2013 Twenty-five Year Award

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The Menil Collection | Notes of Interest

By Zach Mortice, Managing Editor, AIArchitect

The Menil Collection, in Houston, was selected for the 2013 AIA Twenty-five Year Award. As Renzo Piano’s, Hon. FAIA, first American project, this modest neighborhood museum set a new precedent in museum architecture and propelled Piano into his current status as one of the world’s most trusted designers of cultural buildings. With the Menil, Piano has carried forth the Southern European Renaissance tradition of handcrafted technological humanism into another century, and brought the world a transcendent space for viewing art that places the collection, and its presentation in perfectly realized natural light, above all else.

Recognizing architectural design of enduring significance, the Twenty-five Year Award is conferred on a building that has stood the test of time by embodying architectural excellence for 25 to 35 years. Projects must demonstrate excellence in function, in the distinguished execution of its original program, and in the creative aspects of its statement by today’s standards. The award will be presented this June at the AIA National Convention in Denver.

A second act

By 1982, Italian architect Renzo Piano had already called the architecture world to attention with his design for the Centre Pompidou in Paris—a building he later described to The New York Times as “an act of loutish bravado.” Designed in partnership with Richard Rogers, Hon. FAIA, this populist cultural mecca is a massive rectangle covered in its own viscera—multicolored air and water ducts, electrical cabling, escalators—plopped in the middle of a French Revolution–era Paris neighborhood. It draws its power from this juxtaposition: the shock of an avant-garde chromatic oil derrick leaping out at you from around the corner of narrow medieval streets.

When Piano and Rogers won the anonymous design competition for the Pompidou (also called “the Beaubourg,” after its Paris neighborhood), no one on the jury knew who they were; but by the time they publically presented the design at a press conference, they were approaching infamy. The French press and the design public hated it, and police had to remove one woman who shouted down Piano and Rogers’ ultra-modern design, according to Nathan Silver’s The Making of Beaubourg: A Building Biography of the Centre Pompidou. By the time the building was completed, in 1977, it was being derided in The New York Times as the “Beauborug folly.”

The stage seemed to be set for Piano to begin and end his career with one grand failed experiment. But, instead, Paris fell in love with the Pompidou’s violent break with history and expansive cultural programming. Piano’s vindication was total: Since completion, it’s become one of the most visited museums in Paris and one of the most vibrant public spaces in a city full of them.

But what to do next? Relatively early in his career, Piano had already received the commission of a lifetime—and solved it in the most provocative and successful way possible. How could he top it?

The answer came when oil heiress and art collector Dominique de Menil asked him to design a small art museum in a quiet Houston neighborhood of bungalows and clapboard houses.

Sculpting light

When completed, just over 25 years ago, The Menil Collection was immediately hailed as a triumph. In The New York Times, Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA, called it “one of the most pleasing buildings built in our time for the viewing of art.” The ensuing critical dialogue mostly pointed out the Menil’s opposition to the growing trend of capital-M Monumentality in museum architecture. It was a building outside of its own time, different from the loud postmodern pastiches, calm but imposing Neo-Modernist temples, and (at first glance) even the Pompidou’s industrial-scale technological bombast. “As art museums go, the Menil doesn’t,” wrote Reyner Banham in Art in America. But, in many ways, the Menil represents an evolution from the Pompidou, not a break from it. Neither museum matches traditional visions of what museums are supposed to look like. The Pompidou makes obvious allusions to heavy industry, while the Menil softens its edges a bit, calling to mind a well-designed shipping warehouse for a smart startup.

The all-encompassing mechanized exterior of the Pompidou is toned down and focused at the Menil. In Houston, glass ceilings allow light to reach a series of custom-engineered ferrocement and iron “leaves,” present inside and outside of the museum, that channel the sun into the galleries. Three-hundred such thin, curving sheets offer a sculptural, idiosyncratic sense of handcraftedness to the otherwise spare and minimalist white-walled museum. Their presence and visibility from the gallery interiors make their channeling of light a more intimate experience, clarifying the conveyance of light—a spectral building material every bit as important to Piano as bricks and mortar. “[Light is] as much a part of the composition as the shapes and volumes [of buildings],” Piano said at his Pritzker Architecture Prize acceptance speech in 1998.

“The quality of light is like nothing else anywhere,” wrote Banham. “[It] may well set standards to make other architects lie awake at night.”

