- Project Name
- Glassell School of Art
- Steven Holl Architects
- The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
- Project Scope
- New Construction
- 93,000 sq. feet
- Year Completed
- Shared by
Steven Holl, Chris McVoy (Design Architects)
Chris McVoy (Partner in Charge)
Olaf Schmidt (Senior Associate)
Rychiee Espinosa, Yiqing Zhao (project architects)
Garrick Ambrose, Xi Chen, Carolina Freue, JongSeo Lee, Suk Lee, Vahe Markosian, Maki Matsubayashi, Elise Riley, Christopher Rotman, Yun Shi, Alfonso Simelio, Dimitra Tsachrelia, Yasmin Vobis, Christina Yessios (Project Team)
Kendall/Heaton Associates,The Projects Group,Structural Engineer: Guy Nordenson and Associates,null: ICOR Associates,Lighting Designer: L'Observatoire International,Other: Transsolar,Other: Venue Cost Consultants,Other: Knippers Helbig
- Project Status
A new school building for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston brings together students of all ages in studios filled with daylight.
If there’s one thing that the new Glassell School of Art has in common with its predecessor, it’s that it glows in the dark. The L-shaped building, a branch of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, is the work of New York–based Steven Holl Architects (SHA), and its dramatic exterior is defined by trapezoidal precast concrete panels and equally large panes of translucent insulated glass. At night, those large windows turn the building into an immense lantern, suggesting the artistic life within.
That translucency recalls the beloved old Glassell building that SHA’s new structure replaced: a 1978 tour-de-force of reflective glass block designed by local architect Eugene Aubry, FAIA Emeritus. The demolition of that building occasioned considerable upset among Houston preservation advocates. “It is hard to accept,” said Stephen Fox, a lecturer in architecture at Rice University and the de facto dean of Texas architectural historians. “For the museum to sacrifice its own architectural heritage bespeaks an institutional tendency, prevalent in Houston, to discount existing architecture and sweep it away.”
But administrators for the museum argue, with some justification, that the old building had passed its useful life and was no longer adequate to the school’s needs. “There were really charming things about the old Glassell, but it was a hodgepodge of spaces for the programs we run,” says Joseph Havel, a sculptor who is the Glassell’s director.
The new building marks a considerable expansion for the school, a center for artistic education for students ranging from age three to adults as well as emerging artists. Overall square footage more than doubles from 39,000 to 93,000 square feet. The additional space means that for the first time the Glassell Junior School (serving ages 3 to 18) will be housed in the same facility as its Studio School (for adults) and its advanced Core Residency Program (for emerging artists). With the new facility, total student population is projected to grow from 7,000 to 8,500.
For the architects, the benefits of removing the old Glassell extended beyond the opportunity to make a new building; it gave them the chance to integrate the school into an expanding campus that will include a new museum building by Holl, the Nancy and Rich Kinder building for modern and contemporary art, on an adjacent site. “What unlocked the possibility of a new campus was the removal of the old Glassell,” says Chris McVoy, a senior partner at SHA and the partner-in-charge of the project.
It was that broad vision that attracted the museum to Steven Holl, FAIA, in 2012, when he won the project in a competition. The brief for that contest called for a seven-story garage to be set behind a new Glassell building. Holl countered by placing the bulk of the new school where the garage was to go, and by slipping parking for 285 cars underground, beneath a landscaped plaza.
That open space sits in the elbow of Holl’s L-shaped building, flanked by the main three-story block and by a wing that angles down like a ski slope. “The space shaped by the building is as important as the building itself,” McVoy says.
That space should have more energy than it does, but a sparse formal landscape plan by New York–based Deborah Nevins & Associates does little to take advantage of it. The decision to take up much of the court with a fountain is particularly perplexing, as it eats up what could be a useful exhibition and gathering space for the school’s students.
More problematic is the plaza’s openness to Isamu Noguchi’s adjacent Cullen Sculpture Garden of 1986. The old Glassell building fronted this quiet oasis, and its presence is still indicated by a pair of low parapet walls salvaged from it. But the removal of the building, and lack of any further landscape screening, have pried open Noguchi’s garden, compromising its intimacy. The blurring of boundaries is exacerbated by the placement of two sculptures, a new 30-foot-tall Anish Kapoor mirrored lozenge, and a repurposed Eduardo Chillida granite composition, “Song of Strength,” which sits directly in front of the school.
Holl’s new building treats Noguchi’s garden with a great deal more reverence. It was the angled concrete planes of Noguchi’s garden walls that inspired the geometries of Holl’s sloping wing and trapezoidal panels, which mirror and play off Noguchi’s design.
Those precast concrete panels are not just façade elements: they are load bearing. Each one is unique—there are 178 in all—and each is a foot thick. Most are 16 feet tall. “It has a real toughness to it,” McVoy says. “It’s one of the most tectonic buildings that we’ve made. For an art school that’s pretty interesting.”
