On the drawing board: Houston's Museum of Fine Arts by Steven Holl Architects


Due to start on site this year, Steven Holl Architects’ masterplan for the Museum of Fine Arts in the Museum District of Houston, Texas transforms the 14-acre campus into a pedestrian-friendly urban space. Steven Holl and senior partner Chris McVoy discuss the project with Cate St Hill.

How did the project come about?
We were invited to submit for the project in 2010, and were one of 10 shortlisted firms interviewed in April 2011. We presented a very initial concept for the museum building, which is remarkably close to the final design. From this interview, we were one of three teams shortlisted for a competition to make a full concept design, which was presented in January 2012.

Steven Holl. Photo Credit: Mark Heithoff
Steven Holl. Photo Credit: Mark Heithoff

We realised the museum had an opportunity to reimagine its campus. Rather than follow the brief, which called for a seven-storey parking garage north of the existing Glassell School, we proposed two levels of underground parking to free up the ground level for art and landscape. To achieve this we needed to build a new Glassell School integrated with the campus, framing a new sculpture plaza to replace the existing Seventies' school building.

Chris McVoy. Photo Credit: Steven Holl Architects
Chris McVoy. Photo Credit: Steven Holl Architects

Education has been a key mission of the museum since its founding, and the new school provides more space and state-of-the-art facilities to advance this mission. The selection committee saw the great benefit for the future of the museum with this approach, and we were chosen.

How will the new structures be integrated with the existing buildings on the campus? Was it a challenge to unify them into one coherent masterplan?
The architecture of the existing MFAH campus is an important part of its collection. The original 1924 neoclassical stone building is of modest scale and integral to Hermann Park. The Law Building with the architecture of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is a subtle composition of transparent glass and steel. The Audrey Jones Beck Building by Rafael Moneo in stone is in contrast to the Law Building directly across the street.

Model views and sketch for the new Nancy and Rich Kinder Building. Photo Credit: Steven Holl Architects

Within this horizontal collection of stone (1924), steel and glass (1958, 1974), and later stone (2000), we envision a horizontal architecture in translucent glass. The curved glass elements will have a soft texture, alabaster-like. At night the glowing translucent walls will be reflected in the water gardens and provide an open invitation to enter the museum. In complementary contrast, the new building will provide a strong contribution to the existing unique collection of MFAH architecture.

How does the new Nancy and Rich Kinder Building for 20th- and 21st-century art and Glassell School of Art building respond to Isamu Noguchi's sculpture garden next door and the surrounding landscape?
The new museum architecture is characterised by porosity, opening the ground floor at all elevations. Seven gardens slice the perimeter, marking points of entry and punctuating the elevations. All the street edges of the museum building will be open and inviting, celebrating qualities of an urban campus. The existing administration building and the new Glassell School of Art will enjoy new sculpture plaza views, uniting them as campus buildings.

Model views and sketch for the new Nancy and Rich Kinder Building. Photo Credit: Steven Holl Architects

Horizontal activity, transparency and porosity will unify and integrate the new MFAH as an integrated campus experience. The lush Houston vegetation, refreshing sound, and reflections in water are all part of a new campus experience elevating the surprise and poetry of art.

Work on site starts this year. What is the first task?
Construction begins this year on the new Glassell School, the Sculpture Plaza and the two levels of parking below them. Once the garage is complete in 2017, the site for the museum building is cleared to begin construction. It will be completed in 2019.

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