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Houston Museum Expansion Wipes Out Local Architect’s Legacy

glassell exterior
A rendering of the new Glassell School of Art (all images courtesy of Steven Holl Architects unless noted otherwise)

The Steven Holl–designed redevelopment of the campus of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) — a $450 million expansion that rides unprecedented growth in the Texan city’s art scene — means destruction for a building designed by an important local architect.

Seth Irvin Morris was most famous for designing Houston’s Astrodome and the Wortham Theater Center when he donated his services to the Glassell School of Art, which opened in 1979. Morris intended the rectangular, boxy design for his 42,000-square-foot building to emulate a warehouse. Everything about it was practical, including its glimmering glass brick finish, which reduced heat by reflecting and filtering sunlight.

GlassellSchool
The old Glassell School of Art (Image via Wikimedia)

Workers will soon demolish Morris’s 35-year-old building to make way for Holl’s admittedly sexier structure. The facade of the new, 80,000-square-foot, L-shaped building also incorporates plenty of glass, though it will be broken up by a sequence of sandblasted concrete panels whose gently angled edges will seem to sway in the coveted Houston breeze. A ramp will lead visitors to the roof, where they’ll take in the museum’s 1986 Isamu Noguchi-designed sculpture garden from on high. Construction on the MFAH’s campus revamping is due to begin this summer and finish in 2019.

The addition will freshen the cityscape, though it comes at the expense of Morris’s already-dwindling legacy — his Astrodome might soon face a wrecking ball of its own. “It is truly unfortunate that the demolition of such an architecturally significant building is deemed to be appropriate,” the preservation group Houston Mod told the Dallas Morning News regarding the MFAH plan.

Glassell Interior
Rendering of the interior of the new Glassell School of Art

The city has a record of destroying historic buildings. Last year, on the campus of Rice University, the Eugene Aubry-designed Art Barn was razed. And in 2012, the beloved Prudential Building, which some considered a “masterwork of 1950s architecture,” similarly got the wrecking ball.

But as Texas’s most international city strengthens its art scene, there may be little room for sentimentality. The redesigned Glassell School will be part of the new Fayez S. Sarofim Campus, which will include a 164,000-square-foot exhibition center also by Holl, and a conservation center by Lake | Flato Architects. With already-existing buildings by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Rafael Moneo, the campus might just exceed its northern neighbors in Fort Worth’s cultural district — the Tadao Ando-designed Modern Art Museum and the Louis Kahn-designed Kimbell Art Museum — in starchitect power.

That’s sure to please the museum’s powerful backers, who coughed up $330 million for the project in less than two years. Or, as the MFAH’s Director Gary Tinterow told a luncheon crowd at the expansion’s unveiling: “Things are truly bigger in Texas, and they’re better, too.”

Kinder center
Rendering of the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building
kinder interior
Rendering of the interior of the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building
conservation center
Rendering of the the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation Center for Conservation (image courtesy of Lake | Flato Architects)
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