That system was designed in collaboration with New York–based structural engineer Guy Nordenson & Associates. Within, cast-in-place concrete rib beams support precast concrete floor planks, each 4 feet wide.
The product of this system is a series of dynamic interior spaces that are limpid, open, and milky-white. The principal entry, at the joint of the two wings, funnels into a skylit atrium with a (now de rigueur) grand stairwell that does multiple duty as informal gathering space and amphitheater seating.
On one side of the lobby is a gallery and café space; on the other, a 75-seat auditorium dressed in warm wood and green fabric, the only space in the building that is not either white or light gray. At the top of the stairs, on the second level, is the school’s principal gallery space, a rectangular room illuminated by the broad trapezoidal windows, which can be closed off to create a darkened space for video works and other installations that are allergic to light.
The building’s almost relentless whiteness makes it a metaphorical blank slate from which students can conjure their own visions. Its heart are the studios themselves, 35 in all and of varying size, each filled with clean bright light. That light streams in from the broad trapezoidal glass panes, which are supplemented by 3-foot-square operable windows notched into the concrete panels. From the exterior, these small cutout windows give the concrete panels almost human form, like abstracted Easter Island heads.
Of these studios, the choicest are the five extra-large workspaces on the third-floor dedicated to the Core Residency program. These are sequestered around their own skylit central gathering space, and have a private entry, so that the fellows can come and go as they please at all hours.
Members of the public, too, are welcome to make use of the building at their own discretion. At the base of the sloping wing is an amphitheater of ipe wood benches that can be used for performances or just to sit and contemplate. A path up the angled green roof leads to a terraced pavilion with views across Houston.
But the most dramatic space of the entire composition might just be beneath that amphitheater, under the wedge where the sloping plane hits the ground. This isn’t wasted space, as one might imagine. Instead, it is the top of a dramatic three-story atrium that will link the underground garage to Holl’s new museum building—which is currently under construction and is expected to be complete in 2020—via an umbilical tunnel.
That space, which will be animated by an Olafur Eliasson installation, is both a physical and metaphorical manifestation of the school’s relationship to the greater museum. “It feels like there’s an electrical charge coming from this building to the rest of the campus,” Havel says. “It’s like a battery that charges the museum with new ideas.”
Project: Glassell School of Art, Houston
Client: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Design Architect: Steven Holl Architects, New York . Steven Holl, FAIA (design architect, principal); Chris McVoy (design architect, partner in charge); Olaf Schmidt (senior associate in charge); Rychiee Espinosa, Yiqing Zhao, AIA (project architects, Glassell School of Art); Filipe Taboada (project architect, Nancy and Rich Kinder Building); Xi Chen, Suk Lee, AIA, Maki Matsubayashi, Elise Riley, Christopher Rotman, Alfonso Simeo, Yasmin Vobis (project team)
Associate Architect: Kendall/Heaton Associates, Houston
Project Manager: Legends
Structural Engineer: Guy Nordenson & Associates; Cardno Haynes Whaley
M/E/P Engineer: Icor Associates
Climate Engineer: Transsolar
Lighting Consultant: L’Observatoire International
Cost Estimator: Venue Cost Consulting
Façade Consultant: Knippers Helbig
Size: 93,000 square feet
Cost: $90 million (school building, 265-car garage, new campus central plant)
FROM THE ARCHITECTS, Feb. 2017:
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston redevelopment has the unique chance to expand the museum’s campus as an integral experience open to the community. Horizontal activity, transparency and porosity will unify the new MFAH, and provide inspiring and inviting public spaces. The lush Houston vegetation, refreshing sound, and reflections in water are all part of a new campus experience elevating the poetry of art.
The new ‘L’ shaped Glassell school shapes the Brown Foundation Plaza which extends the space of the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden by Isamu Noguchi.
The inclined plane of the roof shapes an amphitheater and a public path to a rooftop sculpture garden overlooking the whole MFAH campus.
There are 3 gallery spaces in the building.
1) At the ground level café space overlooking the plaza
2) At the Education Court connecting to a sculptural tunnel to the future Nancy and Rich Kinder Building
3) At the top of the forum on the second floor
The main entry opens to a cascade of levels at the forum shaping an informal learning space directly opening to a 75 seat auditorium.
There are 23 studios shared between the core program and junior school and 8 core-fellow studios. All of these have been designed with flexibility, great light, and fine proportions.
We are very enthusiastic about the simple planar structural pieces of sandblasted concrete which begin with the angle of the inclined roof plane and give character to the inner spaces of the building in the spirit of simplicity and directness employed by Mies Van der Rohe’s original building. As an educational building it tells us how it is made. Winston Churchill said “First we shape our buildings, and then they shape us.”
We sincerely hope our new Glassell architecture contributes to the optimistic shaping of future education in the arts for Houston and beyond.