Johnston Marklee have won plaudits for their houses and they have now triumphed over several larger firms for a coveted commission: the Menil Drawing Institute (MDI) in Houston. The late Dominique de Menil had refined taste and great wealth—a rare combination—and she patiently sought exemplary art and architecture. The main museum, which opened in 1987, is still Renzo Piano’s best—for its springy grace and luminous interiors. She established a leafy campus around that building, preserved a row of old houses to accommodate visiting artists, and created several satellite galleries, including Piano’s understated shrine to Cy Twombly. For its future growth, the board commissioned a master plan from David Chipperfield, which will replace three massive apartment blocks with new housing and the MDI.
The challenge of building in this idyllic oasis, respecting existing structures and the great oaks that shade the grass, was matched by the exacting demands of the curators. They wanted an extraordinary collection of modern drawings to be displayed, studied, and conserved under the best possible conditions in a hot, humid city. Confronting the near impossible is a spur to invention, and Johnston Marklee have created a permeable complex of courtyards, shaded walkways, and galleries that filter the harsh Texas sun. Canted white steel roofs seem to hover amid the trees, and the open spaces mediate between park and sanctuary. Scholars, curators, and art-lovers are equally well-served in rooms that invite discovery and contemplation. MDI director Allegra Pesenti is keenly anticipating the opening in 2017 of a facility where fragile works on paper will receive the attention and respect that has often eluded them.