Houston Museum of Fine Arts Undergoes $450M Expansion

Like a reworked piece of art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston will present a dramatically altered appearance by the end of 2019.

📅   Sat November 14, 2015 - West Edition
Lori Lovely


Work includes the addition of a new art school, new exhibition building and new conservation center. The space above the parking garages also will be modified.
Work includes the addition of a new art school, new exhibition building and new conservation center. The space above the parking garages also will be modified.
Work includes the addition of a new art school, new exhibition building and new conservation center. The space above the parking garages also will be modified. During demolition, they will be exporting about 115,000 cu. yds. (87,924 cu m) of dirt and importing sand and gravel for backfill and drainage, using track hoes, excavators, loaders, some small bulldozers and tandem dump trucks to haul materials. A key element of the pedestrian-friendly master plan is the concept of moving all parking below ground to free up space on the campus for the new buildings and for outdoor public green space. Funding for the renovations has come primarily from private donations. About 90 percent is private donations. It’s a $450 million campaign. Once building begins, they’ll bring in two tower cranes and a 110-ton (99.79 t) hydraulic crane to set the precast concrete panels, various drilling rigs. There also will be additional equipment associated with the retention system the project will

Like a reworked piece of art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, one of the largest cultural institutions in the country, will present a dramatically altered appearance by the end of 2019, due to a campus transformation of its 14-acre campus that includes construction of two new buildings designed by Steven Holl Architects; a new conservation center designed by Lake|Flato Architects; and a landscape plan that unifies a century’s worth of architectural legacy.

There are technically two separate projects, but the museum is treating them as one. Work includes the addition of a new art school, new exhibition building and new conservation center. The space above the parking garages also will be modified.

“There will be three new buildings and two new inter-connected underground parking garages,” said Willard Holmes, COO and project manager serving as the owner’s representative in the museum. It’s the first major construction since two buildings were added to the Fayez S. Sarofim campus in 2000.

An important aspect of the redevelopment is a unifying master plan to integrate the new structures with the diverse architectural elements already on campus, such as the glass and steel designs of German-born Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, considered the father of Modern architecture, and the Neoclassical limestone designs of Spaniard Rafael Moneo, known for his postmodern influence, as well as the Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden designed by Isamu Noguchi, the renowned Modern sculptor.

“We want the buildings to be distinctive, not be stylistically homogeneous,” Holmes explained. “We want them to add to the campus, to use materials in unique ways and to reflect our standards.”

Their choice of architects will introduce the translucent forms of Steven Holl Architects and the regional Modernism of Lake|Flato Architects.

In addition to helping blend the existing architecture with the new buildings, the landscape will make a major contribution to Houston’s efforts to improve the pedestrian experience. Located in Houston’s Museum District in the heart of the city, the MFAH is enhancing its pedestrian-friendly urban campus with an array of public plazas, reflecting pools and gardens.

“There will be a new public plaza north of the existing Noguchi sculpture garden,” Holmes said. “There will be water features, a small café and public space for the community.”

Sidewalks, street lights and “way finding” also will be improved. The intent of the campus redesign is to expand MFAH’s role as a cultural institution to embrace that of an urban oasis, providing much-needed green space.

“We’ll do something to help fit everything together,” Holmes said, “but it won’t be a grid.”

He views the campus more like a “village of different buildings” that requires a natural-looking transitional landscape.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker told local media that the city has experienced “incredible growth” over the past 20 years, and that MFAH, which traces its origins to 1900, has grown with the city.

“The museum has embraced other parts of the world in its collections and its programs, and so it has become more and more a reflection of the breadth of this city,” Parker said. “The redevelopment of the campus and the resulting increase in public access to art and programming will further enhance the museum’s service to the city.”

Transformation

Demolition for the 35-year-old school of art began on August 24, said Brian Luney, project director of McCarthy Building Companies Inc., general contractor on the project, and was completed in early October.

“There was an existing two-story cast-in-place concrete building at roughly 80,000 square feet, with one exterior wall being a glass block,” he said. “McCarthy was asked to salvage and reuse a portion of the glass block. The rest of the building, along with some pavement, was demoed by a demolition subcontractor.”

Excavation will begin in late October. Construction of the Exhibition Hall is expected to begin in February 2017. Work on the Conservation Center will commence at the end of 2016.

“It will take two years to build,” Holmes noted. “The whole project will take four years.”

It’s been in the planning stage a long time, he added. “We purchased land across the street eight years ago; we’ve been in active planning seven to eight years.”

