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Michael Webb
writes on modern architecture, design, and travel. He is the author of 26 books, most recently Modernist Paradise: Niemeyer House, Boyd Collection (Rizzoli) and Venice CA: Art +Architecture in a Maverick Community (Abrams). He travels widely in search of new and classic modern architecture and contributes to magazines around the world. Michael lives in the Neutra apartment that Charles and Ray Eames once called home.

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« FORM on Design: Iconic Modern Furniture Reissued | Main | FORM Culture: Architecture for Art »
Wednesday
Feb262014

FORM on Design: Drawings in Houston

Menil Drawing Institute at dusk, looking past the west entrance courtyard. courtesy of Johnston Marklee/The Menil Collection.

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 very best in 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.

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