Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
The AIA Sent Me to the Menil Collection
Attending last year’s convention sent me off to visit a modern masterpiece, celebrated by the AIA Twenty-five Year Award; Are you next?
By John Lim, AIA
Attend AIA Convention 2014 for a chance to win a trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the Washington Metro System. Stop by the Honors and Awards Gallery and Lounge (Booth 2227 on the Expo floor) for information on this year’s giveaway.
Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, has been one of my architectural heroes since my architecture school days, so when I realized that his 1988 building for the Menil Collection had won the AIA’s Twenty-five Year Award, I was excited at the prospect of seeing him in person in Denver. Although the award was accepted by Shunji Ishida, one of his associates in charge of the project, my slight disappointment turned into surprise when I discovered that I had won the sweepstakes for an AIA-sponsored all-expense-paid trip to Houston to visit the Menil Collection. The raffle was open to attendees of the convention’s awards ceremony, and I was a part of the contingent that went to Denver to accept the 2013 Institute Honor Awards for Interior Architecture for LMN’s PACCAR Hall at the University of Washington in Seattle.
I spent three days in Houston in October, and enjoyed glorious sunny weather during my stay—a welcome relief from the perpetual drizzle that we accept as part of life in the Pacific Northwest. Driving into the Museum District neighborhood, I saw rows of bungalows painted in identical gray with white trim. Across the street from the four rows of houses was an immaculately cropped lawn, which surrounded the museum.
Looking pristine in the oblique morning sun, it was immediately apparent that the building has been meticulously maintained. I was glad to see that the passage of time did not date this architectural gem, which was still exuding tempered confidence despite all those years under the searing Texas sun. Its white steel frame and gray cypress clapboard siding nodded to the residential context of the museum, and despite its substantial size, the building blended seamlessly into the streetscape.
From the facilities director, I heard of the delays and difficulties during construction to perfect the steel casting process for the upper truss members. Walking through the non-public parts of the building, I came to appreciate how the placement of its components responded to the client’s requirement to make the museum small on the outside and big on the inside. I also discovered that “Mrs. D” (as founder Dominque de Menil was affectionately known) acquired most of the properties around the site to ensure contextual uniformity, as Houston remains one of the few U.S. cities with no zoning restriction. Although Mrs. D is no longer with us, the building remains a strong reflection of the client and her legacy of social contribution. As Mrs. D intended, the stained black maple flooring reflected years’ worth of footsteps memorializing the streams of people of all classes who came to enjoy the impressive and transcendent Menil Collection free of charge.
The building was teeming with carefully thought-through details—evidence of the many hours that went into the design process. I suspect that in naming his practice the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Piano wanted to convey a sense of corporate design ownership for his buildings. As participants of the iterative and collaborative process that is architecture, we appreciate such gestures and understand that it is never a single stroke of genius that manifests itself into a great building. We know that great design is forged through many agonizing meetings, presentations, discussions, documentations, and late nights.
Facing the reality that not all of us architects will be recognized with a namesake firm, I felt a strong sense of solidarity with Ishida and other associates who make up the body of the AIA and give their personal best in pursuit of greater architectural design. The AIA’s Twenty-five Year Award sweepstakes allowed me time to reflect and feel that camaraderie with my fellow architects as I walked inside one of the greatest buildings built in America during the 20th century.
John Lim, AIA, is an associate at LMN Architects, a Seattle-based firm that received 2013 AIA Institute Honor Awards in three separate categories.
John Lim, AIA, (right) with Toby Kamps, curator of Modern and contemporary art, at the Menil Collection in Houston. All images courtesy of John Lim, AIA—The Menil Collection, Houston.
The gray cypress clapboard siding references the museum’s residential context.
The Menil Collection in Houston.
Custom-engineered ferrocement and iron “leaves” channel the sun into the museum’s galleries.