The main portion of the project consists of two buildings: an art school and a new exhibition hall.

“The project timelines will overlap,” Luney stated. “A parking lot currently sits on the future site of the new Exhibition Hall, which will break ground once a new parking lot for the school of art is completed.”

School of Art

Construction of the new Glassell School of Art is scheduled for 2015 to 2017. The 80,000-sq.-ft. L-shaped building designed by Steven Holl Architects will be formed from a series of sandblasted, precast concrete panels in a rhythm of verticals and slight angles.

The building will open onto the Brown Foundation Inc. Plaza, which offers ample outdoor space for programs and performances without disturbing the peacefulness of the Noguchi sculpture garden. The BBVA Roof Garden, a sloping, walkable green roof, rises from an outdoor amphitheater to a rooftop trellis offering dramatic views of the campus.

“We envision the expansions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, as an integrated campus,” Steven Holl said. “Our L-shaped Glassell School of Art building is a key part of our overall space-shaping strategy. At the campus, all buildings are in conversation with each other, and the lush nature of the Houston landscape serves as connecting syntax. Our new museum pavilion, in soft-etched, translucent glass tubes, will provide natural light to the galleries, offer a glowing presence at night, and form a ’cool jacket’ around the new building, reducing solar gain and creating cooling energy. Punctuated by seven gardens, the new gallery building, with its transparent ground level, will have spectacular views into Noguchi’s sculpture garden. Likewise, the views offered from the rooftop gardens on the Glassell School building will give the public an overview of the entire, newly unified campus.”

Inside, a broad-stepped central staircase allows easy access to the studios, each of which will feature abundant natural light. Students and the public can visit the street-level café/art supply store.

When completed, it will be the only museum school in the country offering programs for students of all ages.

“It will combine the Junior School for kids and the Studio School for post-graduate programs and continuing education for adults,” Holmes said. “It’s the first time everyone will be in the same building. The ability to have everything in one building is immense. The bigger studios are adapted to the way people make art today: large art, digital art, different materials.

The New Gallery

Another building designed by Steven Holl Architects is the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building, a largely translucent and transparent structure that will contain art created after 1900.

Punctuated by seven vertical gardens with reflecting pools at ground level, the new 164,000-sq.-ft. (15,236 sq m) building dedicated to 20th- and 21st-century art will be porous to the landscape on all sides.

The building’s curved, etched glass exterior provides natural light to the galleries and emits a soft glow at night. Interior spaces will be naturally lit under a “luminous canopy” roof, its concave curves mimicking the billowing clouds that fill the “big sky” of Texas.

Inside, two floors of galleries will circle a three-level atrium, with a distinctive roof that will let in natural light to flood the central spaces. The 54,000 sq. ft. (5,016 sq m) of galleries around the central rotunda will increase the museum’s existing gallery space by 30 percent.

The extra space will enable the museum to showcase more art. Holmes said the museum’s collection is growing dramatically. Excited about a new building that will allow the largely unseen collection of 20th- and 21st-century masterworks to be displayed, he said, “Many pieces haven’t been seen before; they’ve been in storage.”

The Kinder building also will feature a restaurant, café, the 202-seat Lynn and Oscar Wyatt Theater and meeting rooms, and will lead out to the Noguchi Sculpture Garden. Construction is scheduled for 2017–2019.

Conserving Art

Construction of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation Center for Conservation, designed by Lake/Flato Architects, is slated to commence in 2016. Because it is a separate project, a different general contractor will be retained. “We’re interviewing other firms for the Conservation Center,” Holmes said.

The glass rooftop structure will be built on top of a parking garage that opened in 2000 and will enable passersby to glimpse activity inside as they care for and research more than 65,000 objects in the museum’s collection.

“The Conservation Center will house scientists who study and care for the art,” Holmes explained, adding that they currently work out of a converted warehouse. “Now they will have a proper facility. It adds to our scientific activities.”

The new state-of-the-art Center, which will be characterized by a day-lit design, will bring the conservation team together under one roof and in close proximity to the museum for the first time. A café will be installed on the ground level.

Meet the Architects

Lake/Flato, designer of the Conservation Center, was established in 1984 in San Antonio, Texas. The group has attracted national attention because its designs are connected to the landscape and integrate with the natural environment. Named one of the World’s Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Architecture by Fast Company magazine in 2013, Lake/Flato has received the national Top Ten Green Projects Award from the AIA Committee on the Environment, the highest recognition for sustainable design.

