The Menil Collection, located in Houston’s Museum District, has a reputation for working with notable architects including Phillip Johnson and Renzo Piano, FAIA. Four firms are vying to become the next collaborator by competing for the commission to design the new Menil Drawing Institute (MDI), the “first freestanding building in America dedicated to modern and contemporary drawing,” according to a press release from the Menil Collection.

Director Josef Helfenstein announced the short list today: Tatiana Bilbao (Mexico City), David Chipperfield Architects (London), Johnston Marklee (Los Angeles), and SANAA (Tokyo).

The project is the first move in a long-term plan to enhance the 30-acre urban campus. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, the museum was established by John and Dominique de Menil to share their extensive art collection with the public. They engaged Louis Kahn in 1972, but his design was never realized due to the deaths of John de Menil and Kahn shortly thereafter. Dominique de Menil carried out the vision by hiring Renzo Piano in 1987. Piano designed the museum building—his first American commission—and later the Cy Twombly Gallery, both low-profile structures that echo the museum’s residential context.

Architect Francois de Menil, son of the museum’s founders, shared that the selection committee is considering lesser-known firms in the spirit of the commission of Piano early in his career. The committee already has an established relationship with David Chipperfield Architects, which created a master plan for the campus in 2009. Since the building will be relatively small—projected at around 18,000 square feet—the committee evaluated residential work by the firms, beyond essential cultural and institutional experience.

The firm that is ultimately selected to design the MDI will face the challenge of protecting its collection of drawings—including works by Picasso, Pollack, and Rothko—from damaging light and the high Texas heat and humidity.

The selection committee, which is currently reviewing preliminary designs, will make a decision in early June. The winning bid is unlikely to be a simple box.

”We want something that has a lightness to it—a sculptural quality—and is considerate of the environment and other buildings on the campus while establishing its own expression,” de Menil says.