Steven Holl completes Glassell School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston

The gathering spaces – including the building’s walkable, sloping roof – provide a civic experience for students and the public alike, with spectacular views of the neighbourhood and the city skyline
– Steven Holl

Work has been completed on the new Glassell School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (MFAH), designed by Steven Holl Architects.

The School – the only museum-run institute in the US with programmes that serve students of all ages, from 3-year-olds to adults – is a major component of the museum’s 14-acre redevelopment, masterminded by Holl, which is currently the largest cultural project under construction in North America.

The L-shaped design of the latest building features a sloping, walkable roofline that runs the length of the structure and connects a wide-stepped amphitheatre at its base and a roof garden above.

The interior of the 93,000sq ft (8,600sq m) school features three dozen studios, all illuminated with natural light and designed to serve more than 8,500 children and adults annually, as well as public gallery spaces for exhibitions.

“Our building for the Glassell School is a key part of the overall strategy to shape the public spaces for the entire campus,” said Steven Holl.

“Alternating concrete and glass panels create a porosity between indoors and out, and the gathering spaces – including the building’s walkable, sloping roof – provide a civic experience for students and the public alike, with spectacular views of the neighbourhood and the city skyline.”

Deborah Nevins & Associates and Nevins & Benito Landscape Architecture have also completed the Brown Foundation, Inc. Plaza, a public gateway to the museum’s entire campus, which extends onto the School’s roof.

The plaza provides the dramatic setting for a reflecting pool, a shaded seating area and two monumental public sculptures: Cloud Column (1998–2006), a 32-foot-high stainless steel form by Anish Kapoor; and Eduardo Chillida’s stacked-granite Song of Strength (1966).

Commenting on the completed projects, Gary Tinterow, director of the MFAH, said: “As we reveal not only a glorious new building for the Glassell School, but also a public plaza, large fountain, amphitheater, and roof garden, I think Houstonians will quickly grasp that our project intends to create a new destination for the city.”

Next to open as part of the campus revamp will be the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation Center for Conservation, designed by Lake|Flato Architects, later this year, and the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building, a museum extension designed by Holl, in early 2020.

When complete, the campus will boast public plazas; reflecting pools; gardens; improved sidewalks, lighting, and wayfinding; and an “active setting” for visitors to admire its older buildings, designed by the likes of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Rafael Moneo.

The project - largely funded by philanthropists Nancy and Rich Kinder – has been designed to expand the role the museum plays in the daily life of Houston, “not only as a cultural institution but also as an urban oasis open to all.” The redevelopment is projected to generate nearly $334 million in economic activity over 20 years.

The origins of an MFAH school date to 1927, three years after the museum’s 1924 opening. The Glassell School of Art opened in 1979. Now, each year, the school offers more than $100,000 in scholarships and enrols about 7,000 students. Enrollment is expected to grow to 8,500 in the new building, which doubles the space of the original.

An extensive interview with Steven Holl features in the most recent issue of CLADmag, and can be read here.

In his own words
Steven Holl on his work for the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston

Holl’s Nancy and Rich Kinder Building museum extension was originally set to be built on the site of a parking lot owned by the church across the street, with the competition brief calling for the addition of a new seven-storey car park. The Glassell School building was to remain exactly as it was.

“I studied the site, and I decided they shouldn’t be building a car park there, they should just put a layer of parking underground to free up more space. But in order to do that, they would have to tear down the Glassell School,” he told CLADglobal. “We figured out we could do them a new school building about twice the size. So I took a radical decision in the competition, and I told them, ‘This is how I would do it. It’s not what you asked for, but this way you can double the size of your sculpture garden and it will be bigger than the one in Dallas.’

“The great thing about a place like Houston is there’s enough space to spread out,” he continued. “That creates the right kind of circulation. Every time you’re moving around these buildings, you understand where you are, you never get lost and you can regularly see Isamu Noguchi’s gardens and the great white oaks outside.

“Movement is absolutely key to the human experience, and all the best museum experiences are horizontal. In vertical museums, everybody’s always standing by a stupid elevator and there’s something irritating about it because moving through the galleries is not so commodious. With these buildings we had space to breathe, and more opportunities to let the daylight flood in.”

Glassell School of Art  Museum of Fine Arts in Houston  MFAH  Steven Holl Architects  Nancy and Rich Kinder 
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FEATURE: Interview – Steven Holl

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