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Review: Menil design by L.A.'s Johnston Marklee is deceptively simple

Sharon Johnston, who runs the Los Angeles firm Johnston Marklee & Associates with her husband Mark Lee, told me a couple of years ago that there was one key difference between their work and the mannered, loosely flamboyant designs of Thom Mayne, Frank Gehry, Eric Owen Moss and other famous L.A. architects a generation or two older.

In developing a design, she said, she was most pleased when she hit upon an architectural gesture that could accomplish two or three goals at the same time -- that could fold several priorities into a single move.

Now that the firm’s design for a new building on the campus of the Menil Collection art museum in Houston has been unveiled, it’s easier to see what she meant.

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It’s also clear that Johnston Marklee, founded in 1998, is poised to break through the malaise that seems to have settled over many midcareer L.A. firms -- in part because of the insistent shadow cast by those famous older architects -- and take on increasingly prominent public work. 

The architects' design for the $40-million Menil Drawing Institute, due to break ground next year and open in 2017, appears very simple at first glance. The flat-roofed, pavilion-like building, wrapped around three courtyards, looks to be a self-effacing white object sliding between -- and even hiding behind -- a group of large oak trees.

But once you take a closer look, it becomes clear that the architecture is not so much spare as it is efficiently layered with ideas and comfortable with contradiction.

The design is a sustained negotiation between public and private spaces. It is dedicated to display and to keeping objects protected or hidden from view.

In some places it opens up to sunlight. Elsewhere it shuns it. Its geometry is simple and complex.

The building will occupy a location on the Menil campus that is now peripheral but soon to be central. Its scale is bigger than a house but smaller than most museum buildings.

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Even the roof, a thin plane of half-inch plate steel that the architects developed with the structural engineer Guy Nordenson, isn’t quite what it seems. From afar the building has a direct and modern silhouette. The design essentially sketches a straight roofline floating atop the landscape.

But inside its main gathering and circulation space -- a part of the building the architects call the Living Room -- is a faceted ceiling that looks from certain angles like a pitched roof.

The architects have smuggled a gable inside the building.

And that ceiling, true to Johnston’s word, accomplishes a number of architectural goals at once. The gabled form recalls the small bungalows that the Menil has acquired in recent years on the perimeter of its campus and painted a matching shade of "Menil gray." It reduces the scale of a room that the architects want to feel approachable, even explicitly domestic.

It hints at the fact that drawings occupy much the same place in the art world that houses (and other compact single-story buildings, like this one) do in architecture, as a locus of experimentation.

And it suggests that complex geometry -- or strong form-making more broadly -- is not something Johnston Marklee is incapable of or uninterested in doing but rather something it wants to deliver in measured, concentrated doses.

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The Drawing Institute, according to the Menil, is the first ground-up building in the United States dedicated to modern and contemporary drawings. Johnston Marklee was selected to design it after an unusually well-run competition that also included London architect David Chipperfield, the prominent Tokyo firm SANAA and Mexico City’s Tatiana Bilbao.

The new building, with a total of 30,000 square feet on two floors, one of them below ground, will be located near the southern edge of the Menil campus. It will be adjacent to the 1995 Cy Twombly Pavilion, designed by Renzo Piano, and a short walk from Piano’s main building for the museum, which was completed in 1987 and remains the Italian architect’s best museum project in the U.S. by a significant margin.

The institute will contain a mixture of exhibition galleries and private rooms for the study, conservation and storage of works on paper, along with a library and a small amount of office space.

Two of its courtyards will be public while a third -- though visible from the Living Room -- will be used only by artists and scholars. The main private space for study, as a counterpoint to the Living Room and in another nod to domestic architecture, is called the Drawing Room.

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The design, which owes a modest debt to the Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza and the American Edward Larrabee Barnes, is meant to carefully mediate light, bringing visitors through dappled sunshine in a pair of entry courtyards and then into more muted galleries.

The materials will grow richer and more tactile the more you explore the building, with the walls ringing the courtyards lined in wide planks of stained cedar. The floors inside will be concrete or ash wood.

The fact that the building, however modestly scaled, will be freestanding and autonomous on the Menil campus is important symbolically as well as practically.

“Drawing is not seen as a step toward painting any longer,” Mark Lee told me. “It is becoming an independent action.”

The institute will also serve increasingly as an entry pavilion or gathering place for the campus as a whole as the Menil expands to the south, following a master plan by Chipperfield in collaboration with the landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh.

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There is some risk for the Menil in pursuing such a subtle design. Fundraising will be trickier than would be the case with a flashy, easily marketed design by better-known architects.

And of course it is early yet. The easiest way for the MDI to go wrong will be in its treatment of light. And that can’t be precisely judged until the building is complete.

But if the final product does justice to the promise of these designs, the MDI will add to the sense that the Menil, bucking the prevailing trend toward art-world gigantism, is expanding as thoughtfully and intelligently as any museum in the country.

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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