Designing a “sustainable and flexible building where the museum’s collections can be brought for care and research” was important, according to David Lake, who said they attempted to “balance the art and science of conservation while taking into account the natural environment of the Houston landscape.”

Sustainability was an important issue for Steven Holl Architects, as well. The New York City-based firm, which has extensive experience working with museums and was named America’s Best Architect by Time magazine in 2001, installed radiant floor heat in the Glassell building and created a “skin of glass” on the Kinder building that acts as a cooling jacket so sunlight never hits the concrete directly.

Additional measures have been taken to ensure sustainability.

“In our efforts to be a LEED project, all materials including concrete, steel, metals, etc. were taken to various recycling centers,” Luney said.

Efforts extend even beyond the campus. McCarthy will be transplanting 12 existing live oak trees to various city parks within the city of Houston.

“We’re trying to make things energy-efficient,” Holmes said. “We need a new central plant that is compact and efficient.”

Funding and Jobs

Money for a central plant may stretch a tight budget. Funding for the renovations has come primarily from private donations, Holmes said. “About 90 percent is private donations. It’s a $450 million campaign. The hard and soft costs are $350 million; there’s another $50 million for the organization — staffing, operational costs, lease space — and a $100 million endowment.”

The museum announced that $330 million — more than 73 percent of its $450-million capital and endowment campaign goal — has been raised, as fundraising enters a more public phase. Overall, the museum has received 86 gifts, nearly half in the amount of $1 million or more.

Finances are a two-way street, with the museum expected to generate nearly $334 million in economic activity, including more than $2.5 million in direct, indirect and induced city tax revenues, once construction is complete.

The museum also will have a significant impact through local job creation. “We’re adding 50,000 square feet to the Art School, 165,000 to the Exhibition building and 300,000 [square feet] to the Conservation building,” Holmes estimated. “That’s 400,000 square feet of space that will require maintenance, security, preparatory and engineering. That’s part of why we’re intent on the $100 million endowment.”

Construction Details

Holmes’ numbers don’t include temporary construction workers. Luney estimated that McCarthy has 200 employees on site on peak days.

“In general, we average about 145 to 150 workers each day,” he said.

Those employees are working six days a week.

During demolition, they will be exporting about 115,000 cu. yds. (87,924 cu m) of dirt and importing sand and gravel for backfill and drainage, using track hoes, excavators, loaders, some small bulldozers and tandem dump trucks to haul materials.

Once building begins, they’ll bring in two tower cranes and a 110-ton (99.79 t) hydraulic crane to set the precast concrete panels, various drilling rigs. There also will be additional equipment associated with the retention system the project will be using.

As Luney addresses autumn weather concerns with contingency plans, he said the biggest challenge on the project so far has been the “unique structure above grade for the school with the use of precast panels, cast-in-place concrete decks and the hollow core planks, and how they all tie together to create a unique structure. No two precast panels are the same. They are each unique in shape and size. We have engaged with subcontractors early on, focused on coordination, conducted logistical studies, engaged the design team on constructability, and essentially looked at all aspects of how these elements will come together in the sequence of construction.”

Another challenge includes coordination of infrastructure.

“With new centerpoint lines, we are moving AT&T and gas lines,” Holmes said. “There are water mains running through the area. The complexity of the infrastructure makes things difficult.”

A key element of the pedestrian-friendly master plan is the concept of moving all parking below ground to free up space on the campus for the new buildings and for outdoor public green space. The museum wants to preserve the live oaks, which is complicated by all the digging for underground parking structures and tunnels.

“The parking lot across the street has 200 to 260 spaces,” Holmes calculated. “We’re building 400 spaces on two levels underground — the equivalent of an eight-story garage. Crews will dig down two stories.”

The two parking areas will be “spread out,” he said, to ease traffic congestion. “They will empty onto two streets.”

Two new pedestrian tunnels will connect the Kinder Building to the Caroline Wiess Law Building, and the Glassell School of Art to the Kinder Building. With the existing Wilson Tunnel between the Mies and Moneo buildings, the campus will be fully connected below ground.

An overriding challenge is to ensure that all the work doesn’t hinder movement.

“We want people to visit,” Holmes emphasized. “We don’t want to close for three years, so we’re trying to make sure the work has a small impact on the day-to-day activities.”

Connecting to existing buildings with tunnels helps, as does an outreach program to inform people what’s going on now and in the future at the museum.