In 1980, when Renzo Piano agreed to build an art museum in Houston, his client Dominique de Menil offered a friendly salute: “Welcome to hell!” With her late husband, John, the French-born, oil-industry-rich activist and style icon had amassed a staggering art collection. By Menil’s own admission, she was a hard-to-please stickler and she didn’t mince words. “Hit the tits!” she would say, making clear where the center of a work should be displayed. The Menil Collection was unveiled in 1987 as the keystone of a 30-acre campus that included Mark Rothko’s famous chapel and, later, Piano’s Cy Twombly Gallery, transforming the city into a mecca for art-hopping pilgrims.
Now comes the next installment: the recently opened 30,000-square-foot Menil Drawing Institute, housing 2,000 works on paper by the likes of Jasper Johns, Agnes Martin, Ellsworth Kelly, and Robert Rauschenberg. It’s the first new building on the campus in 20 years, and it represents a new level of exposure for Johnston Marklee, the upstart, award-winning Los Angeles– and Boston-based firm headed by work and life partners Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee, who created this $ 40 million centerpiece of the Menil’s David Chip- perfield–led master plan.
“Not at all hellish!” Johnston says when asked about client relations with the modern-day Menil. As for the Drawing Institute, the effect is far from infernal. There’s a well-ordered, arcadian aura about the place, with its stark white origami-like planes, sun-dappled courtyard, luminous oak floors and cedar siding, and gossamer-thin steel construction, which together evoke world-class institution, modernist house, and cloister all at once. The spiritual feeling is no accident. “The Menil family were very religious people,” Johnston says. “They were expansive in their belief and committed to social justice; it was about opening up to others instead of setting boundaries.”
Johnston and Lee are boundary breakers themselves. They are routinely described as pioneers of the movement away from starchitecture and toward buildings that are low-key, hushed, and even, most daringly, boring: no asymptotes, no blobs. “Their design preserves and respects the scale, green ambience, and tranquility of the neighborhood,” observes Menil Collection director Rebecca Rabinow. “Our work reveals itself over time,” Johnston says. “It doesn’t hit you over the head.”