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The Menil Drawing Institute

Johnston Marklee

Houston, TX, United States

November 2018


Sharon Johnston, FAIA, and Mark Lee


Project Manager: Nicholas Hofstede; Project Lead: Andri Luescher; Project Team: Anton Schneider, Rodolfo Reis Dias, Jeff Mikolajewski, Letizia Garzoli, Douglas Harsevoort, Maximilian Kocademirci, Mehr Khanpour, David Gray


The Menil Foundation


Multiple Photographers: Image courtesy The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Richard Barnes / Image courtesy The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Paul Hester / Photo: Iwan Baan


The principal components of the MDI are the public exhibition gallery, the drawing study room, the conservation laboratory, the administrative offices, and the collection storage areas. Equally important but more flexible in function are the Living Room and the Scholar Courtyard. The welcoming Living Room alternates as a space for gathering, circulation, and quiet study, and an activated area for lectures, talks, screenings, dinners, and receptions with built-in flexibility of orientation, technology, and acoustics. Acting as a central hub for the building, it also articulates the vital link between architecture and landscape, and the public and private aspects of the Institute. The atmosphere of the MDI, alternately formal and informal, embodies the intimate yet immediate nature of the medium of drawing.

Configured like a village, the building volumes beneath the roof each hold specific functions while more loosely defined activities take place the areas between. Public and private programs are woven together through an interior flow, shaped by insight from curators and conservators which simplifies art handling for the safety of artwork. The study room allow visitors and researchers to examine drawings under calibrated lighting conditions, supporting the strict conservation requirements for works on paper. Programmatically well-tuned, future-proof room functions ensure the long-term sustainable function of the MDI.

The newly-designed Energy House by Johnston Marklee on the Menil Campus maximized efficiency for the servicing, routing, and movement of equipment, allowing the opportunity to examine the historical data of operational energy demand for the entire campus in the design process.


The Menil Drawing Institute (MDI) is the first freestanding museum building in the United States dedicated to the exhibition, study, and conservation of works on paper. As the first new building since 1987 completed on the Menil campus, the MDI honors the legacy of intimacy and direct engagement with art that underlies the neighborhood. Situated in a park-like setting, the new building assumes the scale of both a house and a museum, with a low-lying, elongated profile that blends with the architecture of the historic campus and the bungalows in the surrounding residential neighborhood, while signaling a new dimension for the future growth of the neighborhood of art.

The MDI is composed of a series of buildings and courtyards unified by a white steel-plate roof that extends and hovers over the landscape, like a folded sheet of paper. The roof defines two entry courtyards to the east and west that belong to both the park and the building, acting as thresholds between indoor and outdoor spaces. Architectural canopies, courtyards, plantings, and filtered glazing work in concert to provide a nuanced and comfortable transition between bright exterior and low-lit interior spaces. Within the courtyards, the underlying folds of the roof plane embrace the tree canopies, creating a shaded, contemplative atmosphere in and around the MDI. Shedding light, the roof acts as a reflective surface for the shadows of the trees and contrasts with the deep grey cedar planks that clad the building.


A passive approach to sustainability creates a welcoming, intimately scaled space that engages the public and provides a collaborative, human-centered work environment. The courtyard roof and tree canopies offer a cool shaded atmosphere in and around the building. Deep grey cedar planks clad the building, eliminating glare to calibrate visitors’ eyes towards lower light levels inside. Within conservation and study areas, a mixture of modulated natural light and artificial light sources allow scholars to adapt conditions appropriate to specific research and conservation requirements. This resilient building is designed to evolve with the changing nature of artistic practice and scholarship.

Artists, curators, and visitors have embraced the built-in flexibility throughout the museum; varied adaptations and configurations for exhibitions and events in the Living Room and Gallery contribute to the goal of engaging a diverse public. Since opening a variety of programs have been held and academic classes from surrounding universities have been regularly hosted. The planning organization allows the scholars in residence to move effortlessly between the dedicated scholar offices, administration spaces, the study room, and conservation lab.
Scholars have reported ease of adjusting for optimal light conditions. Museum staff has reported that careful calibration of daylighting has brought comfort, connection to nature, and a level of animated illumination, imparting a sense of wellness that supports good work and engagement with art. The courtyards are open to informal use by the public serving a variety of purposes from meetings to concerts and yoga sessions — contributing to the mission of the foundation.

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