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Angled Reflection

Reflective surfaces, angular forms and strategic daylighting create contemplative spaces

Menil Drawing Institute July19 5555

Photo: Richard Barnes

Sharp, angular forms and surfaces that subtly reflect light make Menil Drawing Institute a standout. Judges for the 2019 Metal Architecture Design Awards lauded the design for them, and what they noted was a well-conceived, tranquil building, and recognized it with a Judges Award.

Paper-like Steel

Architecture firm Johnston Marklee created the angular forms, in part, with the building’s wide, angled soffits, and large, structural steel, partially covered courtyards at entrances on the institute’s east and west sides. The entrance courtyards are square with openings in the center, and covered by canopies. To form the angles, the firm designed thin roof and wall assemblies with architecturally exposed structural steel and, on the canopies, aluminum panels.

Nicholas Hofstede, managing director at Johnston Marklee in Los Angeles, says steel was the best material to achieve the thinnest possible canopies, which Houston-based United Structures of America Inc. fabricated and installed on the museum, which is also in Houston. The aluminum roof panels are finished in Pittsburgh-based PPG Industries Inc.’s Duranar fluoropolymer extrusion coating.

The resulting design led to a coincidental, but fitting, metaphor for the museum, research and conservation center for drawings; the metal resembles folded paper. “Doing it out of steel enabled us to infer this kind of sheet of paper with its thinness, with its delicateness, very origami-like folded pieces of paper, versus another type of material,” Hofstede says.

Latent Diagonals

Angular forms were also created with walls that run diagonally across square spaces in the building’s modular floor plan. “The plan is made up of a lot of squares, almost squares within squares. And in all of these modules, we cut the outside corners,” Hofstede says.

For example, at a corner in a 60-foot by 60-foot module, Johnston Marklee cut the corner 12 feet in from each direction. “That results in a lot of this kind of latent diagonal, and we’re left with this solid wall in the middle of 36 feet,” Hofstede says. “That wall element and that modular system show up either as a structural white steel wall, or as a clad, nonstructural metal white wall, depending on where it is in the building.”

Reflective Surfaces

In addition to having the strength to create thin, angular components, metal was also useful for its reflective property, which was part of Johnston Marklee’s daylighting strategies. In the institute, daylighting is limited to where it won’t damage paper artwork. Most of the glazing is at entrances, corners of the building, some in line with major exterior walls, and in only three locations in the mid-interior does daylight emit through the roof: a third courtyard, a skylight in a room to study artwork, and a skylight in a conservation library. In spaces where there is daylight, the reflective aluminum roof, along with the white soffits, ceilings and walls, provide shade at some places, and reflect light inside at others. “We used the roof a lot to provide certain shading and to reflect light into the building, and to protect the galleries,” Hofstede says.

Continuing the reflective surfaces from the exterior, white ceilings and walls inside the building brighten spaces, but are slightly darker than the white on the exterior. “Inside, it’s more of an off-white color that’s tuned with the art in the museum because a very bright white would burn your eyes, but they’re very similar,” Hofstede says.

Overly Manufacturing Co., Greensburg, Pa., supplied its metal roofing for the third courtyard, called the scholar courtyard, and Super Sky Products Enterprises LLC, Mequon, Wis., supplied skylights. Compton, Calif.-based Tnemec Co.’s white paint was applied to soffits and walls.

Photo: Richard Barnes

Outside/Inside Connection

In contrast to the aluminum roof panels and painted white metal surfaces, dark gray-brown Port Orford cedar cladding lines interior walls of the entrance courtyards. Besides color, the cladding’s wood grain texture contrasts with the smooth metal surfaces. To enhance the effect, the wood panels were bead blasted to bring out texture and covered with a waxy stain.

“The white exterior of the courtyards is very abstract,” Hofstede says. “And then when you come into the courtyard where there are plants, the light becomes different, and you get a much warmer and textural experience on those interior walls.”

The cedar cladding in the entrance courtyards, which are some of the main spaces where Menil Drawing Institute interfaces with its tree-lined site, emphasizes the connection between inside and outside spaces.

“We view the drawing institute not just as the interior space, but as the exterior space; it is critical,” Hofstede says. “The building bled out from the landscape. It appears larger than it is because of the way that we’ve integrated the landscape. The trees also help to bring light levels down for drawings and for shade.”

Campus Scale

In addition to integrating with its immediate site, Menil Drawing Institute is on the Menil Campus, a 30-acre plot in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood where the majority of buildings, houses and other parcels are owned by the Menil Foundation Inc. in Houston. Many of the buildings on the campus house art as well, and have monochromatic colors in their architecture. It is physically connected with the campus, as well. In addition to the east and west entrance courtyards, the institute has a south side entrance.

Hofstede says, “This building really has to be understood in the context of the campus, as almost like a chess player within the other board of chess pieces on the campus. They have a building to the south, to the north and to the east, so it was important to be able to come from multi-directions into this building, that there wasn’t necessarily one central front door, that it was part of a larger network.”

To coordinate Menil Drawing Institute with its primarily residential surroundings, Hofstede says they scaled the building between a house and a museum. The roofs of houses and other nearby buildings are 16 to 18 feet, so its entrance courtyards are also 16 feet. “But then we slope that canopy down to a low point of 10 feet,” he says. “And what that does is, you see the building from afar, it has a certain scale, but then you come into the building, and the scale lowers, it becomes a little more domestic, a little bit more intimate scale than a typical impression from a grand museum. Inside, there’s still an apex at 15 1/2 feet, but then on the sidewalls, that’s where it drops down to 10 feet, so you sort of get this volumetric shape that is the same pitch or angle as the courtyards.”

Menil Drawing Institute’s angular massing with reflective surfaces, tree-lined landscape and mid-scale size give it a dramatic appearance from a distance. “All of those things combined created this white roof that kind of hovers very low and long over the landscape,” Hofstede says.

Photo: Richard Barnes