The city of Houston, Texas, is making a marked effort to improve the urban pedestrian experience of its quickly growing population. And a newly released renovation plan for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), and its downtown campus will connect the existing buildings and sculpture garden with three new distinctive designs by Steven Holl Architects and Lake|Flato Architects with an array of public plazas, reflecting pools, and gardens. “Houston has experienced incredible growth over the last 20 years, and the MFAH has grown rapidly with the city,” Houston Mayor Annise Parker said. “The redevelopment of the campus and the resulting increase in public access to art and programming will further enhance the museum’s service to the city.”
The museum has been bringing art to the city for 115 years and today it is one of the largest cultural institutions in the US. Its main campus includes architecture and landscape architecture by some of the most renowned names in the design world: the stone-façade Audrey Jones Beck Building designed by architect Rafael Moneo, a 1996 Pritzker Prize Laureate; the glass-and-steel Caroline Wiess Law Building by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a pioneer of modern architecture; and the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden by landscape architect Isamu Noguchi, known for his sculpture and modern furniture designs for Herman Miller that are still produced today.
The redesign plan capitalizes on the architectural panache of the museum’s current campus with new contemporary-design structures. “We envision the expansions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, as an integrated campus,” architect Steven Holl said. “At the campus, all buildings are in conversation with each other, and the lush nature of the Houston landscape serves as connecting syntax.”
An 80,000-square-foot, L-shaped, Glassell School of Art building will replace the school’s current 35-year-old building. Designed by Steven Holl Architects, the new building will be constructed from a series of sandblasted, precast concrete panels in a rhythm of verticals and slight angles. An open, broad-stepped central staircase and a street-level café/art- supply store for students and the public are integral interior features of the school—which serves students of all ages, from three to ninety-three. Outside, a stepped amphitheater leads visitors to the top of the building where a walkable, trellised roof garden provides dramatic panoramas of the campus. “The views offered from the rooftop gardens on the Glassell School building will give the public an overview of the entire, newly unified campus,” Holl says.
A second structure designed by Holl is the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building for 20th- and 21st-century art—a largely translucent and transparent exhibition building punctuated by seven vertical gardens with reflecting pools at ground level. The interior spaces will be naturally lit under a “luminous canopy” roof and porous to the landscape on all sides with a curved, etched glass exterior. The building’s two floors will add 54,000 square feet of gallery space for exhibiting a largely unseen collection of 20th- and 21st-century masterworks encircling a three-level atrium, as well as adding a 202-seat theater, a restaurant, a café, and meeting rooms. “Punctuated by seven gardens,” Holl said, “the new gallery building, with its transparent ground level, will have spectacular views into Noguchi’s sculpture garden.”
The third structure, the Blaffer Foundation Center for Conservation designed by Lake|Flato Architects, plans to bring the museum’s conservation team closer to their curator colleagues and offer space for ongoing research and care of the Museum’s more than 65,000 objects. Still in the concept phase, the center will be constructed on top of a parking garage. The glass rooftop structure will allow passersby to glimpse the activity inside. “Lake|Flato is honored to collaborate with the staff of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, to design a sustainable and flexible building where the Museum’s collections can be brought for care and research,” architect David Lake says. “The building will seek to gracefully balance the art and science of conservation while taking into account the natural environment of the Houston landscape.”
The landscape of the city, as well as the campus, is a key element of Steven Holl Architects’ master plan. A major concept of the plan is moving all parking below ground. Also underground, a tunnel will connect Holl’s Nancy and Rich Kinder Building and the Mies building. With the existing Wilson Tunnel—housing artist James Turrell’s installation The Light Inside, featured in the video above—between the Mies and Moneo buildings, the campus will be fully connected below ground. Above ground, the space that would have been used for parking is imagined as alfresco public gathering spaces and a pedestrian-friendly urban campus. Overarching landscape designs will knits together various architectural styles and materials—from limestone to steel to glass.
“This is the most exciting single project in the history of the museum,” said Richard D. Kinder, Chairman of the Museum’s board of trustees and of its long-range planning committee. “The redevelopment not only completes the museum but makes the MFAH a center point of the Museum District and, in fact, the cultural hub of Houston.” The redesign project is set to begin later this year and is currently slated for completion in 2019.
What a visionary plan for a contemporary museum campus in a downtown setting! We will stay tuned for the forthcoming landscape architect selection and news of groundbreakings. Congratulations to Houston and MFAH on an exciting transformation!
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