Menil Drawing Institute
The Menil Drawing Institute in Houston, Texas, is the country’s first freestanding building dedicated solely to the exhibition, study, and conservation of works on paper. The institute sits within the Menil Collection’s 30-acre campus and honors the intimacy and direct engagement with art that defines the overarching campus mission. Surrounded by a park-like setting, the institute’s elongated profile melds with the historic campus’ architecture while heralding a new paradigm for this neighborhood of art.
The institute is defined by a series of volumes and courtyards that are unified by a white steel-plate roof that hovers above the landscape, much like a folded sheet of paper. Two entry courtyards await visitors and act as thresholds between the institute’s indoor and outdoor spaces. Within these courtyards, the roof’s folds embrace the tree canopy to support a shaded and contemplative air that permeates the institute. Additionally, the roof acts as a reflective surface for the trees’ shadows, contrasting with the cladding’s grey cedar planks.
Inside, natural light is modulated to protect the sensitive drawings and works on paper, but it also harmonizes with the surrounding landscape. As visitors approach, they first find refuge from the strong Texas sun among the shadows cast by the roof and tree canopy. Within the building, the public spaces receive diffused natural light that is sculpted by folds in the roof plane. By the time visitors reach the gallery spaces, more than 90% of the exterior sunlight has been filtered by the architecture. The team carefully choreographed the journey to ensure a soft transition from the linear quality of exterior light and shadow to the volumetric light that awaits.
Beneath the roof, the institute’s volumes are configured like a village. Each has specific functions, such as a gallery, drawing study room, conservation lab, administrative offices, and collection storage. More loosely defined activities occur in the spaces between. Extensive conversations with the institute’s curators and conservators informed program adjacencies and the overall flow of the building.
Two additional spaces, the living room and scholar’s cloister, are equally important but more flexible in their function. The living room offers gathering space that accommodates quiet study or lectures, screenings, and receptions. It’s a central hub for the building and articulates the important link between the architecture and landscape as well as the building’s public and private components. Throughout, the institute’s atmosphere alternates between formal and informal, embodying the intimate yet immediate nature of drawing as a medium.