1533 Sul Ross Street
11 a.m.–7 p.m.
Wednesday - Sunday
In 1972 the de Menils engaged noted architect Louis Kahn, who had recently completed the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, to design a museum to house their collection. The building site was a 1920s residential enclave, entire blocks of which they had purchased over the course of several years with the aim of creating a storage facility and study center for their art. Kahn called for removing all of the residential structures and transforming the entire site into a museum complex with gardens. Due to John de Menil’s death in 1973, followed by Kahn’s less than a year later, the architect’s ambitious plan never came to fruition.
Dominique de Menil continued to pursue the idea of permanently housing the family collection in a public museum. Preliminary schemes were developed with architect Howard Barnstone. Then in 1980 she met the Italian architect Renzo Piano, best known for his work with Richard Rogers on the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. De Menil and Piano made splendid collaborators. She was impressed by his attentiveness to her ideas; he admired her intelligence and vision, which he characterized as firm yet flexible. As Piano remarked in 1998 to Calvin Tomkins of The New Yorker, “Dominique has very good ideas, and she is very strong, but you must fight with her. You must listen to what she says, but not always do it.”
Unlike the Kahn plan, the building envisioned by Piano—his first in the United States—would not remake the existing neighborhood but rather blend in and harmonize with it. The exterior—an understated facade of gray cypress siding, wide expanses of glass, and white-painted steel—echoes the surrounding bungalows, all of them painted the same shade of what has become known as “Menil gray.” The building’s dark-stained pine floors, low-slung profile, large lawn, and surrounding portico (which mimics the deep porches typical of early Houston homes) further recall the neighboring domestic structures. Telling Piano what she wanted in very simple but specific terms—a museum that would look “small on the outside, but be as big as possible inside”—de Menil got exactly what she wanted; although the Menil is large, it sits gently in its residential setting, and its careful proportions and placement engage easily with the nearby houses.
“ The building is a portrait
of a wonderful client—
a portrait of Dominique
de Menil” –Renzo Piano De Menil insisted that most of her collection be displayed in natural light so that visitors could experience art as she did in her home, enlivened by the subtle changes that occur at different times of the day or year. It was also critical that the works be protected from the harmful effects of ultraviolet rays. Piano, with engineering consultants from Ove Arup and Partners, made several trips to Houston to measure light intensity and atmospheric conditions.
While technology provided the necessary data, it was a trip to Israel’s Kibbutz Ein Harod with de Menil that provided Piano with his first inspiration. The kibbutz’s architect, Samuel Bickets, had suspended a screen beneath the museum building’s skylights that filtered sunlight, which could fill the gallery without directly striking works of art. The second inspiration was Piano’s own sailboat, a model of which the architect had recently built using ferro-cement. Enchanted by the flexibility of this particular material, Piano designed a wave-shaped “leaf” for the Menil’s roof and ceiling, which he used along with white steel trusses, both in the gallery spaces and on the building’s exterior, to unify the structure. The leaves function as a method of controlling light levels and also as a means of returning air flow.
“ We would rotate portions
of the collection in generous and attractive space . . . The public would
never know museum fatigue and would have the
rare joy of sitting in front
of a painting and
–Dominique de Menil Piano also studied the de Menils’ mid-century residence. Designed by Philip Johnson in 1948, Menil House (now part of the Menil Foundation, but not open to the public) stands as one of the first International Style structures built in Texas. Long and low-slung, and set back on a large plot of land, the one-story brick house is, as Menil founding director Walter Hopps once described it, “the DNA of the Menil Collection.” The Menil Collection indeed seems like a very large house—a house of art. The museum contains nearly 30,000 square feet of gallery and public space, most of it along the north side of a 320-foot corridor. Enclosed gardens, echoing an atrium in the de Menils’ own home, provide another source of natural light.
The bulk of the collection is not on public display, but “compressed,” as Dominique de Menil put it, into upstairs “treasure rooms,” where most of the art is hung and displayed salon-style. (These storage rooms can be accessed at any time by the museum staff; scholars may also make special arrangements to visit them.) In addition to the gallery spaces, the museum houses a framing studio as well as a conservation laboratory for the study and care of works of art (both of these work spaces are visible through windows on the south and east sides of the building).
Inside the museum, just off the west corridor, the Menil Library, housing some 30,000 volumes (including many rare books), is open to qualified researchers by appointment.