CultureGrrl

“Translucent Complementary Contrast”: Steven Holl’s Alluring Expansion of MFA, Houston (with video)

It’s about time that architect Steven Holl got another shot at a major art museum in the U.S., given the nearly universal acclaim that greeted his 2007 addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City.

Judging from his preliminary renderings (presented an NYC press lunch last week) for a suavely handsome, 164,000 square-foot-building for 20th- and 21st-century art—just one part of the architect’s master plan to enhance and unify the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston‘s 14-acre campus—this project’s planned 2019 completion will be well worth the wait and will make Houston a must-see destination for avid art-and-architecture buffs.

Here’s a view of the entrance to the new gallery building at night, when it will appear as a “luminous canopy” (the architect’s words):

Entrance to Kinder Building at night
Photo courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

Here’s the entrance in daylight:

Photo Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

As you will hear in my CultureGrrl Video below, Holl says that each of the 25 galleries in his new building “will have natural light”—a feature in many museums’ preliminary renderings that often gets scaled back in consideration of the sensitivity of many pieces and the qualms of lenders regarding exposure of their treasures to sunlight. An example of such second thoughts was the final design for Alice Walton‘s Crystal Bridges Museum. It was initially envisioned by its architect, Moshe Safdie, as having natural light throughout, but the built version dispensed with the proposed skylights.

What had most astonished me about Holl’s Nelson-Atkins intervention was how complementary (despite being so radically different) his ultra-modern addition was to the museum’s traditional, monumental temple to art. The challenge to get along without just going along will be even greater in Houston, where Holl’s buildings will cohabit on the MFAH’s campus with diverse structures by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Rafael Moneo, Isamu Noguchi and William Ward Watkin (architect for the original 1924 Neoclassical building).

In my video, Holl describes as “translucent complementary contrast” the guiding principle for his new Houston buildings. (That is also an apt description for his achievement in Kansas City). He describes the skin of his gallery building as “a cool jacket,” composed of “sandblasted glass tubes” that “allow the building to be a glowing, translucent, matte-finish presence.”

Those tubes are also intended make the facility energy-efficient: The “chimney effect” of the tubes, open at both ends, allows air flow that should cool the building in the hot sun, Holl said. “I think it’s never been done before.” (We can only hope this experiment succeeds.)

Steven Holl, presenting his Houston designs
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Houston being Houston, more than $330 million of the $450-million goal for the capital project and endowment was already raised when Holl and Gary Tinterow, the MFAH’s hit-the-ground-running director, unveiled the plans to NYC’s art-and-architecture press. (A Houston presentation occurred a few days before ours.) Having been passed over in 2008 for the Metropolitan Museum’s directorship, Tinterow left his long-time professional home in early 2012 for the new gig in his native Houston, and never looked back.

The “silent phase” for museums’ capital campaigns typically raises about 50% of the total goal. The MFAH has already snared more than 73% from local philanthropists, most notably $70 million from Fayez Sarofim (giving him naming rights for the entire campus) and $50 million from the Kinder Foundation (with naming rights for the new gallery building, pictured above, going to board chairman Richard Kinder and wife Nancy).

The last $120 million may be the hardest to raise, given the possible impact of plummeting oil prices on Houston’s economy.

The capital project will also include a new Holl-designed replacement-building for the Glassell School of Art, and a 30,000-square-foot Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation Center for Conservation, designed by Lake|Flato Architects. The latter will unify the museum’s widely scattered conservation facilities under the auspices of David Bomford, named early in Tinterow’s tenure as chairman of the MFAH’s conservation department. (Bomford also assumed the title of interim head of European art, after the retirement last month of Edgar Peters Bowron.)

Sarah Campbell Blaffer Center for Conservation
Photo Courtesy of Lake|Flato Architects

Let’s hear directly from Tinterow and Holl, to learn more about this project and to see many more renderings (including the graceful, flowing museum interiors, beginning at 6:50 in video). These in-progress designs seem destined to fulfill the architect’s mission that Holl, who teaches at Columbia University, once learned from a professor:

A building has to be more when you go in it than when you look at it.