Piano’s use of natural light has calls to mind AIA Gold Medalist Louis Kahn (for whom he worked early in his career), but his treatment of inventively engineered building systems earned comparisons to far older designers: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and—Piano’s favorite—Filippo Brunelleschi. Piano’s buildings deliver 21st-century performance and sustainability, but, if rendered in a decaying sepia, his sketches of building and their systems (like the Menil’s light-scooping leaves) could sit quite comfortably next to fellow Italian da Vinci’s 15th-century flying machine diagram. Both have a slow, analog timelessness that lets the mind and the eye trace through the simple mechanical principles of how science and design meet.

In da Vinci’s time, design, art, science, philosophy, and religion simmered in the same cultural stew. While not indistinguishable, they were just beginning to be atomized by Renaissance-era notions of intent and empiricism. Da Vinci put himself at the center of each of these emerging disciplines, and Piano is still keeping his seat warm. “Architecture,” he says, “is the frontier between art and science.”

Baking bread

Piano’s client for the Menil, Dominique de Menil, asked him for a museum that looked “small on the outside and as big as it can be on the inside,” according to The Washington Post. Exterior smallness was a matter of respect, as the museum is located in a tasteful residential neighborhood filled with early-20th-century bungalows. Internal largeness was a matter of function: The Menil owns 10,000 art objects, one of the largest private collections in the nation.

It’s an exceedingly simple design: A central circulation spine leads visitors to white-cube galleries accented with soft pine floors and lush, landscaped interior gardens. There’s no museum store, no café; it’s only about the collection—mostly 20th-century art with some non-Western ancient artifacts—much of which is kept in a second -storage volume called the “treasure house,” elevated above all else. Along with the Rothko Chapel next door, and AIA Gold Medalist Philip Johnson’s nearby campus for the University of St. Thomas, the Menil and a handful of neighboring houses converted into office space for the museum have become a small arts village, working together to create a vibrant cultural district, not straining and competing with each other for attention.

In the decades since the Menil opened, there is scarcely a top-shelf museum in the Western world that hasn’t either built or considered a major addition—and contacted Piano about it. As museum expansion budgets and the architecture they enabled swelled in ambition and size, becoming more and more formally adventurous, monumental, and aggressive, Piano rode the wave better than anyone. Soon he had buildings on four continents, a Pritzker Architecture Prize, and an AIA Gold Medal. Eventually, museum building budgets shrank—but so did the rest of the economy. Although the recession has sobered the design and construction industry in almost every way, there is no reason to believe that Piano will ever find himself speaking a dead language. While possibly no one else benefitted as much from the boom in cultural building architecture of the last 20 years, this shift still harkens back to Piano’s best work.

Curators today are looking for value, function, and performance from their museums. Uninterested in wild formal gesticulations, they want clarity and self-assurance, something that is easily approachable, and fits in its neighborhood. Basically, they want the Menil. “If you bake bread every day and people enjoy it, that’s good,” Piano told Architectural Review in 1989. “That’s what architecture should be. A part of life.”

Go to the Jan. 11, 2013 issue of AIArchitect
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Photo Credit

  • Renzo Piano’s, Hon. FAIA, Menil Collection in Houston. Image courtesy of Paul Hester.
  • A temporary exhibit gallery at the Menil. Image courtesy of Paul Hester.
  • A sketch of Piano’s system of light-channeling concrete “leaves”.
  • The Menil is located in a residential neighborhood of modest clapboard houses. Image courtesy of Hickey and Robertson.
  • A gallery looking out towards a landscaped courtyard. Image courtesy of Hickey and Robertson.

The Menil Collection

Jury Comments

The Menil Collection is a monument of 20th century architecture that still resonates today.

Its innovative means of indirect lighting can be, and has been, applied to other building typologies and evolved in Piano’s ongoing work.

Timeless - still an amazing precedent for museum design, daylighting, and a clean plan - it's about the contents, not the building itself.

Contextually responsive to it’s interesting low scale neighborhood it influenced this quadrant of Houston in many different ways.

More about The Menil Collection

2013 Institute Honor Awards for Architecture Jury

  • Mary Katherine (Mary Kay) Lanzillotta, FAIA, Chair
  • Hartman-Cox Architects, Washington, DC
  • Brian Fitzsimmons, AIA
  • Fitzsimmons Architects, Oklahoma City
  • John Kane, FAIA
  • Architekton, Tempe, Arizona
  • William Leddy, FAIA
  • Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, San Francisco
  • Philip Loheed, AIA
  • BTA Architects, Inc., Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Robert Maschke, AIA
  • robert maschke ARCHITECTS inc., Cleveland
  • Douglas L. Milburn, Assoc. AIA
  • Isaksen Glerum Wachter LLC, Urbana, Illinois
  • Becky Joyce Yannes, AIAS Representative
  • Drexel University, Philadelphia

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