End “tin houses,” a 1970s movement named after the building’s noticeably atypical siding. These inexpensively constructed modular buildings sprouted up throughout Houston shortly after the Art Barn was built. They often played fundamental roles in the community art scene. Although the Art Barn was not the original tin house, it was, perhaps, the most predominant forerunner of the movement, as it was a highly visible fixture due to its stark contrast with Rice’s surrounding masonry buildings. The Art Barn’s 1968 inaugural exhibition, The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, attracted tens of thousands of visitors before going on to enjoy a three-month residency at MoMA. In 1969, Andy Warhol’s Raid the Icebox also showed at the space and went on to achieve renowned fame. The space remained open to the public and free until 1986, when the de Menil Arts program was relocated. However, the Martel Center (as it was renamed) continued to act as host to art shows, classroom and office space, and was the home of Rice’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies. Now, the Art Barn is being removed due to alleged safety problems and the potential cost of renovation, although there is some controversy over the validity of these claims. The building was never meant to be permanent, argue the defenders of its removal. Its very mode of construction asks that it be taken down. Naysayers, however, are less convinced, citing other cases where historical structures have been recycled for new purposes. Photography professor Geoff Winningham calls attention to the fact that the space could easily function as much-needed studio space, and points out that Rice’s forthcoming art center will not be completed till 2016. Until then, a simple green lawn will memorialize the removal of the campus treasure, as will the live oak tree planted by Warhol on the site after the Raid the Icebox show. Many hope the relocation and repurposing of the building to Houston’s Fourth Ward, where it will act as an art center and contribute to Houston's rise in culture, will ease the blow to the aggrieved arts community. Rice’s Visual and Dramatic Arts Department organized a last huzzah for the beloved space in February, during which they invited commemorators to bring picnics, music, and any other modes of expression they wished to share.