The AIA announced today that the Menil Collection in Houston by Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, is the recipient of the 2013 25-Year Award for architecture. Praised by the jury as being "a monument to 20th century architecture that still resonates today," the Menil, which opened in 1987, marks Piano's first-ever U.S. project. Design started in 1982, just a year after the Italian architect started his now-famed Paris- and Genoa-based practice and five years after he bounded onto the international stage with his collaboration on the Pompidou Center in Paris with Richard Rogers, Hon. FAIA. The nearly 30,000-square-foot Menil Collection, on which Piano collaborated with Houston architect Richard Fitzgerlad and London-based Ove Arup & Partners, was designed specifically to house the works amassed by French art patrons John and Dominique de Menil. The de Menils, who settled in Houston after fleeing Europe during WWII, were not strangers to architectural patronage as well: They also commissioned the nearby Rothko Chapel, designed by Mark Rothko and Philip Johnson, which opened in 1971.
The $25 million gray-stained cypress and white-painted-steel Houston museum is laid out with the majority of the galleries and public spaces to the north of a 320-foot-long corridor, which provides a central circulation spine. The galleries were designed to allow the institution to easily rotate the display, ensuring that as many of the more than 10,000 works in the collection as possible can spend time on display; the remainder of the works are displayed in compressed fashion in "treasure rooms" on top of the structure. The museum was praised two weeks before the official opening by Grace Glueck in The New York Times as as having a "deceptively modest" exterior that gave way to an interior whose "elegant austerity allows maximum visibility for the works of art." Paul Goldberger's review of the building in the Times shortly after the building's opening, called the Menil "one of the most pleasing buildings built in our time for the viewing of art," and "nimble, self-assured, and graceful in a way that few civic buildings in our age have been."
The Menil was also one of Piano's first explorations into maximizing indirect natural daylight in museum spaces, a technique that the AIA jury called "innovative" and noted has been "applied to other building typologies and evolved in Piano’s ongoing work." Internal courtyards and gardens allow light to penetrate the space, and a system of curved concrete panels, which the architects termed "leaves," over the glazed roof regulate light into the gallery spaces. These louvers extend past the building envelope to form a sheltered colonnade that shades exterior windows as well. This exploration of natural light has, of course, became a mainstay of Piano's museum design in the United States and abroad, appearing in the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, completed in 2003, the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, completed in 2009, and the High Museum in Atlanta, completed in 2005.
The Menil Collection is also credited with being an anchor of contemporary architecture in Houston, which has recently seen such additions as the Texas Asia Society, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, Hon. FAIA, and Twilight Epiphany, a skyspace by James Turrell and Thomas Phifer & Partners, which opened at Rice University last year. The jury noted this influence, noting that the Menil is "contextually responsive to it’s interesting low scale neighborhood" and has "influenced this quadrant of Houston in many different ways." The museum continues to add to the architecture landscape, as it celebrated its 25th year with the opening of an expansion designed by Los Angeles firm Johnston Marklee.
The 25 Year Award is given each year to a project that has continued to be influential after 25 to 35 years. The winner is selected by the same jury that selects the AIA Honor Awards in Architecture, which this year included Mary Katherine Lanzillotta, FAIA, of Hartman-Cox Architects, who served as jury chair, as well as Brian Fitzsimmons, AIA, of Fitzsimmons Architects; John Kane, FAIA, of Architekton; William Leddy, FAIA, of Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects; Philip Loheed, AIA, of BTA Architects; Robert Maschke, AIA, of Robert Maschke Architects; Douglas L. Milburn, Assoc. AIA, of Isaksen Glerum Wachter; Caren Skoulas, of the Poetry Foundation; and this years' AIAS representative, Becky Joyce Yannes, of Drexel University. Previous winners include the Gehry Residence in Santa Monica, Calif. by Gehry Partners; Boston's John Hancock Tower by I.M. Pei & Partners; Skidmore Owings & Merrill's Hajj Terminal in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; and the Louis Kahn-designed Kimbell Art Museum in Forth Worth, Tex., for which Piano designed an addition that is expected to open later this year.