Museum of Fine Arts

When New York architect Ralph Adams Cram first visited the site assigned him for Rice University just south of Houston in 1909 he found a “level and stupid” site – 277 acres of bare prairie land broken only by a few scrub oaks in one corner. A scant forty-five years later, when Chicago architect Mies van der Rohe first visited a site virtually across the street from Cram’s which had been assigned him for extensions to the Museum of Fine Arts he found a very different situation indeed.

If Cram had been disturbed by a lack of context from which to draw inspiration, Mies could only have complained that there was so much context in 1954 that it demanded extraordinary skill to forge so many constraints into a satisfying building. But forge them he did, producing one of the most particular and responsive buildings of his very distinguished career.

In 1909 South Main Street was a narrow dirt road leading from the city into a vast undeveloped prairie to the south of Houston. After the decision was made to place the Rice campus along it, activity began immediately to plan the future, not only of the street itself, but also of the districts around it. In 1913 George E. Kessler of St. Louis, one of the most respected landscape architects of the day, was commissioned by the City of Houston to prepare a master plan for the development of South Main and for the 285-acre Hermann Park across the street from the Rice campus. There was a desire on the part of Rice trustees, city officials, and private developers in the area to establish a cohesive character for the district. The Kessler plan was intended to assure that solidarity.

One of Kessler’s first gestures was to create an ellipse where Montrose Street angled into South Main at the northern end of the district and to use this ellipse as a spring-point for access into Hermann Park. Just north of the ellipse, in the gore created by South Main and Montrose, lay a triangular site which was designated as the location for the Museum of Fine Arts. The museum, in an effort to assure an architectural continuity which would complement the planning continuity in the district, chose as architect William Ward Watkins, who was then chairman of the Architecture Department at Rice and supervising architect for Rice buildings.

Watkins proposed a massive stone neoclassical block for the museum, a surprising counterpoint to the gentler, more picturesque work he and Cram had done elsewhere in the district. Built in two phases in 1924 and 1926, the U-shaped building addressed the Kessler ellipse boldly with a double-order Ionic colonnade. Two long wings behind were splayed to align with South Main and Montrose on either side.

Enter Mies van der Rohe. In 1954, at the peak of his career and well respected around the world, Mies had not yet built a single permanent public building. In 1942, with little real work to do, he had drawn a project for a Museum for a Small City. In it, Mies proposed a spatial solution which was the antithesis of traditional museum practice. In the place of an ordered progression of rooms where art is protected and contained, Mies proposed a free-flowing neutral space – visually and physically connected to the exterior. Here, he said, art would assume a new dimension as each art object related freely in space to other art objects as well as to the outside environment.

Mies applied this idea in an almost didactic way in his first-phase addition to the Houston museum, Cullinan Hall. Because the Watkins building was a typical cellular museum, the vast openness of the new Mies room provided a stark contrast and counterpoint.

Mies inserted Cullinan Hall directly into the courtyard formed by the U-shape of the Watkins building. He spanned the space with deep steel girders which were exposed above the roof like those of his earlier Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. The new north façade was bowed to emphasize the fan shape of the site. Cullinan Hall was, at the time, the largest example of Mies’ socalled “universal” space. Its floor-to-ceiling, north-facing glass wall made it seem truly vast as well as displaying its contents openly and tantalizingly to the public.

Cullinan Hall was the first phase of a master plan which Mies had prepared for the museum as part of his original commission. The construction of the Brown Pavilion in 1973 completed that master plan. As he had originally proposed, Mies added to his 1956 addition by creating a broad sweep of changing galleries across the entire north end of the site. Cullinan Hall was left intact, but its north-facing glass wall was removed to allow it to spill directly into the new spaces on two levels. The resulting split-level interaction between the new open lobby on the lower level, Cullinan Hall on a mid-level, and the vast Brown Galleries above offers a truly memorable spatial experience.

Trademark of Mies’ work, the materials and details throughout the extensions are minimal and elegant. The steel, which was white in the Cullinan addition, was changed to black for the Brown Pavilion, giving it a more solid, if somewhat somber, feeling.

In the Museum of Fine Arts extensions Mies merges a rich but demanding history of site development with a revolutionary notion of museum display and manages to produce a seamless and cohesive whole. He draws a rather rigid existing building and a complex new museum program phased over a fifteen-year period into a clear, seemingly inevitable scheme. The clarity of the building amidst such formidable constraints demonstrates Mies’ extraordinary skill in distilling complex architectural variables into a simple but profound formal solution.

The end result is a building in which one can feel the sweep of the site and the place of the building in relation to surrounding streets and the ellipse – where one can feel the integral anchor of the original Watkins building and the splay of its early wings. Mies’ museum in Houston is not just a “universal” statement such as we are accustomed to acknowledging in his work, but also a particular and sensitive reaction to the exigencies of its situation.