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Menil Collection Museum
1533 Sul Ross Street, Houston TX 77006, Texas, USA
Menil Collection Museum
associated engineer
Ove Arup & Partners
Peter Rice
Neil Noble
John Thornton
date  1981 - 1986, opened 7th June 1987
UK era  Modern  |  category  Building  |  reference  HV617071
photo  Richard Bryant, courtesy Arup
Innovative use of ferro-cement louvres directs diffuse natural light onto the artwork displayed in the Menil Collection Museum, minimising ultraviolet exposure. The museum is located in the Montrose residential area of Neartown in Houston, Texas, and is designed to harmonise with the vernacular construction of buildings in the neighbourhood.
Plans for a museum to house the art collection amassed by philanthropists John de Menil (1904-73) and his wife Dominique (1908-97, née Schlumberger) began in 1972. American architect Louis Kahn (1901-74) was commissioned but, with the deaths of John de Menil and Kahn shortly afterwards, the scheme was abandoned.
In 1981, the Menil Foundation commissioned Italian architect Renzo Piano (b.1937) to design a complex for the Menil Collection of more than 10,000 items. Renzo Piano Building Workshop was assisted by local architect Richard Fitzgerald & Associates, known collectively as Piano & Fitzgerald.
Madame de Menil was instrumental in the evolution of the museum's design. In collaboration with Piano, three main themes were derived. First and most importantly, the exhibits should be lit from above by natural daylight, providing the onlooker with a connection to the changing weather. Second, the museum should be in harmony with its environment and appropriate to its domestic setting. Third, only one sixth of the collection would be on display while the remainder would be stored in an environmentally controlled 'Treasure House' — the display would be changed regularly, allowing visitors to see different works.
The 150m long museum building has three distinct zones. A reinforced concrete frame basement, half the width of the building above, houses plant rooms, storage, photographic studios and workshops. It is connected to a blast-proof vault for the boilers and generators, designed to prevent a fire or an explosion within from damaging the rest of the building.
The ground floor houses the public areas — galleries, library, conservation laboratory and reception. It has a ground slab of reinforced concrete and a platform roof supported on a steel frame concealed within the walls. The walls are of similar design to the balloon frame (a type of timber frame) houses in the neighbourhood, clad with cypress timber siding (overlapping horizontal strips) between glazing. The walls are well insulated and have a vapour barrier.
The upper floor, on the south side of the building, covers the full length and is one-third the width. It contains the air tight Treasure House. The structure is a steel-frame rectangular box elevated above the ground floor roof, with reinforced concrete slabs for floor and roof. Walls are of similar construction to the ground floor, though the windows are smaller and have shutters. Artworks are kept in darkness when not on display but are easily accessible for study.
The exterior of the museum is painted grey with white trim. However, the most prominent element of the design is the platform roof that covers the ground floor like an umbrella. It protects the occupants from the external environment, simultaneously enabling awareness of the changing conditions outside.
Illuminating the exhibits with natural light, without risking fading, and not exposing them to ultraviolet radiation was the key challenge of the project. The design parameters were for normal lighting of 150 lux on the artworks, with a maximum light level of 2,000 lux, which was never to be exceeded.
A louvred roof was thought to be the best way to admit indirect natural light. Something similar had been used on a smaller scale in 1948 at the Mishkan LeOmanut (House of Art) on the Ein Harod kibbutz in Israel — close to the same latitude as Houston — and it provided some of the inspiration for the Menil Collection's roof.
The Houston roof has three layers. The outer surface is weatherproof glass, to reflect heat and ultraviolet light. The middle layer is a series of white-painted ductile iron trusses from which are suspended rows of louvres — soon dubbed 'leaves'. Air conditioning ducts occupy the spaces between the glass and the leaves.
Piano originally intended that the leaves would be diagonal shear elements in a space frame. Structural engineer Peter Rice (1935-92) thought this too prescriptive because it defined their form before the lighting requirements were finalised. Rice's solution that the leaves should be separate elements, being the lower members of a truss with the structural elements above, was accepted.
Ductile iron was chosen for the trusses because it is ideal for precise or delicate castings, as here. It was invented in the 1940s, and is a type of cast iron where the carbon crystals are spherical rather than angular. This means that it is more fluid during casting than iron or steel and does not require heat treatment after casting, unlike cast iron (which then distorts).
The 300 leaves have a wave-like profile and are only 25mm thick. They had to be made from a durable material with inherent strength. Layers of fine steel mesh impregnated with cement-rich mortar — a combination much-used in boat building — were selected. This is called ferro-cement, and was patented by Italian engineer Pier Luigi Nervi (1891-1979) in 1943. It is tough, uses the minimum of materials and requires skilful workmanship to achieve a good finish.
The manufacture of the leaves was crucial. As Rice said of them, "In most of industry the quality of product is guaranteed by testing after manufacture. Here was an element which we could not test after it was made. The guarantee of its integrity lay in the process of making it. So we were relying on the process and monitoring the process to ensure we had the quality we needed".
Windboats Marine of Wroxham, Norfolk in the UK, made full-size models of the leaves to determine the best methods for mass production. The leaves used for the building feature mortar made with marble sand and white cement, giving a sparkling finish.
To complete testing, a full-size mock-up of a gallery room was built on site to assess the physical appearance and the light levels inside. Some changes were made to the roof glass and the gap between the leaves to achieve the optimum lighting. The results of monitoring the performance of the prototype gallery were used to calibrate the computer models of the museum, which was also loaded with weather data for the area.
The design process began in 1981, work started on site in 1983 and was completed in 1986. Ancillary functions of the museum are housed outside the main building in nearby bungalows. The Menil Collection Museum opened to the public on 7th June 1987. It celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2012 and has remained free of charge to visitors.
In 1992, Piano was commissioned by Madame de Menil to add another structure to the museum site. This is the Twombly Pavilion, containing the works of American artist 'Cy' Edwin Parker Twombly (1928-2011).
Architect: Piano & Fitzgerald
US structural engineer: Haynes Whaley Associates Inc, Houston
US services engineers: Galewsky & Johnston Consulting Engineers Inc, Beaumont
Contractor: E.G. Lowry Inc, Houston
Frerrocement: Ferrocement Laminates, England
Research: ECPK
"Renzo Piano Building Workshop: Complete works, Volume One" by Peter Buchanan, Phaidon, London, (1993) reprinted 2007
"The Engineer’s Contribution to Contemporary Architecture: Peter Rice" by Andre Brown, Thomas Telford, London, 2001
"Menil Collection Museum roof: evolving the form" by Peter Rice, in The Arup Journal, Vol.22, pp.2-5, London, summer 1987
"The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas" by Tom Barker, Alistair Guthrie, Neil Noble and Peter Rice, in The Arup Journal, Vol.18, pp.2-7, London, April 1983
reference sources   AEI

Menil Collection Museum